These are dark days for the sport of golf. Both the number of people playing the game and sales of golf-related merchandise are in freefall, while courses everywhere, even in golf-loving and retiree-packed Florida, are closing at record rates. Tiger Woods, the face of EA’s golf video game for 15 years, has fallen from cover status. With another 1,000 courses set to close over the next decade, we’re forced to ask if the decline in golf’s popularity, especially among young people, is actually a step in the right direction.
Golf is in rare company in its inaccessibility. Participation requires not only expensive equipment but rapidly-increasing greens fees and, for many, years of practice to become passable. (The other country club sport, tennis, is far more egalitarian and growing in popularity.) Long an exclusionary tool of the elite, golf is by definition a sport for those who both have the means to participate and the luxury of daytime hours to dedicate. It’s no surprise, then, that golf’s popularity has declined in a savage tango with the line of income disparity. As the duffers fall away, golf’s role purely as a signifier of wealth and power will, perhaps one day, render it as quaint and irrelevant as polo or yachting. The decrease in golf participants is only exacerbated by the fact there may have been too many golf courses in this country to begin with, as many were constructed as alternatives for minorities banned from courses that restricted membership to white Christian members until the 1980s. Augusta National, which hosts next week’s Masters tournament, didn’t admit its first black member until 1990, and excluded women until 2012. (Domestic abuse bungler Roger Goodell and slobbering bigot Lou Holtz are longtime members of the club.)
There are multiple reasons to to embrace golf’s decreasing popularity. It’s horrible environmentally, for one. A single golf course can use, on average, up to 88 million gallons of water per year. (Much of the American west and southwest is in a historic drought.) In some areas, as much as 25 percent of the local groundwater is consumed purely to give golfers ideal playing conditions. That’s before we even get into the land usage issues, which are year after year complicated by urban migration patterns in the United States; more Americans are moving, every year, to the places most densely packed with golf courses. But they’re clearly not moving there to hit the links.
I grew up fortunate enough to have hand-me-down clubs and to live in a rural area with a municipal course that charged $10 a round (a price that, in 2016, hasn’t changed) and an even cheaper par-3 course nearby. Golf where I live now, Tampa, is plentiful but expensive—both in terms of money and time. (Tampa’s municipal courses are so unpopular they lose money, resulting in a triple-threat of wasted tax dollars, wasted water resources, and wasted land.) Other local courses are staying afloat by allowing FootGolf competitors to share the course alongside the more traditional hackers.
FootGolf, like the older hybrid disc golf, is more accessible to average people than regular golf, and arguably just as fun. If golf’s decline clears the way for FootGolf’s success, then that’s another thing to applaud.