Mike Purkey: The dilemma of growing the game

Banks Wilson takes a swing at TopGolf in Charlotte. TopGolf is credited for a major increase in off-course participation in golf, according to the National Golf Foundation. (David T. Foster III photo)

Let’s face it: Golf is too difficult, too expensive and takes too much time. Yet, once those barriers to entry are broken, chances are that you wind up with an enthusiastic golfer who can’t seem to get enough of the game.

So when golf’s powers talk about growing the game, it’s about overcoming obstacles to get new people into golf and keep them there. And no one, thus far, has found the secret formula to make that happen with any degree of effectiveness.

Golf participation in the U.S. has basically been flat since the great recession of 2008. The National Golf Foundation reported that 23.8 million people played golf on a real golf course in 2016, down 1.2 percent from the year before and the lowest number reported in the Tiger Woods era.

The game got itself in trouble in the 1990s when the NGF said that we needed to build a course a day for 10 years to meet the latent demand. When Woods emerged in the mid-90s, the great golf boom got underway. Golf was suddenly cool and everybody wanted to play.

But by the end of the decade, there were as many people leaving golf as there were new people coming to the game and we found we were badly overbuilt where golf courses were concerned. And at the turn of the century, for the first time, a significant number of golf courses started to close.

Since the 2008 recession, new golf course construction has ground to a halt and there were a number of years where more courses closed than new ones opened. People were proclaiming the death of golf.

The fact that golf needs to face eye to eye is that the game is a niche sport and is not for everyone. Those barriers for entry are considerable and not to be taken lightly. The PGA of America, the USGA and the PGA Tour have scratched their collective heads to generate new ideas to bring new people to golf.

They tried making the hole bigger. They tried Foot Golf — having kids kick a soccer ball around the golf course. They are now trying nine-hole, six-hole and three-hole loops. The First Tee is a groundbreaking program, but there’s no indication that the kids going through that program are playing golf regularly aside from First Tee activities.

The number of new golfers rose to 2.5 million in 2016, an almost 14 percent increase over 2015. Non-golfers who say they are interested in playing grew to 12.8 million, the largest segment of which are millenials – 18-to-34-year-olds.

The NGF decided to include off-course participation in its yearly report and that number is 20 million, an 11 percent increase. Most of that number can be attributed to TopGolf, which has taken off since it arrived in the U.S. and is attractive to millenials.

There are things that can be done that aren’t happening at present. First, golf needs to take care of its existing players. The number of what the NGF calls “committed” golfers – those who consider golf their favorite activity or one of several recreational pursuits – rose to 20.1 million.

If every one of those golfers played at least one more round in 2017, think of what a shot in the arm it would be for the game. That’s 20 million more rounds and if 80 percent of those rounds came from a daily-fee course at an average of $75 total expenditure per golfer – greens fees, sleeve of balls and snack bar purchases – that’s an additional $1.2 billion (yes, billion) spent on golf per year.

Secondly, all juniors 18 and younger should play for free everywhere after 2  p.m. At the very least, a junior card should cost no more than $100 per year. How many of today’s golfers grew up playing the game in the summer when their parents dropped them off at the golf course in the morning and picked them up in the afternoon.

Harold Varner III has said more than once that he couldn’t overemphasize the value that the municipal course he grew up on in Gastonia had a $100 fee for juniors for unlimited golf. He never would have played the game if not for that accommodation.

Third, take your kids to TopGolf once a week, even in the winter. Get a club in their hands in an environment that they will find fun. The video game atmosphere at TopGolf is attractive to today’s kids, which should make it easier to get them to hit golf balls and by extension, maybe get them to a real golf course.

The death of the game is highly exaggerated and there are some things about golf that are encouraging. But, as in politics, all golf is local. Get out to your favorite course – and play.

Pine Lakes restores long-standing traditions

Pine Lakes Country Club in Myrtle Beach is the birthplace of Sports Illustrated. (Photo courtesy of Pine Lakes Country Club)


When golf began in Myrtle Beach 90 years ago, there was one course: Ocean Forest Country Club. Today, there are nearly 100, but only one “The Granddaddy”: Pine Lakes Country Club, which occupies the same footprint as Ocean Forest and, more recently, has decided to return to honoring its heritage.

