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Game Changers September 30, 2020 By Hunki Yun, USGA

Rapidly expanding cities present challenges and alternative options to grow the game. (Illustration: Harry Campbell)

The following content was first published in USGA’s Golf Journal. Golf Journal is the USGA’s Members-only quarterly print and monthly digital publication.

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Like a lot of other greats of the game, Lee Trevino owes the trajectory of his life to geographic happenstance. He grew up next to the seventh fairway of Glen Lakes Country Club in Dallas, Texas, where he scavenged for balls, caddied, later worked on the grounds crew, and no doubt played whenever he could.

For nearly the entire history of golf, this kind of proximity and access were the norm. In Scotland, courses developed in population centers and the game was woven into the geographical and cultural fabric of residents’ lives. Think of eponymous links such as St. Andrews, Prestwick and North Berwick, where golf was as much a birthright as the air they breathed.

Players such as Young Tom Morris, Bob Jones, Mickey Wright, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods all grew up within a flagstick’s shadow of a course. Like Trevino, many of the game’s greats didn’t have to find golf. It found them.

This access was hardly accidental. In many ways, the growth of golf has mirrored larger demographic trends, especially in the U.S. When northern cities thrived in the early 1900s, so did private clubs and municipalities that provided recreational opportunities for the prospering population. When transportation advances dispersed density away from city cores, courses followed. As the U.S. population shifted west and south, so did golf.

We are undergoing another demographic shift – the rapid urbanization of the world’s population. Currently, 55 percent of the world’s population lives in urban areas. By 2050 that percentage is expected to rise to nearly 70 percent. Even in the United States, where more than 75 percent of people already live in metropolitan areas, the urban population is expected to increase by more than 10 percent over the next generation.

People are drawn to cities for economic opportunities – there is a strong correlation between wealth and urbanization. Big cities offer a lot of advantages, but access to golf isn’t among them. Currently, the 10 biggest metropolitan areas in the U.S. represent 26.4 percent of the population but are home to 15 percent of the courses in the country. What’s more, these areas are severely underrepresented by accessible facilities – just 55 percent of courses in the top 10 metro areas are public, compared with 75 percent nationwide. 

This imbalance is likely to grow worse. Dallas-Fort Worth is the fourth-largest metropolitan area in the U.S. If Lee Trevino were growing up in the same neighborhood today, it is likely golf would not be a part of his life. Glen Lakes is long gone, first bisected by a highway that facilitated the city’s growth, then sold off in parcels, like a broken-down car in a scrap yard. The site is now a residential-retail complex offering modern urban experiences: luxury apartment buildings with a pool, fitness center, and concierge services, as well as shops and restaurants ranging from Trader Joe’s to brewpubs.

City residents later lost Bob-O-Links, a nearby public course that has been converted to real estate. In the future, a proposed walking trail around the city may impact one of the two courses at Tenison Park, the municipal facility that was a celebrated hangout for hustlers such as Dick Martin and Titanic Thompson, and where Trevino developed his game.

Municipally owned and operated courses such as Tenison Park, Rancho Park in Los Angeles and Bethpage State Park on Long Island have been key components of the American golf landscape. The first munis were envisioned as extensions of parks that residents could play for no charge. Although that model proved to be unsustainable, munis still offer affordable, accessible golf and represent a primary golf experience for many participants.

The landscape of urban golf is on the verge of another significant shift as courses face new challenges: increased competition from other recreational activities; time pressures for participants; access to and cost of resources, including labor and water; climate-related difficulties; and more stringent regulations. On top of these pressures, large tracts of land attract a lot of attention, from developers with visions of condos to community groups advocating for more open spaces, to municipalities facing housing shortages. Add it all up, and many local governments are reconsidering their support for a game that has a participation rate of 10 percent among its residents.

More and more city residents have fewer and fewer courses to play. To reverse this trend, the golf industry needs to focus on people, courses and communities. First, great experiences must be provided for residents – starting with golfers – so they keep coming back and more people utilize the facilities more frequently. In conjunction, the courses need to be operated as efficiently as possible and compete favorably with other land uses.

Finally, golf needs to provide an overall benefit to communities, so courses are seen as assets rather than liabilities. Municipalities that are skeptical about their support of golf don’t even question their investment in other parks and fields because of their perceived benefits.

To further strengthen its position, golf also will need to explore other models, which aren’t necessarily in the form of a standard 9- or 18-hole course. The lack of a nearby course doesn’t have to mean reduced access to golf. While there is no public course near the former Glen Lakes Country Club, there is a TopGolf facility just a couple of miles away. Companies such as TopGolf, Drive Shack, and Golfzon have made significant inroads by offering digital golf experiences, from players taking their first swings to logging entire 18-hole rounds on simulators.

Golfzon has remade the urban golf experience in the Republic of Korea, where the company is based. Seoul represents the epitome of lack of access, with one-fifth of the country’s population but none of its 450 courses. Yet the country is home to millions of urban dwellers who hit balls toward targets, keep score and compete against each other, thanks to “screen golf.”

It is becoming increasingly clear that the definitions and accepted norms of what it means to play golf and be a golfer are evolving. Urbanization is accelerating this process, and examples such as Seoul provide a possible glimpse into the future of the game.

Perhaps the next Lee Trevino isn’t growing up next to a course, but rather a range or simulator. With the right levers, more municipal courses can demonstrate their financial, environmental, and social value and become indispensable to city landscapes. Hopefully, golf will be perceived not as a luxury or a burden, but as an integral component in connecting people to each other and to their communities.

This is what urban golf can be. If done right, the game will provide opportunities for all who wish to enjoy it – no matter where they live.

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