Golf's biggest questions for 2020 Part 2

What answers await in the year ahead?

Part 1

Will Millennials get involved with golf?

The most vexing long term question for golf is generational. Once Baby Boomers fade from the scene will Millennials replace them with the same fervor and economic support? That has not happened to date. And the fear is golf will need to contract even more so in the years ahead to reflect the new reality. Since 2011 roughly 800 courses have closed in America and such closings routinely dwarfs the sparse number of new courses coming forward.

Image by HeungSoon from Pixabay

Efforts to engage a younger generation have put into motion via such efforts from Topgolf and others in that category. However, will those entering the game from various different entry points remain interested in the traditional 18-hole format? The time to play the game, the costs associated in doing so and the difficulty in learning the game, are all central reasons why Millennials have balked in truly embracing the game as clearly Baby Boomers did. 

Until most recently, even the key stakeholders within golf failed to appreciate the widening gulf between the generations. Getting golf to be relevant for Millennials is a clear work in progress and much can be said in doing similarly with women and minorities. The issue goes beyond a cyclical adjustment and more of a major paradigm shift. One whose shock waves may not have even reached criticial mass at this point.

Why is professional golf staging events in Saudi Arabia?

In 2019 a men’s professional golf tournament was staged in Saudi Arabia and the pushback on elite players competing was clear. How could sports stars validate playing in a country when it is clear the kingdom was responsible for the October 2018 murder of a journalist in its embassy location in Turkey? The indifference shown by players like Dustin Johnson was clearly noteworthy. Fast forward to the recent announcement Phil Mickelson has shown a similar attitude in agreeing to compete in the second staging of the event in January. Using sports as a vehicle to build up a country’s visibility is not a new idea in the propaganda wars — Germany did so prominently in 1936 during the Summer Olympics. The Saudi record on human rights abuses has been noted by various world organizations. The record is hardly flattering.

The bigger related question is why the announcement from the Ladies European Tour to stage an event also in Saudi Arabia in March 2020. The Saudis have routinely treated women as second class citizens completely subservient to men. How in good conscience do female professional golfers justify turning a blind eye to that reality. 

Summer Olympics — will elite male players turnout this time around?

After a dismal participation rate among the world’s elite male players when the Summer games were held in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro the 2020 competition planned for Tokyo is likely to draw an elite field. Golf’s return to the Olympics for the first time in since 1904 sparked considerable interest on the women’s side but the men — notably Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Jason Day and Jordan Spieth were among the  top of the world rankings and opted out.

The allure of winning gold medal and the fact the event will be staged at one of the elite clubs in the world at Kamsunigaseki Golf Club is a powerful draw. The interest level for the American team will be most interesting to watch as Tiger Woods is now a prime contender for what will likely be four available positions for team USA.  The event takes place following the four traditional major championships. However, given the event’s location in Japan will necessitate a considerable journey for the game’s elite players as several other noteworthy events follow in the weeks afterwards. 

Questions for 2020 Pt2 - What answers await in the New Year
Can Justin Rose defend his gold medal triumph in Japan this summer? (Niall Carson/PA Wire)

How will the USGA prepare Winged Foot West for the US Open?

Returning for the first time since 2006, the US Open comes back to Winged Foot GC just outside of New York City for the 6th time. The storied club will serve as host for the 120th national championship of American golf. The last time the event was held a winning score of 285 (+1) was successful. In fact, during each of the various US Opens played at the club only two men have successfully scored less than 280 for four rounds.

The USGA is responsible for the course set-up and it will be very interesting to see how the layout is prepared. In 2018 when the event was played at another venue in New York at Shinnecock Hills the USGA received criticism with how several of the holes played with greens unreceptive to even the best of approach shots. Conversely, last year’s championship at Pebble Beach was well received.

Among all host sites, the West Course at Winged Foot has been seen as one of the most demanding of courses and it will be most interesting to see what the USGA does given the increased length and overall modifications carried out by architect Gil Hanse.

Can golf still “go” in the 21st century?

Golf is in the entertainment industry. That lane is now crowded with a range of options. But the sport still provides a vehicle to both enjoy the outdoors and engage in social intercourse. However, the world at-large has changed markedly in the last 20-25 years with the Internet and social media impacting daily life. Golf was the sport in which people could disengage from daily life. Now engagement is central to many and spending 5 or more hours playing the game is viewed as an anachronism competing against a wider variety of faster and more positive reinforcement being pursued.

The sport has also seen a range of new options coming on the scene recently. Meant to draw those who never thought about engaging in the activity. Such providers like Topgolf have served as a gatekeeper — with upwards of 65-70% of those going to a facility using a golf club for the first time in their lives. Will those introduced actually move into the space for traditional golf? 

Golf is also impacted by the high costs to play and the lack of meaningful teaching helping spur players in dealing with the frustration long associated with the challenging game. The questions are certainly present — the answers remain a work in progress with outcomes far from certain.

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