Starting in October, Pine Lakes – located on Granddaddy Lane, of course – resumes a number of history-laced amenities that once were trademarks of the historic course.

When golfers arrive, they’ll be greeted by bag attendants clad in black knickers, red shirts and red knee socks, and by starters wearing Royal Stuart tartan kilts, white button-down shirts and tartan bow ties. The pro shop staff will don similarly-themed outfits of black slacks, white shirts and tartan ties.

And in March 2018, players reaching the course’s sixth tee will be greeted by attendants serving mimosas in champagne flutes. That fall and winter, the offerings will change to 6-ounce cups of clam chowder, to help warm chilled players.

Those special touches, once part of the Pine Lakes agenda, had been missing since around 2006, after course renovations by a previous ownership group, which modernized the old course (good) but did away with traditions (not so good).

Adding those back, says head professional Jonathan Brock, was a “no-brainer.”

“We wanted to bring back what Pine Lakes was known for,” said Brock, a native of Anderson, S.C., and the club’s top man since early 2016. “We had longtime customers who’d always talk about how Pine Lakes used to be, and our (Founders Group International) CEO, Steve Mays, was completely on board with going back to our old traditions.”

The notion of bringing back kilts, mimosas and clam chowder emerged in 2014, when Founders Group, which operates 22 Grand Strand golf courses, took over Pine Lakes. It was time, Brock said, for “The Granddaddy” to start looking and acting its age.

“(Mays) wanted each course (under the Founders’ umbrella) to stand out from the others, and tradition is that for us,” he said.

In fact, Pine Lakes – especially its clubhouse, originally designed by Robert White – is listed on the National Register of Historical Places. White, the first president of the PGA of America, also was co-founder of the American Society of Golf Course Architects. The 18,368-square foot clubhouse began life as a resort hotel, and was refurbished in 2009.

In 1954, the club also became the birthplace of Sports Illustrated, which began when a group of 87 Time-Life employees met en route home from Florida. There, they outlined plans for the first-of-its-kind magazine. The clubhouse’s History Hall displays old photos and other memorabilia of that meeting, which was held in the now-restored Snug Pub.

More recently, Pine Lakes also is home to the Myrtle Beach Golf Hall of Fame, which has 14 members (two more will be added this fall) enshrined in an outdoor courtyard behind the bar and dining area. Plaques honor each Hall of Fame member’s career, as well as SI’s founding. There are also plaques for White and for famed professional golfer Gene Sarazen, who once shot a round of 78 – his age then – at Pine Lakes.

“We saw the memorabilia, and we listened to our guests,” Brock said.

Pine Lakes originally had 27 holes, but was later consolidated into 18 holes. Then in 2006, architect Craig Schreiner’s renovation kept 16 holes’ corridors but replaced two others, using 1937 aerial photos of White’s original design to maintain the course’s feel. Today, the par-70 layout plays as long as 6,675 yards, with four sets of tees. The signature hole is the par-3 11th, short by modern standards but with a green – the smallest on the course – tightly guarded by a pond in front and buffeted by ocean breezes from the Atlantic, just 2 miles away.

Brock is considerably younger than his course, but he has an appreciation of its history. “It (the restoration of the amenities) had been on my mind since I took over,” he said. “Other courses in Myrtle Beach all have their niches, and I thought, ‘What do we do to stand apart?’ And the answer was: go back to our traditions.

“Those traditions had faded away as ownership changed,” Brock said. “Now they’re coming back, which we think shows our management’s vision.”

Not to mention a vision of the past, too.


5 must-play courses in the Triad

The Champions Course at Bryan Park hosted the U.S. Amateur Public Links in 2010. (Photo courtesy of Bryan Park)

The Triad of N.C. – the region that includes Greensboro, Winston-Salem and High Point – is well known for its wealth of public access golf. Here are five must-play daily fee courses in the Triad:

Bryan Park (Champions), Browns Summit: Just outside Greensboro is the Champions Course at Bryan Park, designed by Rees Jones – the son of Robert Trent Jones, Tanglewood Park’s architect. When it opened in 1990, it was met with a number of accolades by the national magazines that rank courses. In fact, it is consistently ranked in the top 10 courses you can play in N.C. The USGA brought the U.S. Amateur Public Links to Bryan Park in 2010. The Players Course, designed by George Cobb in 1974, is the other course at Bryan Park. For more, www.bryanpark.com.

