17 Years On

Golf FeaturesWe have now been running this magazine for a total of 17 years. Over that period there have been a few branding changes for us and some huge changes with the way that golf has developed. Whilst the game is still playing with balls and sticks, much of it is unrecognisable from 17 years ago. Who would have predicted the popularity of adventure golf growing at such a rate, or the fact that many golf courses would close and reopen with people kicking footballs around the layout instead?

The changes that the R&A have recently made to the rules that govern our sport seem to have been fairly well received by those people who play for a living. There is bound to be confusion at club level for some time to come, but three minutes is a better time frame to spend tediously looking for your ball, or worse your playing partner’s. Five minutes was unbearable.

When it comes to the future of the game at the highest level, then the riches seem to keep on piling up. In November we had Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson competing for $9 million in what turned out to be a very exciting match.

The problem was that neither needed the money nor were at their best, and whilst it is good to have spectaculars, the match itself would have been a greater spectacle had it been when both players were in their pomp. Previously they had quite a frosty relationship which would have added to the tension, but probably made the agreement to perform together less likely. Nevertheless for two already ridiculously wealthy men to split $9 million (and I’m sure there was a split) seemed quite vulgar. 

The US Tour is thriving and capturing most of the star players from around the world. It is quite funny that they still cannot raise a decent Ryder Cup side, especially when competing away from their home soil. We will look on with great interest as Padraig Harrington gets closer to his date with destiny at Whistling Straits in 2020.

The European Tour is in an interesting place at present. Keith Pelley, their extraordinarily well-paid Chief Executive is burning through the cash pile he inherited from his more prudent predecessor, George O’Grady. He seems intent on topping up flagship events, which cannot quite generate enough money on their own, such as the Rolex series, to justify the additional money being paid out in prize funds.

However, he has improved the income for those ranked in the middle set of the Tour, and with a strange democracy of one (European Tour) member per vote, the best interests of golf are not necessarily served by this voting dynamic. Let’s hope they do not run out of money before his plans start to bear fruit. I am sure that those on the board of the European Tour will not easily be hoodwinked into signing off on crazy unrestrained expenditure, or are they just puppets?

The R&A have been doing a pretty good job over the last few years, with the exception of the new handicap system which seems like a dog’s dinner at its very best.

The ridiculous claims that this will encourage more people to play golf are simply codswallop. The whole system needs a complete and utter rethink, with logic to the fore. Golfers see gaining a handicap as a badge of pride and so it is a vital component of a golfer’s path as he progresses through the sport. It would be so much better if a simpler and easier to attain handicap system was in place.

The fact that the R&A has passed the opportunity to run the handicap system solely to England Golf, and the other golfing unions, shows the total lack of understanding for what is needed to develop the game properly.  

Aside from the new handicap system, I think that the R&A is doing a very good job on the whole. The Open is continuing to be the pinnacle of tournament golf: the best run, most diverse and exciting individual event in the world. To continue with this excellence is no mean feat, but to improve the tournament year after year is the sign of a highly competent organisation.

The new rules of golf, which the R&A have developed with the USGA, seem to have had a positive impact already.

Please keep up the good work, and if you can bear to, rethink the frightful handicap system.

At home, our own PGA is developing very well under the new chief executive, Robert Maxfield. As a member of the PGA, the Association already feels more inclusive and is genuinely listening to the needs of those who contribute their subscriptions each year. There are many challenges ahead, as the opportunities for traditional golf club professionals are definitely waning. It is difficult to adapt a members’ organisation which has been successful for over 100 years to such rapidly changing situations, but I think we are fortunate to have such a good team of people leading the way at PGA headquarters.

The Golf Foundation seems to be improving from year to year. When it was originally set up by Henry Cotton, Gerald Micklem and a few other prominent individuals, they could never have imagined the number of people who would learn and start playing due to their initial idea.

The facts of life are such that golfers who learn from one of the Golf Foundation‘s excellent start up courses for juniors, often hit a point in their youth when other things become more important to them than golf. But they have learnt the skills and these people often return to golf as they get older. It is quite easy to spot golfers that have learnt as children, as they have a natural flow to their swing and also in the unfussy manner in which they get on with golf and move around the course.

Of course the fools and idiots at Sport England, who seek to measure attainment in a tick-box manner, could never understand the more subtle influence that an organisation such as the Golf Foundation has. The sooner Sport England is dismantled, the better.

That brings me nicely on to one of my favourite topics, the Wombles of Woodhall.

In the 17 years that we have been producing this magazine, the English Golf Union, now trading as England Golf, has become a progressively worse organisation. It wastes more money every year, it employs more people, with a higher overall salary bill and seeks aggrandisement, rather than getting on with the job of increasing participation in golf.

For those of us who run busy golf centres and golf clubs, we do so in spite of the work of England Golf, who seeks to tax us and threaten us with de-affiliation if we vary from their dogmatic claims for money for their useless work. They get money from Sport England, which is another great reason to dismantle Sport England, because it would surely hasten the demise or massive restructuring at least, of England Golf.

