Golf's Golden Age In A Time Of Trouble
It is the best of times for golf. It is the worst of times for golf.
As the best players in the world sloshed through torrential rains this weekend at the PGA Championship, the case could be made that “the good walk spoiled” is the most compelling of the major sports at this moment. Coming off a once-in-a-lifetime final-round duel between Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson at the Open Championship at Troon, golf has a stable of charismatic, telegenic players in contention each week.
After Stenson’s stunning win over Mickelson (the pair finished several furlongs ahead of the rest of the pack in Scotland), he was back again this week at Baltusrol, dueling with Jason Day, arguably the 2016 player of the year, for the final major title of the season. Around and behind them was a second tier of players such as Jimmy Walker, Patrick Reed, Brooks Koepka and Branden Grace.
Previous golf generations had Big Twos or Big Threes at the top of the sport. Palmer, Nicklaus, Trevino, Watson, Casper. Then there was Tiger Woods’ reign of terror as he obliterated a generation of players with his brilliance,
Now it's a Top Ten. It would be hard to find a collection of characters more skilled or memorable than Day, Stenson, Mickelson, Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Bubba Watson and Ricky Fowler— the post-Tiger generation. In the past two years, each has seemed ready to become the defining successor to Woods— only to have been matched by another of the elite group.
So when he won four majors, McIlroy was going to be Tiger 2 (Nike certainly felt so when they gave him a Woods’ windfall to endorse their stuff). But suddenly, Jordan Spieth said, “Not going to happen.” The young Texan looked like he was the chosen one when he won the 2015 Masters and U.S. Open. But not sooner was the ink dry on the Spieth story than powerful Jason Day grabbed the No. 1 spot in the world.
As his second place at the PGA showed Day has not exactly faltered. But he’s been matched by the lanky Dustin Johnson who won the U.S. Open this summer in dominating fashion. Wayne Gretzky’s future son-in-law was suddenly the transcendent one. But no one asked Stenson if he was okay with that. His electrifying duel with Mickelson vaulted him to the top of the Hit Parade heading into the PGA.
And don’t forget the perennial lefty Mickelson who seemed destined to grab a final major before Stenson threw up a dazzling 63 at Troon to deny him. No other sport at the moment has such a trove of talent.
It’s a bonanza for the TV networks that follow the Tour. Day’s 375-yard drives. Johnson’s tetradactyl-like swing. Spieth’s intuitive short game. Stenson’s 3-wood stingers. Fowler’s colourful PUMA gear. And Mickelson’s indomitable short game. To say nothing of Bubba Watson, whose self-taught style moved writer Dan Jenkins to suggest that watching Bubba play is like watching a man try to quit smoking.
While ratings still don’t approach the halcyon days of Tiger on TV, they are healthy enough that FOX stole the U.S. Open from NBC and TNT is paying a bunch for the PGA.
On top of the player roster, the PGA Tour has found a way to extend its season into the fall. Where previous seasons effectively ended after the PGA in August, there is now the Ryder Cup/ Presidents Cup rotation and the FedEx Cup Tour finale each September. A global cast of stars has made the sport international in a way it was not even a decade ago. As a relieved Jimmy Walker said after outlasting Day and Stenson on Sunday, “It just shows how deep golf is.”
Now the bad news.
Golf as an industry is in a sorry state in many places that once embraced the game. The Tiger Woods effect on minorities never really materialized. Participation rates are down across the board. The sport has been characterized as an elite white sport by people with a political agenda. Millenials sniff at the hours it takes to play 18 holes.
The decision by many of the top young players on the Tour to forgo the Rio Olympics has left a sour taste in some people’s mouths. Seen as a slap by millionaire players at the Games re-instituting golf as a medal sport, it is a stark contrast to the Michael Jordans and Wayne Gretzkys who went to the Olympics when their sports finally got the green light.
Courses— elite courses— are being plowed under for real estate or other considerations. Symbolic is the decision to convert Jack Nicklaus’ Glen Abbey layout in Oakville, Ont., the many-times home of the Canadian Open, into real estate. In Vancouver, the iconic Shaughnessy course is being re-acquired by its native-band owners who will develop the land in other ways. In the U.S. more courses are closing than opening.
A soaring sport. A failing business. A strange recipe, but that’s where golf finds itself today.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy
Bruce's career is unmatched in Canada for its diversity and breadth of experience with successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author of seven books. He was a featured columnist for the Calgary Herald (1998-2009) and the Globe & Mail (2009-2013).