Tanglewood Park (Championship), Clemmons: If you want to play a course that has hosted a major championship in N.C., you don’t have to know a member at Quail Hollow or pony up to play Pinehurst No. 2. Instead, you can take on Tanglewood Park, just outside Winston-Salem. Tanglewood hosted the 1974 PGA Championship, won by Lee Trevino by one shot over Jack Nicklaus. Designed by Robert Trent Jones, Tanglewood opened in 1958. Tanglewood also hosted the 1986 U.S. Amateur Public Links and hosted the Vantage Championship on the Senior PGA Tour from 1987-2002. The Reynolds Course is also on property, if you’re in the mood for 36 holes. For more, golf.tanglewoodpark.org.

Grandover Resort (East), Greensboro: Grandover Resort was the dream of real estate developer, the late Joseph Koury. He built two golf courses and a luxury hotel and spa on the 1,500 acres that includes the surrounding community and office space. Both the East Course and West Course were designed by David Graham and Gary Panks, who mostly plied their trade out west. The East Course opened in 1996 and is considered the better of the two. There were serious discussions about bringing the Wyndham Championship to Grandover when it left Forest Oaks Country Club. Instead, the Wyndham returned to Sedgefield Country Club in Greensboro. For more, www.grandover.com/recreation/golf.

Greensboro National Golf Club, Summerfield: For those looking for a kinder, gentler course, Greensboro National is 17 miles north of Greensboro. Says Shane Sharp on Golf.com, “To paraphrase an old television network slogan, this is a golf course for guys who like golf courses. The fairways are wide; the greens are large; the hills are gently rolling; and conditioning is immaculate.” And if the pictures on the menu are to be believed, you must make time for lunch. For more, www.greensboronationalgolfclub.com.

Oak Hollow Golf Course, High Point: Owned and operated by the Parks and Recreation Department of High Point, Oak Hollow is a Pete Dye design that when it opened in 1972, received a lot of national attention. It was immediately ranked in the top 25 courses you can play by a national magazine and for years was consistently in the top 75 of that same ranking. It has typical Dye features – railroad ties, pot bunkers, several peninsula greens and an island tee. For more, www.oakhollowgc.com.




TaylorMade M CGB irons longer, more forgiving

TaylorMade M CGB irons built for high launch and more distance throughout the entire set. (Photo courtesy of TaylorMade Golf)

When you use words like “longer” and “more forgiving” when referring to golf clubs, you usually associate those terms with drivers. But technology has advanced to make those words describe irons, as well.

TaylorMade introduces its M CGB irons, super game improvement clubs designed for mid-to-high handicap players. The M CGB starts with technology that has made other TaylorMade irons successful.

Face slots allow the iron face to flex and along with the Speed Pocket, is designed to increase speed and create more distance. Each M CGB club is designed with high Coefficient of Restitution (COR), which is the transfer of energy from the time the ball is contacted to when it leaves the clubface.

In other iron sets, COR is progressive and is maxed out in the long irons. In the M CBG, the COR is consistent throughout the set and results in high launch and maximum distance from the 4-iron through the pitching wedge.

Each clubhead is designed with tungsten weights that create high Moment of Inertia (MOI), which is the club’s resistance to twisting on off-center hits. The higher the MOI, the more forgiving the club is all over the face, no matter where the ball comes in contact with the club.

The M CGB has also been designed for draw bias. The company’s Inverted Cone technology has been moved toward the toe of each iron in this set. And the company says its Geocoustic technology create improved sound and feel.

“The CGB name is iconic and represents some of the longest and most forgiving irons we’ve ever created at TaylorMade,” says Tomo Bystedt, Senior Director, Iron Product Creation. “The concept has now been re-created with all our latest technology to bring never before seen performance to golfers of all skill levels.”

