Laurence Pithie of Turf Master One says that introducing a larger hole size on ‘entry level’ 9-hole or short-hole courses would make the game less difficult, faster and more fun to play as well as bringing lower operating costs and both maintenance and environmental benefits
There appears to be no shortage of data from recent surveys to note that the popularity of golf is in decline, at least in some quarters. As well as a 12% fall in membership numbers since 2007, one of the more recent surveys indicates that the average age of golfers who play golf at least once a week is now 63. For those in or nearing retirement, the game generally remains popular but for others, especially those in the 25 to 45 age bracket, it is less so. The most popular reasons cited for this shortfall and apparent decline is as follows;
- Golf is too expensive compared to many other sports and pastimes.
- It takes too long to play, with rounds at many courses taking 5 hours or even longer. Those in the 25 to 45 age bracket don’t have the time to spend much of the day on the golf course.
- It can be a difficult game to master for many.
- Not all clubs/courses have a friendly relaxed atmosphere, especially regarding dress code.
- It can become too serious and not enough fun.
- It is sometimes viewed as being an elitist sport in many countries, taking up too much land
In recent years, other variations of the game or innovations have been introduced such as power golf, adventure golf, foot golf and ‘tee it forward’, while clubs have offered varying types of membership schemes in an effort to attract or retain members who play less frequently. However, few if any of these schemes address the key issues listed above, while participation numbers continue to fall or at best remain level.
Perhaps a key indicator of golf’s popularity was realised when Rory McIlroy was beaten into second place at last month’s BBC Sports Personality of The Year and by some margin; this in spite of a spectacular year of tournament victories and being the best British golfer by far this century. Even Rory himself stated that golf takes too long and that the game needs speeded up. Very true, but let’s take a look at what is currently happening in the world of golf.
Golf courses measuring 7000 yards plus continue to be built and at considerable cost, even in countries such as Estonia and Bulgaria where this is hardly the type of product to entice new golfers. ‘Build it and they will come’ used to be the motto. Take 5 hours to play, shoot over 100 and lose several balls during the round is the reality for most, if not being accomplished golfers. The fact that a round at these new ‘championship’ courses will be well in excess of £100 will only attract a minority of good gofers who can afford such fees. Is this really a sustainable option or just a development opportunity to sell adjacent housing? Relying solely on golf tourism alone is not a viable option either. There are countless examples throughout Europe and a few nearer to home where these type of venues have not been successful or have addressed any of one of the key concerns listed above.
So what should we be doing if we are to attract more golfers, young and old, male and female? Well first we need to recognise that golf is not as popular as it once was and there needs to be a viable alternative that overcomes these key concerns. For some this may sound like a radical change but to date, few if any ideas have led to an increase in popularity. Making golf more fun, more affordable and taking up less time to play has to be the key objectives. As well as producing shorter courses, a relatively simple option and one that has been mentioned in the past is to increase the size of the golf hole to around 8 inches (200mm).
This idea is not aimed at replacing the existing hole size on established full length courses, but it could be introduced on ‘entry level’ 9-hole or short-hole courses. Interestingly, the size of the golf hole at 4.25 inches was only determined by the R & A in 1894; over 30 years after the first Open Championship was contested on Prestwick links. Prior to then, holes were of no pre-determined size and could even vary within the same course.
So why the increase in hole size and how would this meet the objectives listed above? Well even back in 1933, the legendary Gene Sarazen commented ‘The game is too tame. If we had more one-putt greens, the game would be more interesting to watch and play’. By introducing a larger hole size, the following benefits would be gained;
Making the game less difficult
- Less emphasis on putting and more on general play
- More likely to ‘chip’ or putt-in from the edge of the green
- More single putts
- Less likely to 3 putt
- Downhill putts less intimidating
- Less time spent putting on the greens
- A 3 foot putt becomes a ‘gimme’
- A saving of 2 to 3 mins per green, per fourball = 18 to 27 mins per 9 holes
- Faster play equates to potentially more golfers per day
- More golfers = increased revenue
- Less putts will lead to fewer issues with greens quality & performance
More Fun to Play
- Greater opportunity to hole-out from ‘off the green’
- Less emphasis on putting, more on general play
- Holing longer putts adds more excitement
- Faster play leads to greater all round enjoyment
Maintenance Benefits & lower operating costs
- HOC can be increased to 6mm
- More options of grass species with higher HOC
- Less turf stress = lower inputs & healthier turf
- Reduced need for water, fertilisers & chemicals
- Less risk of thatch, disease, dry patch, moss, algae, nematodes & so on
- Reduced need in hole changing frequency
- Lower requirement for cultural practices, therefore possible savings in some equipment
- Lower level of maintenance = lower labour requirement = lower costs
- Lower inputs of water, fertilisers and especially chemicals = greater sustainability
- Lower fuel requirements due to lower mechanical inputs
- Lower amounts of sand dressings required
- Ability to develop grasses with lower input requirements
Existing 9-hole or short courses can easily be adapted since it is only the hole-size, cups and hole-changer that would need to be purchased and introduced. Through time and once proven to be successful, then changes in grass species and subsequent turf management would be introduced, resulting in lower inputs and reduced operating costs.
For newly constructed short courses, green sizes can be reduced to between 400 and 450m2 which is a 20 to 25% reduction in size. There would be less need to construct greens to a USGA specification and instead using a good ‘tee’ specification will suffice as long as it is adequately drained. This too would result in lower development costs.
Grass seed selection can be a mix of harder wearing, but fine leaved Rye with Creeping Red Fescue and perhaps Colonial Bent added since mowing height would be 6mm; this HOC akin to the front approaches and collars of our open championship venues which provide adequate putting surfaces. There would be less need for regular watering; therefore a non-automatic system could suffice in order to further reduce construction costs.
With greater use of grass hollows and contours around and in front of the greens, bunkering would be minimal and the more traditional ‘running’ game encouraged. This would eliminate traffic issues around the greens which lead to increased wear. With less emphasis on putting green performance, especially green speed, maintenance requirements would be more in line with that of tees, therefore less disruption to play and less cost.
Although a larger diameter hole is a very simple solution to implement, it is not one to replace the great traditions of this Royal & Ancient game. It can however offer a viable and additional option in alleviating at least some of the key issues affecting our game, whereby golf can be both quicker and fun to play. With lower operating costs, at least some of the savings can be used to provide more affordable golf and one that is more financially viable and environmentally sustainable.
We just need to be more open minded in regard to ideas that can stimulate interest and encourage more people to take up golf. Perhaps with the support of some of the leading tournament golfers as well as the governing bodies of the game of golf and the environment, this idea can act as a catalyst for change.
Laurence Pithie of Turf Master One Ltd can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org
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Courses like this are too expensive and difficult to play resulting in 5 hour rounds
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Shorter and more affordable courses will encourage newer and more golfers
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Larger golf holes appear to have been used in the past
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Putting on the Himalaya putting green at St Andrews is highly popular and enjoyable without the need for a low mowing height of cut
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With a larger cut hole, there is a good opportunity that putts from the surrounding collars can be holed