Key questions, answers awaited in 2022 - Part 2

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Resolution of these matters will shed light on how golf fares in the future
Posted on
February 8, 2022
M. James Ward in
Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Key questions 2022 2

Part 1

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Can alternative golf options take hold and succeed long term?

No issue is more central to golf's future health than how it handles the time factor. In the world of 2022, people are attempting to squeeze as much as possible into everyday life. Recreation time is central to attaining happiness for many and the sport of golf is now facing central questions of how to maintain relevance for those wanting to enjoy what the game provides but who don't want to spend endless hours doing it.

Traditional golf means playing at a given course spread out through a journey of 6,000 plus yards. When factoring travel time to and from along with the amount of time it takes to play the number of hours can easily exceed six. For those with other responsibilities -- whether work or family or both -- the available opportunity to set that much time aside can be daunting.

Key questions 2022 2

In the last few years, a number of promising initiatives have emerged. The most successful being Topgolf. The Dallas, TX based company has 70 worldwide locations. Roughly 60% of the people coming to a Topgolf location for the first time had never picked up a golf club previously. The atmosphere is more akin to a festive party where golf is only part of the action. Other competitors have also entered the marketplace trying to model themselves in a similar fashion - joining golf and social intercourse together.

How many newcomers to the game remain for the long term is impossible to predict with any certainty. Thus far, no present metrics exist to track the progression of players from casual intersections with the game to becoming golfers playing at traditional 18-hole facilities. Having such an ongoing pipeline will be a pivotal development for golf in maintaining its relevance as a recreational outlet of note.

Given the time consumption and the inherent difficulty in learning to play the game successfully -- there are other alternative golf options looking to blossom. Golf courses have traditionally been 18-hole layouts encompassing over 100-acres of land. Now, there are golf options that provide for a lesser number of holes -- whether nine or even less. Some of these facilities have seen fit to create "shorter" courses with holes of modest length -- generally no more than 100 yards. Some of these shorter courses have been built immediately next to regulation courses in order to welcome the broadest array of people.

There's also a range of putting green courses -- whether using real grass or artificial. In a number of instances, putting green courses can be quite elaborate and feature an array of dizzying contours to keep interest among players high.

Key questions 2022 2

There has also been a surge in simulator golf. This is where people use real golf clubs and balls and play the game virtually through an elaborately created computerized set-up. Players can opt to play actual courses virtually. The popularity has skyrocketed in certain countries -- most notably South Korea where more rounds are played virtually then on an actual golf course and where simulated golf has a 5-1 edge over Starbucks locations. Total amount of time to play a full 18 holes virtually -- just one hour. Simulators have the advantage in being used indoors so Mother Nature cannot interfere. Additionally, simulators break down the barriers that can be off-putting and intimidating to those looking to get started in golf.

How will alternative golf options fare in the years ahead? There is no clear and final answer but the sport of golf is now engaged in providing various entry points. Will that mean a boom in traditional golf in the years to come. That answer is still a work in progress.

Key questions 2022 2

Who will Captain Teams USA and Europe for the '23 Ryder Cup Matches?

‚ÄčWhen the '21 Ryder Cup matches concluded last September with a dominant USA win over Europe at Whistling Straits the presumption of who the two next respective Captains would be seemed to favor Zach Johnson for the American squad and Lee Westwood for the Euros. The former has remained in the favorite position but the latter is anything but certain.

Johnson has been a previous assistant Captain for the USA in both the Ryder and Presidents Cup events respectively. His main competition looked to be Phil Mickelson. But the 51-year-old PGA Champion likely shot himself in the foot with comments made at the PIF Saudi Arabia International when he stated emphatically the PGA Tour was responsible for "obnoxious greed" in fomenting the drive by certain world-ranked players in considering other opportunities.

Attracting elite top players such as Mickelson and others is a central item of concern. To date, no player has actually signed an agreement to commit themselves to the Saudi effort. While the concept sounds attractive the actual connection could well mean a banishment from the PGA Tour and its related partners. Is that a leap key players are willing to take? For Mickelson, at 51 years of age, could well be something of interest to pursue.

There's also the real pushback that Mickelson's comments could well place a future captaincy of the USA Ryder Cup team in jeopardy. Given his long-time involvement with the event one can only speculate if Phil's comments have now placed him in a persona non grata position?

Key questions 2022 2
Zach Johnson (Tony Dejak/AP)

Key questions 2022 2

Johnson is a two-time major champion and the 45-year-old is in the preferred position given how other more recent USA Captains have been chosen. He is still active on the PGA Tour and his familiarity with the current roster of elite players is present. Beside Mickelson, the only other possible choice would be Tiger Woods. However, Woods is still recovering from a major car accident suffered early in '21 and while Tiger has expressed interest in being closely involved, the overall timing for his involvement in the '23 matches in the Captain's role looks doubtful. More than likely, Woods will be Captain at some point but not for Italy in '23.