The problem with the Wombles of Woodhall is that they take themselves so seriously and think that they need to be involved in every activity within the game of golf. They should stick to running top-class amateur golf tournaments and liaising, just a little bit, with the counties. That will be enough and can be handled easily by half a dozen people. But this, of course, is not good enough for those in charge of such an organisation; they want to be all powerful they want to justify their huge salaries and they want to strut about importantly. They are dreadful at creating golfers and they do not deserve to be funded any more. 

Some of the other themes that have become quite apparent, and noticeably different, over the last 17 years are to do with the family-orientation of many golf facilities. In the past, many golf clubs catered for mainly men at weekends, a few ladies during the week and seniors and societies for the rest of the time. As we moved into the 21st-century, this did not really work for modern people – it especially did not work for modern women. They wanted to be involved too. They also wanted the children to come along and join in as well. Golf centres today have many different activities; the main golf course may be the main part of the offering, but it is likely that there will also be a golf range, a shorter more accessible course for beginners and weaker players, a putting green and short game area where people can practise and learn, and an adventure golf course where children and adults can join together to really experience the fun of a golf themed adventure.

For those enjoying adventure golf, the obvious next step is to play proper golf. Linking all these activities together is the hub - the clubhouse, which is a far too old-fashioned term for the modern day golf centre. The hub is typically a café bar with a bright open plan style serving a variety of inexpensive and delicious food, together with drinks of every sort, ice cream and food to take away and eat on the go.

Golf centres have also noted that the nation has become obsessed with coffee, in all its forms. The hub of such a centre will typically sprawl outside onto a large and welcoming patio area. This is a great place for everybody to socialise and get together - not a members-only bar where people may mutter fusty old jokes with racial and sexist comments never far away.

The real difference to these new centres is the noise. Some may crave silence, I suggest that they use headphones if they need to that badly. But happy people like to giggle, chat and laugh. Happy children make even more noise and bringing everyone together will certainly create quite a racket. A noisy golf business is probably a thriving and profitable one today.

Technology is playing an increasingly bigger part in golf ranges. Today we have companies such as Topgolf who run massive games centres using computer chipped golf balls, synthetic surfaces and the latest marketing skills to ensure that people have a great time when they visit the centres. Playing golf at a Topgolf centre is definitely more interesting than practising on a normal golf range.

It is without question that Topgolf is having a positive impact on golf. Toptracer, Foresight Sports and Trackman are now bringing various versions of range technology to the market. Choose carefully, as this technology is expensive and while it may well increase your turnover, it won’t guarantee to increase your profits, in the long term. At the right range, the right product will work well, but it won’t turn every range into a money factory. 

When it comes to the manufacture of golf equipment, many of today’s great brands are doing very well.

They pay across a substantial amount of money to top players who promote their wares. Why anybody honestly believes that one particular brand of club would make such a difference from another is beyond me, but it seems to work for the manufacturers. What is even weirder is that everybody knows that these specialist golf professionals are paid a fortune for the door spent. That must make them an unreliable witness to the quality of the equipment that they are paid to promote. There are a few manufacturing companies that make a great deal of difference to the sport.

They also back creating more golfers and are keen to help excellent organisations such as the Golf Foundation and those people involved in genuinely creating more players. There are others that are only interested in golfers when they get to a reasonable level and then, not wanting to be soiled with a beginner’s reputation, they sell equipment at eye-popping prices to the gullible enthusiast who thinks that it makes a genuine difference to the game. Not much has changed over the last 15 years when it comes to the manufacture of balls or golf clubs.     ‘Nonsense!’ some of these companies will cry, but they would, wouldn’t they?

The truth is that the big leap of faith came with the introduction of the Pro V1 ball by Titleist, married to a titanium headed driver. It was at this point that a distance ball could be manufactured with airbrakes. Golfers could hit the ball miles with such equipment, but stop it on a sixpence. Since then, there has been a very limited increase in the distance that both balls fly and clubs hit. There has, however, been a huge distance in the house for golfers hit the ball and this is down to technique and physical strength.

The late great John Jacobs OBE, dearly missed president of OGRO, set the world swinging the club properly 50 years ago and it has taken that long for proper techniques to filter through to most golf professionals. Thirty years ago, when somebody played on the tour with an exceptional golf swing, it was noted by all and it was a rarity. Now it is highly unusual for a top player to have anything other than a majestic and very powerful action.  

The main improvement in golf equipment over the last 17 years has been in for fitting clubs to suit people better. The ball has also been properly considered with players able to get products that suit the swing speed and style of play better. This is great news for everyone. For the main part it is quite easy to spot a golfer if they come to your local pub wearing their golf attire, but apart from the move away from cotton and wool to micro fabrics, little has changed.

So, on behalf of Rohan, Tony, Marion and myself, we would like to thank you very much for reading the magazine over the last 17 years and we look forward to the future with great expectation.