By any measure golfer numbers are in decline. This is not because seven billion people have given up on green space and outdoor recreation. On the contrary, it’s more important than ever to the 54 per cent of us who live in large urban areas. By 2050 that figure will be 66 per cent of the global population.
I live in Tokyo with 38 million other people. Playing golf is a big commitment: three hours travelling, four hours golfing, one hour eating and one hour relaxing in a traditional bathhouse. This is the new normal for city dwellers everywhere, though typically minus the bathing.
Time is the main barrier for existing golfers, but the oversupply of one-dimensional golf courses is a barrier for beginners. Bubble-era courses everywhere are too long, too difficult and no fun for inexperienced players. Could a more varied provision raise a new generation of golfers that appreciate the core values of the game? Clearly, providing a golf experience that takes under three hours total, instead of
over nine hours, is critical.
Thousands of municipal and greenbelt courses are ill-equipped to host modern golf. In an urban setting chasing distance and squeezing safety margins is doomed to failure. A talented golf course architect can pick off the coolest features from a tired eighteen-holer to create nine great holes that are engaging for beginners and experts. Adding a putting course, a five acre short course and beautiful walking trails is straightforward.
This type of ‘stepping stone’ golf facility enables any adult or child to take the steps from novice putting to playing full spec golf holes. Non-golf green space and naturalised areas provide an urban oasis for people and wildlife. A business model that welcomes non-golfers into cafes, restaurants (even bathhouses in Japan!) is perfect for introducing people to the game.
Golf’s arbitrary cultural barriers are also tricky to address. Why do we find it so hard to combine fun, well-designed golf courses with an open-arms welcome and no dress code requirements?
Although it hasn’t transitioned from eighteen to nine it’s worth highlighting the example of Goat Hill Park in San Diego. A successful campaign led by John Ashworth (founder of the eponymous clothing brand) recently saved the course from redevelopment. “It’s a good challenge, inexpensive, and takes three hours to play at most,” says Ashworth. “There’s no dress code, and lots of tattoos. It really is the epitome of what golf is supposed to be.”
In 2014 I moved to Rio de Janeiro to join Gil Hanse’s team building the Olympic golf course. In a city with ten million residents and a few thousand golfers a tour spec venue was always going to shake up the local scene. Gil’s design is wide, strategic and beautifully integrated with indigenous landforms and vegetation. It will challenge the best and be fun for the rest.
When it came time to build the short course component we had enough space left for four holes. The team put their heads together and designed a fun little loop. As a free-form learning facility it’s perfect for beginners. Seasoned golfers will also find much to enjoy.
As a child I stepped up to playing North Berwick West Links via the town putting green and our nine-hole Children’s Course. Every summer since 1904 up to eighty local youngsters have competed for historic trophies in the shadow of North Berwick’s Redan hole. This is real golf. Tears are spilled, life lessons are learned, and competitive spirit ingrained.
Creating a tournament golf venue for Rio youngsters was at the forefront of our minds, and the solution was right in front of us. We extended our academy routing into the range adding four equally cool holes to the course. The ninth plays back to the chipping green in front of the Olympic clubhouse for a grandstand finish.
Golf must focus on growing its urban customer base. The market for full day, full service golf experiences will survive, but in fast growing, fast-paced cities around the world we need more barrier-free examples like Goat Hill Park. We need better facilities for fast, fun and friendly golf experiences. But most of all we need to throw the doors open to everyone – golfers and non-golfers alike.
This article first appeared in Golf Course Architecture magazine - Issue 42.