Two recent publications have captured the attention of golf’s insiders. They aren’t the kinds of items that capture the imagination of most who play the game – just those responsible for maintaining, nurturing and growing it.
The first publication is a lengthy story in the June/July edition of “Landscape Architecture Magazine,” the official publication of the American Society of Landscape Architects.” Its headline: “Are Little Used Public Golf Courses Worth the Space?” Its gist: That an activity with a low user-per-acre space ratio long justifiable for the profits it generated for public park systems, is now no longer so justifiable in light of the game’s declining fortunes. Its subtext: A declining, aging, disproportionately white and affluent population that no longer produces sufficient ancillary revenue for the general recreational activities that appeal to a younger, larger, more ethnically and economically diverse population can no longer justify the continued use of a disproportionate amount of precious open parkland space in increasingly cramped urban quarters.
Are a few of the story’s operating premises flawed, particularly those related to profitability and ethnic homogeneity? Yes, but it doesn’t really matter, because there is enough truth in them and enough interests with a stake in pursuing them that the keepers of the game need to pay heed.
Which brings me to the second publication. On July 26 the respected Pew Research Center released a report titled, “Wealth Gaps Rise to Record Highs Between Whites, Blacks and Hispanics.” It received widespread media coverage – the lead story on CNN, front page stories in many of the nation’s largest newspapers, a hot topic on Talk Radio, and the subject of myriad analyses in opinion journals. Its conclusions: That while all sectors of the American population have suffered declines in personal net worth, the nation’s minority communities, particularly the two largest minorities, have suffered losses so much greater than the majority white population that 25 years of progress in closing this particular racial/ethnic divide have evaporated. Indeed, the gap is now greater than it was a generation ago. The majority population now has a 20-1 advantage.
Worse, wealth disparities increased not only between racial and ethnic groups, they rose within each group. Even though the top 10% of households within each racial/ethnic group suffered a loss of wealth in the recent downturn, their share of the overall wealth rose, meaning that the losses suffered by the bottom 90% of each group were proportionally greater across that particular board.
So, why is the golf world riveted by all of this?
Despite a tendency to sometimes act as if it is above all frays, the golf world really does understand that it is affected by the same trends, conditions, and demographics as all other businesses and activities in the United States.
Golf is an inherently expensive activity compared to most recreational activities. It always has and always will be, no matter how committed its leaders remain to affordability and accessibility in the public sector. And despite that commitment, the municipal game is more expensive in 2011 in inflation adjusted dollars (real dollars) than it was in 1951, 1961, 1971, 1981, 1991 or 2001.
During golf’s great growth of the 1950’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s prices were flat, but incomes were not; they went steadily up, and they went up across the demographic, ethnic and racial boards, creating not just the conditions for growth in general, but for growth among ethnic, racial and income populations not previously part of golf’s great mosaic.
Prices are anything but flat now. Water and energy costs remain impervious to the downturn in the economic cycle, and they are generally second only to labor costs on the expenditure side of most golf course ledgers. Incomes are not impervious to the Great Recession, making it impossible to pass those costs on to customers without consequence. And those “customers” are suffering severe erosions in their household net worth in addition to income erosions that have been ongoing since roughly 2000.
The confluence of declining incomes / personal assets and rising prices makes for a perfect storm of decline across all boards, but most especially to the diverse demographic slices of the American pie the game has labored so mightily to bring within its ranks in the last generation.
To the extent that the face of the game appears to the non-golfing world as old, rich, and exclusively white, pressure to convert troubled municipal golf courses to alternate uses will only grow. Where courses turn operational losses, the pressure will be just that much greater. And given the fact that Hispanics, a demographic slow to embrace the game before the “perfect storm,” continue to represent a larger share of the Southern California population with each passing year, anything and everything that the industry does in efforts to “grow the game” must necessarily be conducted within the confines of these unkind realities.
Does this mean that we have to lower our expectations or throw in the towel on extending the game’s reach to all sectors of American society? Absolutely not! But it does mean that we can’t expect to make any measurable progress until we begin to distinguish between those factors that are within our capacity to affect and those things that are completely beyond our capacity to control.
We can’t do much to arrest the widening gaps in income and wealth, but we can do much to begin organizing, delivering, packaging and marketing the game in ways that get beyond “happy talk” and image projection. In other words, begin to recognize that we don’t just have an image problem; we have a substance problem – one that cannot be handled by parsing the flawed premises of critics or pretending that we can disengage without consequence. We have to take the arguments of our critics seriously and recognize that within those arguments they have signaled what we likely need to do in order to blunt their attacks.
The Landscape Architecture Magazine story contains a bevy of such “signals,” among them, the following examples.
The Sligo Creek Municipal Golf Course in Suburban Washington DC (Maryland) countered a move to close its doors by allying with a local environmental group to create a wildlife habitat within its environs, reinstating a First Tee program for local minority youth, and establishing a program for wounded veterans. Reinventing itself as more of a multipurpose park than a mere golf course, Sligo Park blunted public criticisms of “elitism,” and soon calls for use conversion were all but silenced.
Houston’s municipal golf courses have used proceeds of their enterprise funds to create and improve hiking and running trails that now ring them. Seattle has followed suit with the construction of perimeter trails and nature interpretive centers, while public golf courses throughout Minnesota are lending their properties to urban cross country skiing trails in winter. Perhaps, the most comprehensive example of the conflation of golf courses with greater community values is Cleveland’s Washington Golf Course, which sports the First Tee of Cleveland, an Audubon Society Gold Signature Sanctuary designation, a partnership with the School District to provide vocational training, and a partnership with the Washington Park Horticultural Center to provide high school students with introduction to the disciplines of turf management, landscape mechanics and floral design.
Who knows? Maybe by bringing so many non-golfers, particularly young non-golfers, to these golf courses for reasons having nothing to do with golf, these courses may accomplish more for “growth of the game” than the many programs the game’s traditional organizations have been sponsoring so ubiquitously in recent years.
Those kinds of initiatives may be solid blueprints for blunting conversion attacks and better positioning the game in the general public mind, but they won’t be able to alter the fundamental problem represented by the confluence of rising costs and declining incomes/net worth. However, serious discussion has already begun on the subject. Jack Nicklaus has proposed the consideration of 12-hole golf courses. Golf course architects are redesigning courses to provide for radically decreased water and energy consumption; and thus radically decreased costs and greens fees. Superintendents are discovering the utility of setting up courses for faster play and managing them for lower maintenance costs. The PGA of America is actively promoting the “Tee it Forward” program in an effort to make the game more enjoyable for recreational golfers and speed up play, not to mention to begin to create a culture more tolerant of shorter and thus less expensive to maintain golf courses.
The SCGA has a great motto – “Your passion, our purpose.” Given today’s difficult and in many ways unprecedented challenges, that “purpose” necessarily extends to more than the core purposes of yesterday; it extends to the tough challenges posed by the American Society of Landscape Architects and the Pew Research Group as well.
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