Golf is a sport for everyone, regardless of income or social standing … in Scotland, that is. Yes, St. Andrews, where golf started, and where it’s still the country’s backyard sport, is the exception to the global rule: the country club rule. In most of the world it’s a game for the affluent, even though in the U.S. most of the 15,500 golf courses are public.
And among Millennials, who have little interest in the sport, it's a good bet that golf is perceived as an oldster’s past-time, an emblem of staid success and leisure. A “game” for people needing an excuse to hang out at the club drinking single malt and chatting about selling short and the virtues of Flomax. This is ironic, of course, since some of the top PGA stars were not born with silver putters in their hands.
Another thing. Even though some of those top players are ethnically diverse, the fan base is not, and that's who the sport is marketed to. It's also hard to learn, the rules are likely to dissuade younger people from playing, it's complicated and ritualistic, and Millennials don’t have time for 18 holes. There's no hip to be found on the green (although the industry is trying different things to make it easier to play and dispense with the PGA rules, at least some of the time.) All of which goes a long way to explaining why the sport is in a multi-year decline. Dick's Sporting Goods having laid off 500 PGA pros recently is emblematic of the problem. The game has lost five million players in a decade and will continue to see attrition.
How about equipment? Golf manufacturers are shooting themselves in the foot by continuing to market cutting-edge technology to wanna-be pros, even though few people actually are experts. They advertise the latest, highest-performance gear at the most expensive price points and treat the media buys as if they were selling fly-fishing equipment: it's all about the golf vertical.
Extreme golf isn't in the cards, obviously, but if the sport wants to grow, it had better go beyond the core comfort zone.
I wandered halfheartedly into a press conference yesterday for a product called DV8, a James Bond-like golf club set that can be broken down and packed in a backpack-style carry case. That means you don't need a car: a bicycle, a motorcycle, a back, a Segway, a camel will do. I had expected to be bored, but it was fascinating because it opened the whole elitist discussion.
I don’t play golf. Never have. But the DV8 Kickstarter-funded product, is pretty damn cool, and the insights from Charles McLendon, VP of business development at the company, were interesting. He talked about how a product like this makes golf more accessible because the gear starts at half the price of a traditional set, and doesn't require multiple clubs and a big bag. It’s more about accessibility than cutting-edge tech. The company’s CEO, Richard Stamper, and top PGA Tour instructor Rick Smith said the product sidesteps the golf-technology arms race established brands have been engaged in since the Big Bertha club came out.
They pointed out that the DV8 product involves just one shaft with interchangeable heads — all detachable, dentist-drill style — and they aren’t meant for the pro -- although Smith, who said he's involved with Phil Mickelson on a program to develop courses in China, uses them. He bemoaned the lack of interest that young people have in the sport, and how access, not quality of equipment, is the real problem. Clubs are hard to carry around. The DV8, which starts around $500 for a set, is meant to appeal to people stymied by that issue.
Smith, however, got to the main issue: that you are discouraged from playing if you don't play to code. "Golf should be fun, and anyone should be able to just go out there and hit the ball.” Like me. Hey I’m pretty good, it turns out. Just ask Smith. Maybe I’ll try.