Much – and some might say ‘Too much’ – has already been said, written and, it is argued, clumsily undertaken on the future direction of men’s professional golf and Bunker Mentality has had its tuppence-worth, the received wisdom being that, as the big-money brokers battle it out for the often over-exaggerated riches masquerading as the crock-of-gold resting at the end of this particular rainbow, there can be little doubt that golf is in parlous – if not immediate danger – of eating itself alive.
But while professional golf’s commercial powerbrokers battle it out as to who owns – or at least controls – the commercial interests of the elite men’s game and whose vision will prevail potentially for a generation and more, there are multiple other challenges staring the game of golf in the face, equally, if not more of addressing than whose preferred format and distribution of vast wealth will come out on top after a bitter and unseemly civil war that shows no signs of abating, with outright victory or even a ceasefire between entrenched heavyweight combatants, principally the PGA TOUR and Greg Norman’s LIV Golf Investments seemingly a long way off.
Truly Testing Times
Drug testing and professional golf have never been comfortable bedfellows, with only Olympic admission dragging the leading tours – PGA, DP World, Asian and even the LPGA and LET – into any sort of semi-credible doping strategy and testing regime.
But, with the Summer Olympics rotating only on a four-year-cycle, professional golf comfortably, but cynically plays by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) drug testing rules for around 10 months out of 48, simply and solely to ensure the best players in the world can join the greatest show on earth.
For the rest of the quadrennial, the pro circuits slope back into the shadows, each and every one of them insisting routine and regular testing is carried out in accordance with World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) protocols, but what’s conspicuous in its absence is the evidence.
Unlike the Olympics, and other credible governing bodies such as cycling’s Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), and track-and-field’s World Athletics – ironically but hardly surprisingly the apparent enfants méchant of world sport, golf – including the USGA and the R&A – allow themselves to be shrouded in obfuscation, claiming – arguably with justification – that testing is carried out within the rules, whist failing to name and shame any miscreants testing positive and their sanction under the convenient cloak of personal and professional privacy.
Back in the day, former European Tour boss George O’Grady, when interviewed by Bunker Mentality on the thorny but unmentionable subject of performance enhancing drugs claimed – naively or conveniently was not clear at the time, “There is no such performance-enhancing drug that could possibly assist a player’s performance.”
But then, as now, there is clear evidence that, for example, there is a family of beta blockers that can calm a player over a crucial putt or settle their nerves going down the stretch when in contention come Sunday afternoon; similarly, an entire illicit sports-medicine industry has grown-up around strength and conditioning, artificially aiding power and distance and recovery from exertion or injury, and it is not clear that, 20-years-later, men’s professional golf has emerged from this state of denial, still preferring to believe the unbelievable and defend the indefensible.
One can – indeed must – be as confident as is possible that men’s professional golf is not rife with performance enhancing drugs and wholeheartedly believes Rory McIlroy’s somewhat perverse claim that he is, “Paranoid” about failing a drugs test, and the PGA TOUR has opened-up of late by announcing ‘journeymen’ players such as Brad Fritsch, Vijay Singh, Doug Barron, Bhavik Patel, Mark Hensby, Scott Stallings and Robert Garrigus had transgressed for unspecified offences, and handed little more than a slap on the wrist.
Meanwhile, marquee players such as Vijay Singh – he of the infamous deer antler supplement – and bad-boy Dustin Johnson had been dealt with in a chamber of smoke and mirrors, whilst rumours have haunted – without any evidence of proof – Tiger Woods throughout much of his stellar career.
As with most sports, cynical eyebrows are inevitably raised whenever an athlete of whatever discipline soars suddenly from zero to hero, and professional sport, with its massive financial bandwagon in tow has form in sticking its corporate head in the sand when iconic sportsmen such as Lance Armstrong, Carl Lewis and Marion Jones made it to retirement before the anti-doping axe fell.
Of course, golf club technology is rightly – if not entirely – credited – with the massive increase in distances professional players are now striking the increasingly aerodynamic golf ball, but, with a recent emphasis on muscle development, surely it is naïve to believe that not one single professional golfer has followed the route chosen by British sprinters, Russian Winter Olympians Chinese swimmers and an Irish Marathon runner?
At the very heart of the challenges facing professional golf – men’s and women’s and in all parts of the world – is the duplicitous status of the professional circuits, all member-owned organisations, acting not only as de facto trade unions representing the players who own and run them, but also as quasi governing bodies, responsible for administering the rules and regulations under which tournaments are staged and players are regulated, the issue of discipline and clear and obvious conflict of interests which rears its head all too often.