The M CGB irons will be available at retailers beginning Sept. 29.


Mike Purkey: Friends can be competitors and vise versa

Justin Thomas, who won the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow, competes with good friends Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler on the PGA Tour. (Jeff Siner photo)

On an episode of “The Haney Project” on Golf Channel in 2009, Charles Barkley visited Hank Haney’s house and the two of them started shooting pool. Haney squeaked out a win in the first game and in the second game, Barkley ran the table without allowing Haney a shot, looking like he had done that kind of thing before.

“It’s not personal,” Barkley said with a huge grin. “It’s just competition.”

When Justin Thomas came off the 18th green in the final round of the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow, he was greeted by Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler, who had hung around after they finished to see if Thomas could win his first major championship.

Most PGA Tour players would have already hopped aboard their private jets and headed home, shooting their friend a text if he closed the deal. These young players are a little different.

After Thomas won the Dell Technologies Championship on Monday, Spieth was talking to a gaggle of reporters when Thomas walked by. Spieth interrupted the interrogation to walk over and give Thomas a hug, offering his congratulations. He came back and finished the interview session.

Some in the game don’t particularly like the fact that Spieth, Thomas, Fowler and others can be such good friends while they’re supposed to be competing ferociously with them. They think it harms the value of the competition.

You don’t have to hate your opponents to want very badly to beat them. But these young players can fight with 100 percent effort on the golf course, separating the personal from the competitive.

“I mean, I’m probably more excited than anything to get home and see one of my roommates, Tom Lovelady, who just got his PGA Tour card,” Thomas said after winning the Dell Technologies Championship, his fifth victory of the 2016-17 season. “He gets home Tuesday night, and we’re going to have a little dinner, celebrate on Wednesday. I’m more excited to see him and just tell him congrats than I am to celebrate my own victory.”

And if that doesn’t fit the description of selfish, narcissistic individual athletes that you’re accustomed to, welcome to the new normal in professional golf. But that doesn’t mean these players are 100 percent pure in their good wishes for their friends.

“I still get jealous,” Thomas says. “Any time any of my friends win and I don’t, I’m extremely happy for them, I’m pumped for them, I’m excited but I’m jealous. I wish I had three majors right now (like Spieth). I mean, I’m obviously pleased with one but I wish I had three.”

Make no mistake, this is not the first instance of close friends competing with one another on the PGA Tour. It goes back as long as there’s been a Tour. But there have been no other players who make their friendship as public as these guys do, sharing tweets and Instagram posts of their spring break trips with the world.

Spieth, Thomas and Fowler are the most visible of the friends, but Smylie Kaufman and others are included in this group. And it’s just a happy coincidence that they played junior golf against each other, played summer competition against each other and college golf against each other. They have just chosen not to go their separate ways once they came to the PGA Tour.

“I just think we grew up together,” Spieth said. “I think that happens with the people that — I mean, you grow up and you watch each other work from when you’re 14 years old. We roomed together when we were 14 years old. (Thomas is) one of my best friends in the whole world.

“Phil (Mickelson) and Tiger (Woods), if you’re going to use that as an example, they didn’t grow up together, room together, all that stuff, stay in touch through college and play in the same tournaments. I think it’s just a different situation when you kind of grow up, spend a lot of time. Justin and Rick(ie Fowler), they live on the same street and they spend most of their time at home together.”

Spieth knows that his friendships are unusual and concedes that not everyone might understand.

“We can share experiences with each other that we can’t really describe or explain to anybody else that’s our age, or very few, I should say, and it creates a unique relationship,” he says.

Atlantic Dunes named S.C. Course of the Year


The island green par-3 ninth hole at Atlantic Dunes on Hilton Head Island, which was redesigned by Davis Love III. (Photo courtesy of Atlantic Dunes Golf Club)


For at least 30 years, Davis Love III has had a soft spot in his heart for Sea Pines Resort, especially Harbour Town Golf Links and its annual PGA Tour event, the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing. And that’s not just because Hilton Head Island is a short drive from his home on Sea Island, Ga.

