Golf: Can it be saved? And can new tech save it?
Golf is stuck in the rough.
While other sports are growing in viewership, golf is slowing down. The July 22 World Cup game between the U.S.A. and Portugal earned a Nielsen household rating of 7.3. The 2014 NBA Finals between the San Antonio Spurs and the Miami Heat earned an average per-night rating of 9.3. The 2014 Super Bowl between the Seahawks and the Broncos got a household rating of 46.4—up from 42 in 2009, when the Steelers and Cardinals played.
Meanwhile, golf’s 2014 Masters tournament in April received a rating of 1.5, down from 2.0 last year.
And golf is not only slowing down on the screen. According to the National Golf Foundation (NGF), golf course closings outpaced golf course openings in 2013 for the eighth straight year. Last year, 157.5 courses closed (the 0.5 represents a 9-hole course) and only 14 opened. In a recent newsletter, the NGF stated that the annual net reduction in the number of golf courses is now in the 130-160 range.
Jim Furyk, the 2010 FedEx Cup champion currently ranked No. 12 in the world on the PGA Tour, finds the decline a bit puzzling. “We are definitely in a difficult phase in golf right now,” he tells Fortune. “It’s surprising to me, because [in the past] golf was a really nerdy sport. It’s a lot more socially acceptable now.”
On the other hand, PGA Junior League Golf has expanded from 1,500 youth participants in 2012 to 8,900 in 2013, a 490% increase. In 2014, participation doubled (18,000 kids). And if you ask Donald Trump, golf is “booming.” In a recent video interview with Golf.com, Trump said the National Golf Foundation “is run by a person who is incompetent” and he refuted the NGF’s findings: “I think their numbers are totally wrong.” His basis for this claim: he said that his own golf courses and resorts are having their best year, “by far.” But Trump’s luxury courses (the initiation fee at Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, FL is around $250,000; at Trump National Golf Club in Briarcliff Manor, NY, it’s $350,000 plus $18,000 annual dues) do not represent the majority of golfers and golf clubs.
You could reasonably trace the sport’s decline to the pace of play. While a sport like hockey or basketball has plenty of nonstop action—athletes moving up and down the ice or court constantly—golf can be painfully slow. Colin Sheehan, head coach of the Men’s golf team at Yale University, thinks speed might be the issue. “What we really need is a culture of fast play, where there is less dilly-dallying,” he says.
Jack Nicklaus, one of golf’s living legends, has been pushing for 12-hole courses since 2007; he even built a few. Some argue that the sport is just plain too difficult, and others have considered expanding the four-and-a-quarter inch width of the golf course hole all the way to 15 inches (about the size of a large pizza), which would be just over 350% wider. Sheehan has strong feelings about this proposal. “It’s ludicrous,” he says. “Golf is a game of history and tradition…. It’s ridiculous and takes away from the integrity of the game.”
Young golfers may also be attracted to new innovations. That’s what Irish entrepreneur John McGuire hopes. At the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando in January, McGuire unveiled Game Golf, which allows users to quickly see their average shot distance for each club, average putts per hole, fairway accuracy, and other statistics. For $249, the Game Golf kit comes with a belt clip-on device that weighs about an ounce, and multiple “tags” that screw onto your clubs—one for each club. Before beginning a round, you screw the tags into the appropriate club-shaft, turn the belt-clip on, and tap the two together. This creates a GPS data-point; Game Golf has collected 2 billion of them so far from 33,000 courses around the world.
In the six months since its release, some three million shots have been recorded using Game Golf, which equates to about 45,000 rounds. According to the company, approximately 5,000 rounds of golf are uploaded per week from 55 countries around the world. It has also earned USGA approval, allowing it to be used in tournament play. Eric Jones, a PGA professional golf instructor at The Bridges in San Ramon, Calif., sees teaching potential in Game Golf. “I no longer have to ask a golfer how they played,” says Jones. “I can see it. Hole by hole and shot by shot. I can evaluate strategy: where they are placing the ball, which clubs they are selecting, and what decisions they are making.” His players are improving by an “average of 1.3 shots to 10.6 shots per round” using the new technology.
Following a round, golfers can log on to the Game Golf website to view stats and data, and then, naturally, share them with friends. The idea is to help a golfer in New York compete for longest drive with his brother in California, or a woman in Florida attempt to hit more fairways than Lee Westwood, the 32nd ranked golfer in the world, whose statistics are also publicly available on the site.
Westwood is one of three pro golfers who own equity in Game Golf—the other two are Furyk and 2010 U.S. Open Champion Graeme McDowell (who appears to be aggressively diversifying his business interests—as Fortune reported, he is among an elite group of athletes to have just signed with Teneo Sports.) It’s still up for grabs if this technology can drum up more participation in the sport. Furyk won’t speculate, and only says, “Golf is supposed to be fun. I think that this well help make golf more fun.”
To be sure, Game Golf is just one of many new technologies hitting the course: high-tech putters (TaylorMade’s Spider Si), drivers (Nike’s VRS Covert 2.0), golf balls (Bridgestone’s B330 series), shoes (Callaway’s X Cage-Pro), and even tees (Tornado Tee) are released every few years. (Meanwhile, Golf Digest recently wrote about the increasing usage of drones in golf, for photography purposes.) These are great for the avid golfer, but an amateur might not understand the need for these upgrades. Game Golf may not be the best known company trying to modernize the green, but it appears to be the one most aggressively targeting the young and social media-savvy. Can that resuscitate the sport?
McGuire believes it can. But, of course, products that seek to make golf better won’t have much of a future if there aren’t any golfers to use them.