Lucky for us, golf continues to ride a high tide of favorability and good fortune. As spring approaches, let’s take a moment to note a few of the things we appreciate most about the game and discover new ways to enjoy them to the fullest. [Edited by John Ledesma and Sean Zak]
1. Playing golf is popular again
The game boomed in the second half of 2020. According to the National Golf Foundation, the coronavirus shutdown cost the industry 20 million rounds last spring. When the clouds finally lifted in June, golf exploded as a recreational activity for everyone who’d been stuck indoors, even non-golfers. Year-over-year play increased steadily each month, reaching 57% in November! Now you have more golf friends than you did last year. It’s a beautiful silver lining.
2. And it’s cool, too!
Change is happening in golf apparel. Tyrrell Hatton wore an Adidas hoodie when he won the BMW PGA in the UK, and it created quite a stir. The next week, an English club decried it, citing its rigid dress code. But sales soared for Adidas, which sold out its entire inventory of the garment. Hoodies and other hip looks are here to stay. [Looking for your own look? Visit our Pro Shop.]
3. We’re in the golden age of gear design
Evan Gibbs and the team at Callaway have seen a lot during his two-decade stint in product creation. As the research and development director for woods, it’s Gibbs’ job to cook up game-changing tech that makes the sport more enjoyable for all golfers. Some designs boom, while others bust. It’s part of the business. But lately it feels like everything Gibbs and his team — along with their industry rivals — have been churning out is boomin’ like never before
“The last couple years, it feels like we’re able to see yearly gains in performance that, in the past, we would’ve only seen every couple of years,” Gibbs says. “It makes you stand up and take notice.”
Thanks to supercomputers and materials once earmarked for ballistic armor applications, every player in the sport is reaping the benefits of advanced technologies and designs entering the space at a breakneck clip. “The implementation of A.I. into our design process changed the way we design clubs and opened up so many opportunities to increase performance across all handicaps,” Gibbs says. “The convergence of these leaps in design and manufacturing have allowed us and others to continue to push the performance of these products in a very short time.” In other words, there’s never been a better time to be on the lookout for new gear.
4. You don’t have to be perfect
Like many of GOLF’s Top 100 Teachers, Jon Tattersall is a swing nerd at heart. “I’ve studied it from every angle, in person, on film and, for the past 15 years, with 3D cameras and launch monitors. If there’s a swing worth seeing, I’ve seen it. That’s why I’m confident in saying, this isn’t a beauty contest!
“Plenty of players from the 1950s through the ’80s had swings that didn’t make sense to the eye. They were successful by every measure, winning events and making money. But video technology became the teacher’s main tool of choice, and as a result we overemphasized style over substance.
“Fast-forward to the present and we have engineers with Ph.D.’s crunching numbers to determine the force a player applies to the grip and to the ground to make the ball soar into the sky at the proper trajectory. Dizzy yet? Every part of the swing is broken down, from the pressure of your right ring finger to the flex in your left ankle.
“Does the club need to come back in perfect, Adam Scott-esque form? I say no. I’m more focused on what needs to be done to the club at a specific time and to what degree. All that matters is force, torque, speed and alignment, not how pretty it looks. It’s all about how it works.”
5. Clubfitting is now for the masses
Tour pros used to have it good compared to the regular guy. Their gear was handcrafted and perfectly tuned to fit them, down to the gram. Amateurs were relegated to buying stock clubs off the shelf! Not anymore. Clubfitting has become so widely available that it’s expected at this point
“All the love letters we get, so to speak, come from people who indeed picked up 20 or 30 yards with the driver, or who dropped their index by five shots because they hit it straighter or farther or a combination of the two,” says True Spec GM Allen Gobeski. “The real benefit? They’re enjoying the game like never before.” So what are you waiting for? [True Spec is owned and operated by GOLF’s parent company, 8AM Golf.]
It’s not that we weren’t having fun before. It’s just that we were having a different kind of fun.
6. You can get ‘golf-wise’ in a hurry
It’s super easy to become a stat-savvy golfer in the very best way. GOLF’s analytics editor Mark Broadie’s Strokes Gained can apply to you, if you wish to apply them (@MarkBroadie). Scott Fawcett’s Decade system can save your scorecards, if you want to dive in (@ScottFawcett). GolfLogix can help you revolutionize your green reading and course management — all you need to do is use it.