On the Euro side the situation is more complicated and especially interesting. Westwood looked to be the clear choice but the Englishman declined given his desire to remain active as a player. Westwood's standing was not helped for the future with his dalliance with joining the Saudi Arabian effort. With Westwood's withdrawal from consideration the Captaincy is literally up for grabs. The presumed favorite now seems to be Englishman and former world number one Luke Donald. His only clear opposition appears to be Henrik Stenson. Like Westwood, the Swede has expressed an interest to remain active competitively and he too has also shown interest in being a part of the Saudi initiative. 

Given the existing situation -- it appears the '23 matches in Italy will have Johnson and Donald at the helm of their respective teams. That finality should happen sometime later in '22.

Key questions 2022 2
Luke Donald (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Key questions 2022 2

Masters minded -- new back tee at the 13th hole? Can Rory end major drought and finally don the green jacket?

April is just around the corner and the 2022 edition of the Masters poses two questions of note. The first deals with what club officials will do regarding the 13th hole. The par-5 has been easy prey for competitors in recent years and Augusta National went full speed ahead in purchasing land adjacent to Augusta Country Club with the express purpose of lengthening the hole. Chairman Fred Ridley was blunt in stating his concerns -- "that hole (13th) does not play as it was intended to play by (Bobby) Jones and (Alister) Mackenzie."

The balancing act of risk and reward has skewed towards the latter and the club is determined to elevate the risk threshold.

Will Augusta include a new championship tee at the 13th for this year's event? No one can say with certainty but it's highly unlikely the club would have purchased the land without a clear plan in going forward at some point.

Key questions 2022 2
Rory McIlroy (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Key questions 2022 2

The other question deals with four-time major winner and former world number one Rory McIlroy. The Northern Irishman has won three different majors and a win at Augusta would add his name to an elite roster of just five others who have completed the career Grand Slam. McIlroy has been in contention at various times since his inexplicable blow-up at the 10th hole during Sunday's final round in the 2011 event. Rory has finished in the top ten in 6 of the last 8 Masters. Can he capture the green jacket and end his streak of no majors won since 2014. That remains to be seen.

Is golf's next generation of superstars set to takeoff to even greater heights?

When one checks out the world golf ranking on the men's side there's one glaring statistic front and center. The top four players are all under 30 -- two even under 25 years of age. That list in order has Jon Rahm holding the top spot, followed by American Collin Morikawa, Norway's Viktor Hovland occupies the 3rd position and American Patrick Cantlay rounds out the foursome.

Only Rahm and Morikawa have won major championships, but Cantlay's play at the conclusion of the '21 season was mesmerizing -- winning the BMW and Tour Championship events was enough to propel him to PGA Tour Player of the Year honors.

Hovland has also quickly placed his name at the elite level. The 24-year-old has been a consistent presence winning both in the USA and Europe. Over his last five appearances he has secured three victories with his most recent coming in Dubai at the Dubai Desert Classic. Although he has not had a top ten finish in a major championship do date, the prospects appear excellent that the next step in his emerging professional career will be adding his fingerprints to a major championship trophy.

Key questions 2022 2

No less amazing has been Morikawa's ascension -- his victory last July at The Open Championship marked his second major win and was also the first time a player has won two different majors in only his first appearance in the respective event. Morikawa did this previously when claiming the PGA Championship title in 2020.

What has caused this sudden growth of younger players making their presence so quickly at the highest levels of the men's game? Part of that is tied to various junior programs and the competitive golf scene in which talented players can fully test themselves at younger ages before joining the professional ranks.

Accelerating that progress has also been quality teaching. Younger players are building foundations to prepare them for the rigors of the highest competitive level which, at this moment, is the PGA Tour. Many wondered when that wave of the next generation would come -- the startling news is that it is already in motion and the world golf rankings demonstrate that.

What will be interesting to watch is what kind of pushback will come from players in their 30's who have been fixtures in professional golf over the last several years. Such names include Dustin Johnon, Rory McIlroy and Brooks Koepka. Each has won multiple majors but each needs to show the wherewithal to stem the march of the next generation of players who are rapidly demonstrating their ability to win on the biggest of stages and pushing all others to either keep up or get pushed aside.

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About M. James Ward

A GWAA and MGWA member, the 66-year-old from the USA has covered golf in all facets since 1980, notably the major championships and other high level events. He has played over 2,000 courses globally and has competed in USGA Championships.

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