Bare Feet, Beer and Heavy Metal Bangers. Golf Chills Out and Gets Cool.
Golf is one of the world’s oldest sports, with treasured traditions honed across several centuries. But increasingly over the last decade, many people have come to see golf as just plain old. And not in a good way.
The number of devoted recreational golfers in the United States has hovered at about 25 million, but the cohort is aging and more than 1,600 American golf courses closed in the 2010s. In 2004, and over the next 14 consecutive years, participation on courses waned.
These days, however, a fresh breeze is billowing through golf’s fusty clubhouse. It is not a stretch to call this movement the new golf. And new golf just might save old golf from itself.
It has helped power three successive years of participation growth that has reshaped the demographics of junior recreational golfers, who are now twice as likely to be female and four times as likely not to be white.
New golf has led to radically revised six- or 12-hole courses that reduce costs, land use and the time it takes to play a round. It has fostered a host of off-course experiences, including bustling entertainment venues that mix the vibe of a driving range and a sports bar, attracting a clientele with an average age of 31. It has meant golf courses with built-in sound systems playing music and with rounds in which no one keeps score — or cares to. Most conspicuously, in a sport in which 75 percent of the rounds are played on public golf courses, old-school protocol has been relaxed to stimulate a spirit of inclusion.
On a sunny evening this spring in northern Florida, Mike Miles, a 59-year-old former PGA Tour player who helped convert a failing conventional golf course into a quirky 12-hole public golf playground called The Yards, gazed out his window and noticed a young man on the first tee in bare feet.
“I’m thrilled to see him,” a smiling Miles said of the golfer, who was in his 20s and beginning a three-hole round known as the beer loop because it starts and ends next to the clubhouse bar. “We have to make golf not so serious.”
Top players agree.
“Whatever they want to do, they’re playing golf and that’s great,” said Jordan Spieth, who is 27 and has won three major championships. “I’ve got friends from high school and college, and they don’t keep their scores. They’re just going out to play music and have a few beers. They love it.”
Though such change might have been viewed as a threat to traditional golf 10 years ago, the sport’s leaders have now embraced relaxation.
“Offering more flavors of golf is tapping into evolutional demands,” Joe Beditz, the longtime president and chief executive of the National Golf Foundation, said. “It suits the predominant culture and is good for the game.”
Ashleigh McLaughlin, a former college golfer, is an executive with Youth on Course, a program that has subsidized more than one million rounds, bringing prices down to $5 or less. She said that conventional golf was being expanded, not replaced.
“Like most corners of the world, golf has had this kind of awakening when it relates to diversity and inclusion,” said McLaughlin, who is Black. “People can play golf in traditional ways, but there’s other ways to enjoy the game, whether you play barefoot, play music and don’t wear a polo shirt. There’s no judgment for that within the golf space.”
Like all uprisings, the sport’s mini-rebellion had a birthplace: Northern Virginia, where a golf entertainment company named Topgolf made its American debut in 2005. It has since swelled to 64 locations, the majority in or near urban areas. Topgolf facilities, which average more than 20 million customers annually, have the feel of a 1950s-style bowling alley set in a 21st century science fiction film.
While a Topgolf complex resembles a routine golf driving range, albeit one with multiple floors, it is meant to be a social experience. The goal is playful competition at each oversize driving bay, where a wait staff keeps customers plied with food and drink. Players choose from a full set of clubs to aim at targets of varying distances — from 50 to 250 yards — and sensors read a microchip embedded in each golf ball. Points are awarded according to how close the balls come to the targets and are displayed on large touch-screen monitors in each bay.
Laughter, not the imposing silence at a typical golf tee, is the prevalent soundtrack.
The secret to Topgolf’s booming popularity is a come-as-you-are atmosphere that has attracted people who don’t play the traditional game. Industry leaders once spurned Topgolf as “not real golf.” They now realize that Topgolf found a way to capitalize on a latent interest in the sport. (Television ratings for golf tournaments have been strong for decades even as it was understood that a large portion of the viewing audience did not play.)
“Topgolf took the friction out of the entry to golf and made it easy for people to satisfy their interest in the game without making a big investment,” said David Pillsbury, chief executive of ClubCorp, which owns or operates more than 200 golf clubs.
Pillsbury and his brethren in the golf community now view every Topgolf as a recruiting outpost, because industry studies have shown that a substantial number of first-time golfers got their start at a Topgolf or one of its many competitors, like Drive Shack, Big Shots and indoor simulators. The growing customer base at such sites is nearly 13 million and 45 percent female, according to the National Golf Foundation, and is increasingly drawn from more diverse and urban neighborhoods.
Next year, Topgolf, which recently merged with Callaway for $2 billion, will take a symbolically important step when it opens its first facility in partnership with an established, if flagging, nine-hole municipally owned golf course west of Los Angeles.
The course, in the coastal city of El Segundo, Calif., has been redesigned, and floodlights will be added for nighttime play. The property may become a model that proves that a modern golf entertainment venue can convert its customers into green-grass players.
The innovative spirit of the El Segundo project reflects a nationwide yearning for places to play that are unlike the stereotypical country club.
At Quicksands, a par-3 course positioned atop a stretch of sand dunes in Central Washington, the music of Metallica emanating from widely scattered speakers hints that a round will not follow tradition.