In 1987, Love won the first PGA Tour title of his career at Harbor Town – it was the MCI Heritage Classic then – and took home a tournament-record five tartan jackets as champion (1991-92, 1998, 2003). The last was the 17th of his 21 Tour victories.

Love, now 53 and winding down his PGA Tour playing career, most recently serving as U.S. Ryder Cup captain in 2014 and 2016, still plays the Heritage each April. But the past two years, he and members of his Love Golf Design firm spent even more time there, crafting Sea Pines’ third golf course – formerly the Ocean Course, Hilton Head Island’s oldest – into Atlantic Dunes, a creation that complements Harbour Town and the resort’s other Pete Dye design, Heron Point.

How good a job did Love, his brother Mark and design associate Scot Sherman do? In August, Atlantic Dunes was named Golf Course of the Year by the South Carolina Golf Course Owners Association, ahead of Isle of Palms’ Wild Dunes Links Course (built in the 1980s by Tom Fazio) and Myrtle Beach’s Man O’ War, a Dan Maples project.

Both Harbour Town (2004) and Heron Point (2015) also previously won the award. Not bad company.

“(Course design is) a fun way to extend your career,” Davis Love said at the course’s opening last November, after a month delay due to Hurricane Matthew. Atlantic Dunes is Love’s 21st design, three in South Carolina.

Sherman, a Furman University graduate and Greenville, S.C., resident, also had personal ties to Hilton Head, being a Pete Dye protégé and former associate of Irmo, S.C. native Bobby Weed. Atlantic Dunes totally re-imagined a 1995 renovation of the old Ocean Course by former Tour player Mark McCumber.

Sherman says Love’s goal was to “improve playability” on what had been an old, flat layout, upgrading the infrastructure to “make it more memorable.” Some 500-600 trees were removed and 55,000 cubic yards of dirt moved, as well as adding 14 miles of drainage pipes and 19 miles of irrigation – oh, and 15,000 tons of sand, which is apparent in the course’s numerous dunes.

The Love team added 50,000 native plants, seaside grasses and coquina shells to the site’s 42 acres, which is twice the footprint of Harbour Town. “We replaced everything: grass, irrigation, drainage, and moved three acres of water,” Sherman said. Total cost: nearly $11 million.

Cary Corbitt, vice president of sports and operations for Sea Pines, calls Atlantic Dunes “the ideal complement to Harbour Town and Heron Point. We’re honored to receive” the SCGCOA award, he said. Atlantic Dunes previously was named No. 7 in Golfweek’s “Best Courses You Can Play in South Carolina.”

Sherman says Atlantic Dunes reflects Love’s philosophy (shared by Dye) of making a golf course that looks tough but plays easier than it seems.

“The course can intimidate you visually,” Sherman said, but in fact, its fairway corridors are the widest of the Sea Pines courses. “Alice (Dye, Pete’s wife and an architect herself) always says you want to give every level of player a place to go,” he said.

Difficulty for better players is a result of the extensive use of water, which is around or in play on most holes, plus 81 bunkers and plenty of large dunes that frame most fairways.

When it was the Ocean Course, “it didn’t feel like it was near the ocean, and we wanted to evoke that in the Atlantic Dunes feel,” Sherman said. “Even the bridges have rope railings.” The course’s variety of holes requires a variety of shots, but the designers say playability is the main ingredient.

“We (golf course architects) have made the game so hard for the average guy, but you have to make a fit for everyone,” Love said, referring to the resort clientele. “We’ve dialed back the degree of difficulty.”

That said, the threat of water reveals itself early and continues to the course’s last four holes. The signature hole is the uphill, par-3 15th, playing 137 to 205 yards, and with the beach backing the green, it’s one of two oceanfront holes on Hilton Head.

The short (323-394 yards) dogleg right 16th demands accuracy to avoid dunes, and then Atlantic Dunes has two long, water-guarded finishing holes: the par-5 17th, which ends at a peninsula green, and the muscular par-4 18th, which plays up to 462 yards and was a par-5 in its previous life.

“I have a reverence for Harbour Town,” Sherman said. Of course, everyone knows how Davis Love feels about the island and its courses. For information about Atlantic Dunes, visit www.seapines.com/golf, or call (866) 561-8802.