Tuesday, June 13, 2017


When it comes to golf, I am a purist. Perhaps it is because I grew up playing “neighborhood golf” (a topic for another post), but given my druthers I’d prefer the game remain unchanged. I was a member of my high-school’s varsity team, and continue to use golf as my main form of summer leisure.

Golf requires formality and nuance, mental toughness, finesse, competitiveness, and a willingness to endure the duration of a round that can (at times) feel like a marathon. Hitting a pure shot every now and then helps too, but in my opinion the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors and tackle the challenge of the next unique hole makes up for an entire day of bad shots.

In Minnesota, I am not alone in my admiration of the game. In fact, Minnesota has more golfers per capita than any other state – pretty incredible if you consider that our golf season is only seven months long. . . in a good year.

Despite the apparent popularity of the game in the land of 10,000 lakes, golf is dying. According to a National Golf Foundation study, the number of golfers ages 18 to 34 has dropped 30 percent over the last 20 years. Total annual rounds played, dollars spent on equipment, TV ratings, and new golf courses constructed are similarly going the way of the do-do bird.

Amateurs and experts alike explain this decline using a variety of metrics. Take, for example, the rising costs of private club membership and daily play rates at public courses, the inherent difficulty of the game as a barrier to entry and adoption, the lack of rousing role models (think Tiger Woods in his prime) to inspire the younger generation and, of course, the unavoidable fact that we just don’t have the time or patience anymore.

Today, more than ever, children and adults are tethered to a never-ending stream of school and work obligations, after-school activities, social engagements, and other leisure opportunities that can be consumed in under 4.5 hours (the average length of a round of golf). Our infatuation (nay, addiction) to our mobile devices doesn’t help either. We are constantly plugged in. Whereas our predecessors may have felt it possible to sneak out of work early for a Friday twilight match or play a weekly sunrise game on Sunday morning uninterrupted, it is virtually impossible for most of us to find the time to enjoy the game as it was meant to be played – at the pace of a carefree stroll without taking a pause to set down the iPhone between shots.

In many ways the industry is changing to adapt to this trend. People are playing more 9-hole rounds than ever, visiting mini-golf complexes with the family, and consuming golf at driving ranges more frequently. Minneapolis, for example, will get its very own Topgolf complex within a year. Topgolf is a driving range experience on steroids. Filled with walls of TV-screens, several full-services bars, and a sound system that rivals a concert hall, it allows players to compete against one another by hitting GPS enabled golf balls into a range filled with targets, nets, and other point multipliers. Depending on where the ball ends up, and the difficulty of hitting that target, the player is awarded points which instantly appear on the overhead screen keeping track of the contest. The winner is the player with the most points after an even number of shots by all players.

Significantly, Topgolf can be enjoyed in under an hour, and its club-like atmosphere erases the stigma of grabbing for one’s iPhone during the competition. 

I’ll be the first to admit, after visiting Topgolf’s location in Chicago, that it is a ton a fun and worth the experience. After getting used to the system, it is exhilarating to attempt hitting the smaller, more difficult, targets. No doubt I will be a frequent customer after the Minneapolis location opens.

While I can’t say I am thrilled about the global trends in golf that threaten the game I know and love, I am hopeful that modern adaptations like Topgolf will inspire more people, especially young people, to take up the game. Perhaps getting a taste of the contest will get hesitant players on to the golf course and encourage them to give the game another shot (pun intended). I am certain that most of us could afford to put down the iPhone for 4.5 hours and, if only occasionally, take in a round of golf as it was meant to be played – slowly, methodically, and at the pace of a carefree stroll.

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