Golf is looking for changes because it's losing players and fans on television
Mike Downey says new ideas such as bigger golf holes would speed play
He says purists are going to be offended, but other sports have changed to woo audiences
Downey: Why not let golf crowds make noise? And slap sponsor stickers on golf carts?
Editor’s Note: Mike Downey is a former Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune columnist who writes frequently for CNN. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
George Plimpton, in the 1973 nonfiction book “Mad Ducks and Bears,” describes a charity golf tournament. One of its organizers was Alex Karras, a pro football player with a sense of humor every bit as absurd as his big scene in the Mel Brooks cowboy spoof “Blazing Saddles,” in which Karras’ character, Mongo, punches a horse.
The tournament – proceeds went to cystic fibrosis – was a one-day event in Flint, Michigan, at a golf club called Shady Acres. Its participants included many a Michigan celebrity, NFL players like Mel Farr and Wayne Walker from the Lions. But this would be unlike any round of golf that any of them had ever known.
Karras and co-conspirators planted hidden tape recorders in the trees, blaring out jungle sounds. Detroit Lions in the woods, in the middle of a backswing, would hear the roar of a real lion. Bill Munson, a quarterback, about to hit a tee shot, jumped a foot because a cannon was shot off. A kicker, Errol Mann, was pranked with an exploding golf ball. A band of musicians stood by while guys tried to putt, playing Jarabe Tapatio – “the Mexican hat dance” – nonstop.
A totally new kind of golf.
According to a recent New York Times article, a totally new kind of golf is exactly what this sport desperately needs, even if that means a bizarre kind of golf unlike any you have ever known.
“Golf holes the size of pizzas. Soccer balls on the back nine. A mulligan on every hole,” the story by Bill Pennington of the Times tees it up, just for starters.
Pennington points out that U.S. courses have actually fooled around with goofy golf innovations like these. A round was played in Greensboro, Georgia, last week – a couple of PGA Tour pros took part – that featured a 15-inch hole. A standard cup on a green is just 4.25 inches wide.
That’s right, a hole that looked like one Bugs Bunny would pop out of was used by the golfers at the Reynolds Plantation that day. It was like changing a basketball hoop to the size of a Hula Hoop.
Why on Earth would a golf greenskeeper dig such a huge hole?
Because a theory appears to be in play that golf desperately needs to something big, something dramatic, something drastic to keep the game’s popularity from sinking like a dimpled Titleist into a pond.
“People under 35,” Pennington writes, “have especially spurned the game, saying it takes too long to play, is too difficult to learn and has too many tiresome rules.”
Larger holes = fewer putts. Ergo, faster golf. No more three-putt greens (or more). No more waiting for the slowpokes (or old fogeys) in front of you to play through.
A golf purist might be mortified. You don’t redo the Mona Lisa with spray paint. You don’t take Niagara Falls and stick a water slide in it. Golf shouldn’t become a joke, like Ralph Kramden learning to play the game on “The Honeymooners,” led to believe that to address a ball, the first thing you do is go, “Hello, ball.”
But would it be preposterous for golf to offer an alternative way to play? This is what some visionaries ask. If a younger generation could be attracted by a radical approach, would that be so bad?
Boxing still exists, but as it began to fade, a new audience took to mixed martial arts. Track-and-field still exists, but as it began to fade, kids began doing jumps and sprints in extreme sports like the X-Games on boards or bikes. Volleyball evolved into beach volleyball. Skiing begat snowboarding. Pro football experimented (with less success) with indoor football. Pool turned to 9-ball. Stud poker turned to Texas Hold ‘Em.
Adapt or die.
For those who pull another old adage from a bag – that if something isn’t broken, there is no need to fix it – keep in mind that nobody’s trying to eliminate golf as we know it. There will still be holes, still be clubs and balls, still be (depending where you play) a caddy or a cart.
Golf courses have been going out of business, however. (In late 2013, for example, five Charlotte clubs faced foreclosure, as did three in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota.) Public ones need new customers. Private ones need a way to entice new members.
Women’s professional golf is losing TV exposure and tournament sponsors. Men’s pro golf seems super-popular, but at the Masters tournament, where Tiger Woods withdrew due to an injury and Phil Mickelson failed to qualify for the weekend’s rounds, CBS reportedly had its lowest television ratings since 1993.
Woods, 38, has undergone surgery – a “microdisectomy,” according to his website – for a pinched nerve in his back. His return date is uncertain. Winner of 79 PGA Tour events, including four Masters championships, Woods has been able to take part in just three tournaments in 2014. He tied for 25th place in one, tied for 80th in another, withdrew from the third. Tiger is golf’s go-to guy; without him, TV networks could lose many viewers who couldn’t care less how many shots below par a Rory McIlroy or a Bubba Watson is.
So, perhaps a surprisingly large percentage of today’s audience is more interested in a certain golfer than in golf.
“Foot golf,” according to the New York Times piece, is one new way to play, using a large hole, a soccer ball and no hands. Silly? Stupid? What have you got, you say, a hole in your HEAD? Hey, there was a time in America when night baseball seemed silly, as did a game of basketball played with a shot clock. A lush, landscaped country club would have seemed silly to men from St. Andrews, Scotland, who learned how to play the game on bumpy, lumpy links.
Golf of the future?
A few possibilities spring to mind:
No more “Quiet, please”
Let the spectators speak up. Cheer. Chant. Heckle. Do the kinds of things basketball or football fans do. Make some noise. Hold a tournament that – not unlike that Karras concept – invites the crowd to get involved. TV ratings could be big, too. Instead of some dude yelling “Get in the hole!” after a golfer’s swing, he could yell “Watch out for that pond!” while the guy is in his stance. Baseball hitters don’t require quiet.
Winner take all
Whichever golfer wins the tournament wins the $$$. No one else gets a cent. No $20,000 for placing 20th. No “appearance fee.” Come one, come all to the Master tournament – one Master, not plural – in which the victor gets $5 million and the runner-up gets a bag of lovely parting gifts.
You play it in a golf cart. You never leave it. You drive it, and you drive your ball from it. You chip from it and putt from it. We categorize this game under “motor sports.” Each golfer gets to slap sponsor stickers all over their carts, just like NASCAR.
Each time you don’t make a par, you need to remove a … nahhh, it’ll never work. (Except maybe at golf courses by the Jersey Shore.)
Who decided golf has to have one hole per green? Today’s greens are so large, you could put a cup on the left, a cup on the right and a cup smack in the middle. A golfer could decide which one to go for upon reaching the green. This also would triple the opportunities for a hole-in-one.
Oh, and one more:
The Golf X Games
Bikes. Skateboards. Rollerblades. Fastest to finish 18 holes wins. A really steep ramp by the 18th green. Let’s go play some golf, dude!