Saving golf from decline

Bryson DeChambeau celebrates
Bryson DeChambeau celebrates after winning in a playoff against Byeong-Hun An of South Korea during the final round of The Memorial Tournament on June 3, 2018 in Dublin, Ohio. The number of golfers worldwide has fallen. PHOTO | AFP 

Sometimes towards the beginning of this year, the widely acknowledged golf handicapping system, CONGU, made it legit to have a handicap of 54.

This new upper limit, a huge jump from 28 for men and 36 for women has been received with mixed feelings across the world.

The main reason advanced for the need of this ridiculously high handicap limit is to allow for the growth of the game – to supposedly allow even more people to join the game of golf that has seen a decline in numbers year on year. According to Golf Digest, the number of golfers in North America has fallen from a high of nearly 30 million in 2002 to about 21 million in 2016 – the decline continues.

Not only have the number of golfers fallen, the average number of rounds per golfer have also fallen. In Japan, the number of golfers has declined by nearly 30 per cent from a high in the 1990s.

Other arguments advanced for the decline in the game centre around demographics; apparently golf doesn’t appeal to the millennials, although research shows that they actually watch golf on TV.

But the trend continues to be worrisome. Between 1997 to 2017, golfers aged between 18 and 34 declined by 30 per cent (National Golf Foundation). Not surprisingly, millenials also find the game of golf boring and slow.

The sale of golf equipment has naturally tanked, with manufacturers like Nike exiting the stage and others like Adidas scaling down. According to Golf Digest the number of courses closing down every year is higher that the number of courses opening, a trend that is expected to continue. Countries like China have been particularly anti-golf and permits to build new courses in China are hard to come by.

In the early 2000s, China shut down over 110 courses, about 20 per cent of the courses in China at that time and banned construction of new courses ( China also banned party officials from playing golf; apparently inspection squads were sent to check who was playing with whom and at what time.

The culture and norms around country clubs have also been blamed for the decline of the game. Young golfers in the US decried the racism, sexism and snobbery long associated with clubs across the US. The same could be said for country clubs in Europe and even Kenya. Is the culture that has held country clubs together be the very thing that is killing them?

Will a higher handicap limit lead to an increase in golfers? According to the National Golf Foundation in the US, the game has to do more to appeal to new golfers.

New formats of golf have been proposed, a 6-hole format has taken root in parts of Europe and the growth of “golftainment” is encouraging. Many ranges now combine the golf experience with a sports-bar experience, making it more appealing to new golfers.

Suggestions have also been made for less restrictive dress codes, wifi on the golf course – suggestions that will most certainly anger the traditional golfer, the purist.

Obviously higher golf handicaps alone will not help the game of golf grow – a more concerted effort is required to save the game. I am yet to meet a 54 or even a 50 handicap golfer, but the way I play, I may very well be the first Kenyan to be awarded this half-century handicap.