But, with decades of custom and practice well-established in both the men’s and women’s pro games, don’t expect any clarification, let alone change any time soon.
Transgender sport is amongst the most sensitive and controversial of issues facing most sports and most major events such as the Olympic Games, World Championships and golf is no different, yet, given the prospect of a male-to-female transition could create huge implications for the women’s game.
Scottish transgender golfer Hailey Davidson won a National Women’s Golf Association mini-tour event in Florida last year, a first for trans woman golf, and has now announced her ambition of being the first trans women to earn an LPGA tour card, following in the footsteps of Mianne Bagger qualifying for the Ladies European Tour and Lana Lawless and Bobbi Lancaster bidding to earn an LPGA Tour card.
Transgender sport is one of the most delicate and contentious issues coming down the track, and golf is not immune from it. Yet, other than the IOC’s controversial guidance issues earlier this year, trans golf could well be a matter set to blow-up in the months and years ahead. The quicker the IGF, the R&A and the USGA address the matter, the better it will be for all concerned.
Going the Distance
Many observers of golf say distance control is one of the greatest challenges facing the game, as players, such as Bryson DeChambeau beef-up and routinely drive the ball 350-yards off the tee.
Meanwhile, golf course architects now design new courses to challenge the biggest hitters, whilst traditional, iconic layouts like the Old Course, St Andrews, host to the 150th Open Championship, and August National, home of The Masters shoehorn extra yardage wherever possible in order to remain both relevant and challenging.
Of course, technology will continue to dominate golf as manufacturers apply the appliance of science, and the R&A’s 102-page Distance Insights Report published in February 2020 is a necessary and worthy piece of work which attempts to keep the genie in the bottle, surely something, most probably around golf ball technology needs to be established and phased in if a worrying number of some of the finest golf courses in the world are not to be rendered redundant.
Inherently, within the game of golf, while the name of the game is clearly winning, taking part is also a key component of participating in one of the most unique and equality-assured sports on offer, the ingenious – and at times infuriating – handicap system lying at the root of the baked-in equality, where, in theory at least, a 24-handicap player can take part, and compete, against a scratch or low-handicap golfer.
And the recently revised World Handicapping System, devised following much consultation and deliberation by the R&A and the USGA should ensure that the amateur, recreational end of the game remains relevant, understandable and foolproof, ensuring that competition between friends and fellow golfers can remain a source of great enjoyment in the years ahead, largely irrespective of golfing ability.
However, step up a rung or two into the elite end of the game, and equality is much more of a mixed bag.
For sure, in the upper echelons of the amateur – as opposed to recreational – end of the game, recent relaxations in the level of modest benefits those who play golf for fun, as opposed to for a living, can enjoy not only add to the entertainment and enjoyment associated with playing the royal and ancient game; being able to hold onto a prize, such as a car or an expenses-paid golfing break for a hole-in-one adds greatly to the amateur game and removes many of the more ludicrous restrictions which date back more to the days when golf was defined by whether you were a lady or a gentleman than a professional or amateur.
But, stop right there.
In so many other ways, inequality runs through professional golf like the veins in a ripe blue cheese; so-called, ’marquee names,’ la crème de la crème on the men’s and women’s pro circuits enjoy untold benefits over and above their journeymen and journey-women fellow-professionals, from ‘appearance fees,’ said to be upwards of US$2.5m in the case of Tiger Woods, simply to turn-up and play to first-class subsidised travel, increasingly even private jets laid-on for family and friends, right down to even providing mild professional advantage including beneficial tee-times, all part of the contrast in the way top stars and their more modest cousins are treated by all ends of the game, officials, media and sponsors alike.
Having worked extensively in Asia, one of Bunker Mentality’s biggest bugbears has long been – and it will not end even with the so-called support of Greg Norman’s Saudi Super League – when leading US or American stars, PGA TOUR or DP World Tour members being induced to play out east with a handsome ‘bung’ regularly far in excess of the entire prize fund for the rank-and-file Asian Tour members.
And, despite some closing of the gap at the very top of the women’s game – both the USGA and the R&A have invested heavily in their respective women’s open championships – there remains a vast, inherent and ingrained disparity in men’s and women’s professional prize funds, and, nope, folks, that ain’t gonna change any time soon.
