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.

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.


Day Trip: Mount Mitchell Golf Club

Mount Mitchell Golf Club is not only fun to play but is known for its scenery, sitting in the shadow of Mount Mitchell. (Photo Courtesy of Mount Mitchell Golf Club)

Where: Mount Mitchell Golf Club, Burnsville, N.C.

The Skinny: Located in the shadow of Mount Mitchell – at 6,683 feet, the largest peak in the Eastern U.S. – Mount Mitchell Golf Club sits in the valley of the South Toe River, which for the most part makes it a flat golf course. There is some elevation change on the back nine and only a few holes make it feel like a mountain golf course. That is, until you take in the scenery, which can cause you to pay less attention to your golf.

The course is player friendly but not downright easy. The back tees measure 6,495 yards and the course is about 3,000 feet above sea level, so the ball flies farther. But when you get to a three-hole stretch on the back nine, you’ll find some challenge. The 12th is a 530-yard par-5, the 13th is a par-4 of 430 yards and the 14th is the No. 1 handicap hole, a 450-yard par-4.

But the key word for Mount Mitchell Golf Club is “fun.” Everyone who plays has a good time and the course is almost always in superior condition. And the weather is nearly perfect. According to the club, Mount Mitchell is where “springtime spends the summer.” Mount Mitchell Golf Club opens in April and closes during the month of November.

The Tab: Monday through Thursday, greens fees are $49 for visitors and $44 for guests of the property’s townhouses, rental homes and other lodging. Friday through Sunday, it’s $65 for visitors and $55 for guests. There is a $44 senior rate for Monday through Thursday.

Diversions: Hawtree’s Grill and Pub is open Monday through Saturday for both fine dining and casual fare. For fishermen, the South Toe River has been established as a trophy trout fishing destination. The river is brimming with brown trout and rainbow trout.

For more: www.mountmitchellgolf.com


5 Carolinas players to watch in FedEx Cup playoffs

Kevin Kisner has a chance to go deep in FedEx Cup playoffs. (Jeff Siner photo)

The FedEx Cup playoffs start this week in New York at the Northern Trust, culminating at the Tour Championship Sept. 21-24. The winner of the yearlong FedEx Cup will take home a $10 million prize. Here are five players from the Carolinas who are worth watching as the playoffs begin:

9 – Kevin Kisner: Although he came up short in his bid for the PGA Championship, Kisner still has a chance at one of golf’s biggest prizes. Starting inside the top 10 virtually assures him that he will be in the Tour Championship. But a victory in one of the playoff events would get him inside the top five and a chance at winning the FedEx Cup.

25 – Webb Simpson: Without a victory this year, Simpson is on the Tour Championship bubble at No. 25. He got there with a third-place finish last week at the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro. Simpson hasn’t won on Tour since the 2013 Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in Las Vegas. A victory in one of the playoff events would turn an ordinary season into a good one.

36 – Bill Haas: The FedEx Cup winner in 2011, Haas hasn’t won this season and only has three top-10 finishes. He made most of his points finishing third at the WGC Dell Match Play and a tie for fifth at the U.S. Open to go along with 11 top 25s. He needs a hot hand to get into the Tour Championship.

69 – Grayson Murray: He made his year when, as a rookie, he won the Barbasol Championship in July, which was opposite the Open Championship. So, he has a two-year exemption and job security. Whatever Murray wins in the FedEx Cup playoffs is a bonus to a successful season.

123 – Harold Varner III: Varner tied for 10th at the Wyndham Championship to get inside the top 125 and assure him a job on the PGA Tour next season. That was Job 1. Now, he needs a high finish this week to get inside the top 100 so he can advance to the Dell Technologies Championship and extend his season.

Mike Purkey: Solving the slow-play scourge

Gary Woodland waits to play a shot at the PGA Championship. (Charlotte Observer file photo)

Lost amid the celebration, the pats on the back and the self-congratulations on the success of the PGA Championship, an underlying problem in golf – professional and rank-and-file – bubbled to the surface late Saturday evening.

The last two groups of threesomes in the third round of the PGA Championship played 18 holes of golf in 5 hours, 40 minutes. And no one in charge said a word, at least not publicly. Of all the governing bodies, the PGA of America has the most responsibility to take the lead to solve golf’s biggest issue.

