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Royal and ancient game of golf has far to go before it's fun and cool for the kids

After Graeme McDowell said that golf needed to be sexier, Paul Hopkins looks at the sport which is still tagged as elitist by many observers

Published 05/09/2016

Graeme McDowell wants his sport to become cool
Graeme McDowell wants his sport to become cool

One day back in the 1970s my father came home from his work as a civil servant. He had a face on him, as my mother would say. "What's up now?" she inquired. "Paddy What's-it next door. Who on God's earth does he think he is? Isn't he only after goin' and taken up golf…"

"And, your point being?" intoned my mother.

"My point being, he's a docker! What's he doing joining some fancy golf club, gettin' above his station…"

My late father would no doubt, decades on, have been at one with our own Graeme McDowell who this week took a swing at the sport, which has made him a multi-millionaire, by saying it must become less elitist and sexier.

McDowell (37) was speaking after Nike - which sponsors Rory McIlroy - confirmed they would cease making golf equipment, as the majority who buy into their extensive range of leisure wear, its trainers and tracksuits and hoodies, don't buy into golf - the majority being young. G-Mac concurs. "We need to get the young people involved, we need to really take the elitism away from the sport," he told this paper at the weekend.

"You see a company like Nike pulling the plug on their golf equipment and you ask yourself, 'What is going on out there'?"

Alluding to McIlroy, and perhaps to Stephanie Meadow who at 24 is on the American pro circuit and Cavan's Leona Maguire who at 21 is ranked 1st in the world on the women's World Amateur Golf Ranking, he conceded: "I think we are lucky, we have got some young, cool, up-and-coming golfers that are really great role models for the sport and we have just got to believe that the sport is great, it has got great traditions, but we've also got to be innovators.

"We have to make it cooler, funner and wear shorts and play music and have a faster version of the game."

I think it's fair to say that golf clubs for many, many years have been perceived as being surrounded by an air of exclusivity and privilege. Bastions of the sort of snobbery that in some quarters still takes offence at the manners of new money.

Or perhaps it is as simple as this: golf courses are expensive to build and maintain - ergo, it is expensive to play. People think it elitist because it costs hundreds of pounds to play the top courses and to own the branded, top equipment.

Playing golf has fallen dramatically in the last decade. Last year in the US around 25m people played the game, 18% fewer than did so the previous year.

Emerald courses have not been the source of riches many anticipated as there are simply too many of them. While professional golf remains healthy, on average one in 100 courses is closing annually in America and the UK, according to the National Golf Foundation, with sellers of golf clothing and equipment seeing sales squeezed.

To some extent, golf's appeal has become its undoing. Its calm, meditative quality does not suit the frenetic pace of modern life. Playing 18 holes can take up to five hours, not to mention the 19th hole.

Golf is a hard sport to master. And it has been getting harder.

During the 1990s and early 2000s professional golfers were getting better and innovations in equipment enabled them to hit balls farther so developers competed against each other to build more challenging, longer courses, full of hazards. But the longer, harder courses became more challenging and time-consuming for the average player.

Golf's ranks were expected to swell when baby-boomers retired, but many of them have found the arduous courses just too much hard work.

However, a major UK survey shows that in the last year the drop may finally have hit a plateau. Sports Marketing Surveys (SMS) found that the number of rounds played in the UK actually rose by 3.5% from 2014 to 2015. Research also indicates that 44% of clubs are now stable or are increasing their membership numbers.

But does the game cater for every single member of society, young or old, male or female, Black or white?

Any man with modest skill at the game can simply pay his green fee and be allowed to play. But, in clubs in Ireland and Great Britain still, women are "considered unsuitable to play" on the hallowed ground unless accompanied by a man.

All-male golf clubs is not a huge issue with me - or many men, for that matter.

If the law was changed to outlaw single-sex clubs it would preclude women from having their own clubs and associations. And there are times when women need to be protected from the male species and be left in peace and to their own devices.

What is objectionable is that golf clubs that are men-only occupy prime sporting sites - usually up to 250 acres - to which women have no access. It simply is not possible for women in many parts of these islands to conjure up a similar piece of land for their own course and club.

In the US, in particular, golf has been very clearly identified as the elite sport since the 1920s at least.

It was only a couple of years back that Augusta National first permitted two women to become members, one being former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, following concerted pressure.

When Tiger Woods was 14 he was acutely aware of the racist undertones that lingered in country clubs across the United States.

Woods ever since may have challenged golf's outdated perceptions of race but 27 years on there remains a worrying shortage of non-white amateurs playing the game there, or in this neck of the woods.

"I can always feel it, I can always sense it," said Woods. "People staring at you and thinking, 'You shouldn't be here'."

It is a sentiment mirrored in figures from Sport England, which reveal that only 2% of a total 850,500 people who play on a weekly basis are non-white. It is a telling statistic and falls significantly below the equivalent figures in football, rugby union, cricket and tennis.

Remember, it’s not that long since Tiger Woods’s former caddie Steve Williams in 2011 alleged remarks that he would “like to shove it up that black a&*%h**e” have cast shadows over the game.

In my straw poll since G-Mac’s comments broke, there’s a consensus that there are certain things one must put up with on a golf course to appease the elitist status quo. Although it is possible to bite your tongue while getting barracked for walking into the clubhouse with a shirt untucked or having the temerity to wear a cap indoors, ignoring the game’s failure to embrace all demographics across society is harder to fathom.

Thankfully, the less elite classes still love a good Par 3 or pitch ’n’ putt. It just requires too much investment, and time, to become good.

In the end golf, as the wit quipped, is a lot of walking, broken up by disappointment and bad arithmetic …

Belfast Telegraph

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