Multi Media & Tournament Tedium
For many, even fans of the game and those responsible for promoting golf at the professional level, it can sometimes all be a bit of a bore; all too often, the excitement, the drama, the jeopardy all boil down to and hour-and-a-bit on Sunday afternoon, live UK TV audiences for Thursdays and Fridays at some run-of-the-mill DP World Tour events are said be counted in the hundreds, worldwide viewership in the low-to-mid thousands as the phony war of making the cut and playing for cash come the weekend unfolds.
The biggest test for pro tour administrators is to find innovative ways of better-formatting elements of the game; of course, there is nothing – but nothing – to beat the 72-hole strokeplay of The Open Championship, The Masters or the women’s and men’s US Open Championships, but – harking back in history – could the USPGA – and surely the Olympic golf tournament revert to a match play / knockout format.
Other inventive options, such as mixed events, day / night tournaments and pro-celebrity, reality-based options need urgently to be considered before, suffocated by a blanket of 72-hole strokeplay monotony, mid-to-long-term, golf as a vibrant sports entertainment opportunity withers on the vine.
In 2020, the R&A, which is thankfully and increasingly looking into and reporting on some of the more esoteric – but equally important – elements of the game they largely oversee, found that the average age of the typical regular recreational golfer was 41-years-old, a fall of almost five-years since its previous Golf Participation Report, with its recent post-pandemic update revealing things are almost back to where they were before Covid struck.
Other key data included an assessment that the majority of players new to the game were aged under 55-years-old, that 25% of female golfers were new to the sport, that driving range use had almost doubled, from 2.3 million to 4.3 million, and that golfers who only used Par 3 courses had more than doubled, with those who only played on Pitch and Putt courses increasing more than threefold.
All of which is, superficially at least, good news for golf, but, drill down through the headline-grabbing positive toplines and there is much to worry about, especially when it comes to the widening gap between those elderly players who either cease playing or die off and the next generation of pre-teens and youngsters who replace them at clubs and courses around the world.
Golf retains, especially in the eyes of the Millennial Generation (born 1981 – 1986) and Generation Z (born 1997 – 2012), and the emerging NextGen (born after 2013 and now a potential target for golf), the stereotype of an older person’s pursuit, and, while the image of tweed trousers, intarsia jumpers and stout shoes is long since gone, young people in general and teenagers in particular still view the game with suspicion, expensive, time-consuming and over-regulated with rules the top three negative values attributed to it.
Meanwhile, adding further danger on top of existing trouble, the triple whammy of the 2008 financial crash, the 2020 / 21 pandemic and now the well-established and growing cost-of-living crisis, sport in general, and golf in particular – which is unduly compromised by both high start-up expenses and participation costs – find themselves at something of a crossroads and potentially in a highly parlous state.
For at least the first 250-years of its life, golf – played across swathes of verdant and manicured countryside – is as green, or as environmentally-friendly as it is possible to get.
How wrong they were.
And, in the past decade, golf has increasingly recognised – and acted – over what has transpired to have been a quite appalling environmental track record, chemical fertilisers, excessive energy use, unsustainable water consumption, active and passive wildlife persecution – largely unhindered deforestation, hundreds of new developments swallowing up acres of often prime agricultural land to help third world economies cash-in on the multi-million-dollar international golf tourism industry capable of transforming the economies of countries and regions, not to mention avaricious developers.
But even in the case of sustainable golf, the game is divided, carious agencies and organisations, from the R&A to Sustainable Golf / the Golf Environment Organisation, Audubon International, the United Nations Environment Organisation (UNEP) all both contributing – and often competing and duplicating – in sincere but all-too-often piecemeal and limited initiatives to make golf look as green as its image.
The dominant body, Sustainable Golf / Golf Environment Organisation boasts almost a thousand courses engaged in its two-tier certification programme – ‘Certified’ and ‘On Course,’ yet, with the R&A estimating in its 2021 ‘Golf Around the World’ survey there exists some 38,864 golf courses in 209 countries worldwide, the immense scale of golf’s environmental challenge becomes clear.
The International Golf Tourism Organisation (IAGTO) estimates global golf tourism to be worth around US$30m annually, generated from 60m-plus overseas golf vacations, and, given that these are primarily accessed through medium and long haul air travel, the carbon footprint of the sector is immense, hence responsible golfers must – at least in the short term until mitigations such as electric aeroplanes are rolled out to scale – consider limiting themselves to golf breaks closer to home, good news for more accessible courses, and for the planet!
The game of golf faces multiple challenges in its own right, and a failure to address and resolve these could have consequences far beyond the somewhat narrow and abstract argument as to who controls the multi-million-dollar purse strings of the professional game.