“Most people don’t realize the importance data holds in their game,” says Pete Charleston, president and cofounder of GolfLogix. “At all levels of golf, information is power, and when you’re capable of learning more about your own game, it only stands to benefit you.” Take advantage. [GolfLogix is owned and operated by GOLF’s parent company, 8AM Golf.]
7. The game is more affordable
For every iconic course like Pebble Beach, where green fees run north of $500, there are hundreds of fantastic courses that charge less than $50, even at peak times. According to the National Golf Foundation, the median rate for an 18-hole round in the U.S. at the start of 2021 is just $49. Play on a weekday without a cart and that number drops below $40 or about $10 an hour. Not bad at all.
8. It’s fun to fine-tune your gear
There are endless ways to enhance your golf swag. A pushcart is a great and affordable addition. Want to purchase a club but not empty your wallet? Wedges are still very affordable and one of the best ways to lower scores. The rest of the golf world certainly agrees; wedge purchases saw an 18% increase in Q3.
9. Golf’s health benefits are real
It’s one of the world’s universal truths: Walking is good for your health. So is walking plus golf, which can help you burn 1,500 to 2,000 calories over four hours. That’s the same rate as a day on the ski slopes! If the course is hilly, there’s even greater benefit. Up the ante by carrying your bag. Then it’ll really start to feel like a workout. And you’ll be the better for it.
10. That goes for mental health too
Think about the last time you stepped up to the first tee on a dewy morning. That rush of happiness is a mood boost caused by a release of serotonin in response to your setting and your surroundings. If ever you’re feeling down, that first tee might be just what you need. There’s more.
“Outside of the obvious benefits of being outdoors and enjoying social interaction with your partners, golf is a game that requires a full mental commitment,” says Dr. Greg Cartin, a sport psychology consultant in Belmont, Mass. “One that, at least temporarily, commands so much of your attention that you can leave the rest of the world behind.”
11. There’s more time to play
While many of us continue to work from home, commuting hours have been all but eliminated. Suddenly, there’s extra time in the evening and extra time in the morning — all the more time to tend to your golf game! Think about how great your ball striking could get by spending an extra 40 minutes at the range each week. Or just 20 minutes of golf-focused stretches and movements before clocking in. Now that you have more time, what will you do with it?
12. Shorter rounds can be a blast
The massive influx of golf rounds being played has had one unfortunate side effect: Tee times can be hard to come by! No need to fear, though. Golfers all across the country elected to play 9-hole rounds a lot more in 2020. According to the NGF, short loops (anything less than a full 18 holes) increased by 15% nationwide in 2020. And don’t forget par-3 tracks! When you need to get your golf in, you’ll take it any way you can get it.
13. Quality instruction is just a click away
The modern golfer has so much quality instruction available at their fingertips, it’s hard to know what to do with it. From YouTube (see: Me and My Golf, Rick Shiels, even Padraig Harrington!) to Instagram (George Gankas, Mike Bender, Chris Como and more) and everywhere in between, teachers are putting their ideas out there more than ever before. And largely for free.
The information shared has the potential to deliver results even better than in the past, thanks to the continued embrace of technology. When you do find a teacher you like, digital lessons mean you can actually connect directly with them and share Trackman data or a report of your most recent range session. Golf instruction is no longer a closed shop. It’s a network of ideas where the best rise to the top.
14. Spectating is off the charts
For most live sports, the lack of fans in the stands has proved quite complex. Socially-distant broadcasters and production trucks? No problem. Giant, impenetrable bubbles at various locations? No worries. But no crowds? Now that’s tricky.
Except for golf. Rather than masking what wasn’t there, golf embraced fan-less tournaments and in the process drafted a winning blueprint for the sport as we see it.
Look no further than ESPN’s blazing-fast PGA Championship broadcast. The network’s first year of tournament coverage was brilliant, showing fans golf with the fervor, agility and shot variety of a Steph Curry heat check.
Meanwhile, the PGA Tour is steaming into the analytics age at full speed. ShotLink data means there’s more to know with each passing second — both for the data geeks and the seasoned gamblers tapping away at home. Speaking of gambling, live-betting and daily fantasy are creating more opportunities than ever to turn your Sundays into paydays.
Techies have swooned over the television product, and Toptracer outlining Rory’s gorgeous drives is just the tip of the iceberg. NBC and CBS have experimented with futuristic audio and every shot from every hole broadcasts to take fans deeper than ever before into the minds and actions of their favorite players.