The PGA of America represents 28,000 club professionals in the U.S., who are on the front lines every day, trying to get the golfers at their courses around 18 holes in a decent pace. If you’ve ever been at a daily fee course on a busy day, you know what the pros are up against.

But to ignore such an egregious example of slow play at its biggest championship, the PGA turns its back on its own stated values. How are we to grow the game by giving a blind eye to one of the things that keep people from coming to our game and drive some people away from it.

To be fair, the PGA of America deals with this – or chooses not to deal with it – only once a year. While that doesn’t abdicate its responsibility, we can’t lay the entire blame on the slow-play problem at the feet of the club pros.

Where the real issue lies is with the PGA Tour, whose officials day in and day out are supposed to keep their players moving. If you ask anyone at the level of vice president and above at the Tour if there’s a pace-of-play problem, they will publicly deny it. They mistakenly believe that their internal policing of the time it takes to play is sufficient by itself.

They’re wrong. The PGA Tour chooses to pay no more than lip service to its own inability to have leaders on the weekend play in less than 5½ hours. The Tour hands out a few insignificant fines to a handful of dawdlers and washes its hands of the rest.

Nothing significant will ever happen concerning slow play until the Tour – or any governing body – hits the guilty with penalty shots. That’s the only thing touring professionals understand. They can pay the fines in cash on the spot with what they have in their money clips.

And that’s where the PGA of America should come in. Wouldn’t it be brave of the PGA to hand out penalty shots in the middle of its championship? Wouldn’t it tell the rest of the golf world that it draws a line in the sand about pace of play and intends to seriously do something about it?

But that’s never going to happen. There is a faction that says the best players in the world are playing for millions of dollars every week and are playing for history in the four major championships. They should be allowed to take as much time as they need. Officials of the governing bodies are reticent to affect the outcome of a championship with a penalty stroke for slow play.

And that’s why if we are going to do anything about how long it takes to play golf, we will have to do it ourselves. The USGA tried the “While We’re Young” campaign with little measurable success.

So, speeding up play will depend on you and your foursome. That’s where it starts. Play ready golf. When it’s your turn, don’t waste time. Measure the distance to the flag while someone else is hitting. Line up your putt while someone else is putting. When you’re past double bogey, pick up. When you’re out of the hole, pick up.

We all want to play real golf, but we can do so at a quicker pace. All grassroots movements start with the individual. Play faster. It will rub off on the rest of your foursome.

Pay no attention to the Tour players. Left alone, they will grind big-time golf to an agonizing halt.


5 under the radar at the PGA Championship

Matt Kuchar could be one of the dark horses at the PGA Championship this week. (File photo)

Somehow, the PGA Championship seems to produce champions who rank among the unexpected. For instance, like defending champion Jimmy Walker, Jason Dufner and Keegan Bradley. Remember Y.E. Yang and Shaun Micheel? While everyone else touts the usual suspects for this week’s PGA Championship, here are five players who are flying under the radar. One of them could be this year’s Dufner or Walker.

Matt Kuchar – Kuchar has to wonder what he has to do to win one of these things. If not for Spieth’s otherworldly turnaround at the Open Championship, Kuchar might have been Champion Golfer of the Year for his first major. But he has the perfect game for Quail Hollow – straight and steady – and would fit the mold of a PGA Championship winner.

Charlie Hoffman – One of the great stealth players on Tour, Hoffman has the knack of appearing on leaderboards, seemingly out of nowhere. He lost in a playoff to Jhonattan Vegas at the RBC Canadian Open and has yet to win on Tour this year. That could all be solved this week.

Daniel Berger – Berger has a victory this year and might have had two if not for Jordan Spieth’s bunker hole-out in the playoff for the Travelers Championship. Berger is sneaky good at a lot of things and has enough game to sneak past all the bigger names this week.

Kevin Kisner – Perhaps the most underrated player on the PGA Tour, Kisner won at Colonial earlier this year, one of the great courses for shotmakers. Kisner has more than enough game to navigate his way around Quail Hollow. He’s not a great putter but if scores turn out to be higher than normal, Kisner could be a good bet.

Kevin Chappell – Chappell won the Valero Texas Open two weeks after a top 10 in a major – a tie for 7th at the Masters. He tied for fourth at the FedEx St. Jude after having a chance to win and had another chance at the RBC Canadian Open but shot 71 in the final round. Once Chappell figures out how good he is, he will win a lot. Maybe even this week.