So might the advice that using a putter off the tee is the best option for the longest of Quicksands’s holes, which drops steeply downhill for 180 yards from tee to green. The entire layout, linked to the 18-hole Gamble Sands resort, can be traversed in 90 minutes with only a few clubs in hand.
A sign near the entrance sums up the vibe: Imagination on display.
Even Tiger Woods, sidelined by serious injuries sustained in a February car crash, is in on the alternative golf boom. He has become the co-owner of an expanding, technologically advanced chain of mini-golf courses. Each of Woods’s Popstroke putting courses, with multiple holes that incorporate bunkers and rough, offers food, craft beer, wine and ice cream that can be delivered to participants during play. There are two venues currently open in Florida, and this month Woods announced that his company would develop seven more courses, including sites in Texas and Arizona.
If Woods is the headliner in the experimentation category now overtaking recreational golf, Rob Collins, once a relative nobody, might now be the guru of the movement.
Seven years ago, Collins emptied his bank account to build an architecturally distinctive nine-hole course in eastern Tennessee, which was no one’s idea of a golf mecca. Collins did not have the money to build a clubhouse for his new course, called Sweetens Cove. Nor could he afford a bathroom. A portable toilet and a 20-foot-by-10-foot aluminum shed greeted golfers on opening day in 2014.
Business was slow, but another phenomenon — social media — helped spread the word of Sweetens Cove’s eccentric charm, which is a mix of playability and winsome challenges for golfers of all abilities. Influential golf websites like The Fried Egg and the popular Twitter account No Laying Up raved about Sweetens Cove’s unconventional allure and minimalist approach.
A cult attraction was born, as golfers from around the world happily made the pilgrimage into the Tennessee countryside 30 miles west of Chattanooga. Soon, Sweetens Cove was ranked among the top new American golf courses.
In March, when Sweetens Cove opened its online booking system for this year, it took 31 minutes for every available tee time Thursdays through Sundays from April 1 to Oct. 31 to sell out.
“We’ve become an international golf destination without the benefit of food and beverage, lodging or indoor plumbing,” Collins, 46, said with a laugh in May. “Led by younger generations, golf is refocusing. They crave compelling golf, and old assumptions about location, length and the configuration of the golf holes no longer apply.”
Collins and his design partner, Tad King, have become hot commodities with a slew of projects completed and planned.
“In those dark days around 2016, I never would’ve guessed that would happen,” Collins said. “But here we are.”
Buttressing the new golf movement has been a surge in the number of junior golfers who are flocking to restyled instruction programs. About 34 percent of junior golfers are now girls, compared with only 15 percent in 2000.
Jennifer Bermingham heads a step-by-step junior academy program called Crush It, which has been established at nearly 120 Club Corp courses from Virginia to California. Though the instruction is for boys and girls, Bermingham has girls learn in female-only groups.
“Girls like to work together and become friends and want to have a social element to the game and to practice,” said Bermingham, who is a certified P.G.A. and L.P.G.A. instructor. “There are always exceptions, but boys like to compete with each other and want to see who’s the winner. There’s a mentality that is just slightly different.”
New programs like Crush It have bolstered longstanding ones like The First Tee and Girls Golf, a partnership of the L.P.G.A. Foundation and the United States Golf Association that has taught the game to millions of young golfers in more than 2,000 locations.
According to data compiled last year by the National Golf Foundation, more than 25 percent of junior golfers are nonwhite, whereas just 6 percent of young golfers 21 years ago were.
Golf’s cultural revolution can be seen in every facet of the game, perhaps most noticeably in the relaxing of dress codes. Once demanding collared shirts, women’s skirts of a certain length and no hats turned backward, golf is chilling out.
Rules are being rewritten around the nation, most especially at the public courses that make up three-fourths of the sport’s inventory. To be sure, not every country club has altered its restrictions, but in many cases, only denim pants and tank tops are prohibited.
“Having to tuck in your shirt or turn your hat forwards, those things have to go away,” said Laura Scrivner, general manager of the Capital Canyon Club in Prescott, Ariz., which is operated by Troon, a worldwide golf management company. “There has to be a lighter touch now.”
Scrivner is particularly dedicated to rethinking golf’s protocols — she once ran a golf tournament called “Meet, Greet and Cheat,” which encouraged players to break every golf rule — and she has not let convention stand in the way at Capital Canyon, which is private.
JP Sipla, a 44-year-old member, is one of those golfers who plays his rounds barefoot. He calls himself a golf purist and plays to an enviable seven handicap, but his first question before joining Capital Canyon was whether he would be forced to wear shoes.
Assured there were no footwear regulations, he found himself on the club’s first tee not long afterward.
“There might have been someone cracking a joke about being barefoot, but it was lighthearted,” Sipla said in a telephone interview. “I’ve been here about a year now. Everyone knows me and they lovingly call me ‘Barefoot.’”
One of Sipla’s fellow members, Dave Dove, who is 89 and was introduced to golf by his father in the 1940s, welcomes the change he has seen in the game he still plays three times a week.
“You don’t want everybody to look the same and act the same,” Dove said. “That’s not what life is like. A golf course is a big place, there’s plenty of room for everybody. We’re just out there to have a good time.”
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