We all want the fans back, but who knew all the silence could be so damn fun?
15. Course design is for the people
The essence of what makes a golf course has receded back to its roots. What’s important now is not the glitz of housing projects or the notoriety of an extremely punitive layout, but rather the Golden Age absolutes: recovery and openness. Less trees, more room to roam, more challenge from the rest of the property. For all kinds of reasons, it’s better this way.
16. You can play by your own rules
It was great when the USGA decided to roll back the Rules of Golf a bit in 2019. Take it as a hint: Golf doesn’t have to be played by the book every single time! Hit it where you can’t find it? Feel free to drop wherever, even in the middle of the fairway. Want to make this par 4 even more drivable? Bounce around between tee boxes. Unless you’re playing in an event, feel free to make this game even more your own.
17. Grillrooms are now open 24-7
For decades you’ve sat there in the clubhouse, in front of a pint glass, rehashing your best shots, silliest mistakes and craziest putts from a round complete. The 19th hole was the psyche’s saving grace, but it was oh so static.
Nowadays, for golf-talk purposes at least, the 19th hole is anywhere you want it to be. There are a number of online channels and digital clubhouses that go wherever your smartphone is.
Make an ace on your favorite par 3? Ten strangers will congratulate you from within Reddit’s “Golf” community by the time you’ve signed the scorecard. (This assumes, of course, you had someone else take the photo. No witnesses and the merits of your hole in one will be properly litigated.)
Want to work through your spiciest opinions on the PGA Tour? No Laying Up’s “The Refuge” is a great place to opine like Brandel and find discourse related to every corner of the game. If you have had problems with your wedges, rest assured, 43 other “refugees” have as well.
While these virtual golf buddies might seem far away, they don’t have to be. Redditors and Refugees have regularly used these platforms to schedule meetups at courses somewhere in between their keyboards. Now that’s growing the game — guerrilla style!
18. Travel golf has never been so fun
No disrespect to your grandpa’s golf getaway — long hours on the links, steak dinner, sauna — but today’s top destinations offer all that and more, with options that appeal to a range of ages, interests and abilities. It’s a shift reflected in the proliferation of alternative short courses — not to mention a wonderland of non-golf attractions — at such marquee properties as Streamsong, Sand Valley, Bandon Dunes and beyond. At Pinehurst, sepia-toned traditions now go hand in hand with Instagram-ready amenities, including a par-3 track, The Cradle, and a putting course, Thistle Dhu, where the tee markers double as cup-holders for your beer.
“It’s not that we weren’t having fun before,” says Pinehurst president Tom Pashley. “It’s just that we were having a different kind of fun.”
For Pashley, a telling moment came this spring, when he overheard a guest, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, ask a bellhop if he was properly attired to go bat around some balls on Thistle Dhu. “No problem, sir,” said the bellhop, with an answer that could pass as a new industry motto: “We take our golf seriously, but not ourselves.”
19. Elite clubs are more accessible
Before golf boomed in 2020, the 12 years leading up to it were pretty rough. Hundreds of courses closed their doors — public tracks and private clubs alike. According to GOLF Top 100 course rater Hal Phillips, there’s a silver lining hidden within that.
“Many private clubs coped with revenue shortfalls by going ‘semi-private,’ albeit very quietly,” he says. “A number of second- and third-rate clubs are now more accepting of public reservations. Call them up on a Monday or Tuesday and you might be surprised what you find.”
Some are simply being reactive to the uptick in American golfers.
“Once the pandemic subsides, if the rounds-played numbers sustain, the laws of supply and demand will call for even more private courses to ease open their doors if they haven’t already,” Phillips says.
There is also a ground-swell of major cities appreciating golf’s municipal benefits.
“To have Tom Doak renovating a municipal course in Washington, D.C., instead of slaving over a private course that hosts Tour events is a public golf asset.” We love that.
20. Urban golf is helping communities
The hottest Topgolf of 2021? That would probably be in Augusta, Ga., during a normal Masters week. But in 2020, even without the hundreds of thousands of fans in town, Topgolf Augusta was poppin’. It’s a great example of golf finding ways into our urban centers and not just being a sport for the suburbs. A similar trend is happening with Popstroke. It’s mini golf on steroids, and Tiger Woods is designing a few of the courses. Count us all the way in!