It's expensive, difficult, and demands the kind of time most people get only when they go on vacation — or retire. From the dried up fairways of Southern California to the vacant course-side condos on the Carolina coast, we survey the sport's demise — and the entrepreneurs hoping to reinvent it for a new, less patient generation. ... By any measure, participation in the game is way off, from a high of 30.6 million golfers in 2003 to 24.7 million in 2014, according to the National Golf Foundation (NGF). The long-term trends are also troubling, with the number of golfers ages 18 to 34 showing a 30 percent decline over the last 20 years. Nearly every metric — TV ratings, rounds played, golf-equipment sales, golf courses constructed — shows a drop-off. ... Golf's heyday coincided neatly with Tiger's run of 15 major golf championships between 1997 and 2008. If you listen to golf insiders, he's the individual most to blame for those thousands of Craigslist ads for used clubs. ... But you can't blame one man's wandering libido for the demise of an entire sport. The challenges golf faces are myriad, from millennials lacking the requisite attention span for a five-hour round, to an increasingly environmentally conscious public that's reluctant to take up a resource-intensive game played on nonnative grass requiring an almond farm's worth of water, to the recent economic crisis that curtailed discretionary spending. ... By now the various attempts to "save" golf by making the game faster, cheaper, and easier to play have all taken on an air of desperation. There have been a number of initiatives and innovations designed to lure younger players onto the course — most of them attempts to speed up the game.
Docking in a luxury marina is about the only place to catch a random glimpse of Tiger, who moves through the world in a cocoon of his own creation. When he bought his plane, he blocked the tail number from tracking websites: It ends in QS, the standard code for NetJets. Many athletes, by contrast, have some sort of vanity registration, and some even have custom paint jobs; Michael Jordan's plane is detailed in North Carolina blue, and his tail number is N236MJ -- the "6" is for his titles. Jack Nicklaus flies around in N1JN nicknamed Air Bear. Sitting on a tarmac, Tiger's plane looks like it belongs to an anonymous business traveler, nothing giving away its famous owner. He comes and goes quietly. ... He'd long struggled to sleep, and when he wasn't texting or playing video games, he'd read, often military books about lone men facing impossible odds, such as Roberts Ridge or Lone Survivor, or books about theoretical physics and cosmology. The intro to Get a Grip laid out the basic rules of early science, from Newton and Galileo, focused on the concepts of friction and gravity. These had long interested him. Five-year-old Tiger once made a drawing that showed stickmen swinging different clubs, with the clubface sketched, as well as the flight path of the ball, including distance and apex. ... He grew up without siblings or many friends. Tiger and Earl did everything together, hitting balls into a net out in the garage, or spending hours at the golf course, and when they'd finish, Earl would order a rum and Diet Coke, and Tiger would get a Coke with cherries, and they'd sit and nurse their drinks like two old men. The golf pro at the Navy course, Joe Grohman, worried that Tiger didn't have friends his own age until high school. His friends were Earl and Earl's old military buddies. ... Tiger heard the stories and saw the deep love even strangers felt for each other. His entire childhood revolved around these men and their code.
Golf is returning to the Olympic Games after a 112-year absence. Sixty men and 60 women will play in separate tournaments, putting the game associated with upper-class networking and manicured country clubs on more than 3 billion television screens worldwide. ... The games come at a fraught moment for golf. As of now, just 10 countries — chiefly the United States, Japan, Canada, England and Australia — account for nearly 80 percent of the world’s golf facilities. The sport's major markets in the U.K. and U.S. are stagnant or in decline. Industry leaders see Olympic golf as an opportunity to create more die-hards like Stapff in Asia and Latin America, where a growing middle class presents an attractive potential market. The $70 billion golf industry — including course designers, equipment makers, professional tours, charity events — would reap the benefits. ... The common reasons given for the decline or stagnation are threefold: Golf can be prohibitively expensive and is perceived as elitist; in a fast-paced society, a four-hour round of golf isn't appealing or even feasible for many people; and courses have becoming increasingly difficult, pushing average players away from the game in frustration.
Since 2014, the PGA, the world’s most prominent golf association, has run PGA Tour China Series, a professional league that gives promising young players a shot at graduating to higher competition in the U.S. It’s analogous to Double A minor league baseball in America: Players can put in a couple of years in China and—if they perform well enough—earn an automatic berth into another league that’s one rung below the PGA Tour. The China Tour, in turn, offers golf something it desperately needs: better access to the enormous and growing middle class that makes the country a huge growth opportunity for the sport. ... In a country of 1.4 billion, the potential for the sport is certainly as vast as anyone’s imagination. Estimates of the number of Chinese golfers fall around 1 million, a small fraction of the 24 million who play in the U.S. If just 2% of China’s population played, up from less than 0.1% today, China could become a $2-billion-a-year market for golf products. That would be a godsend for an industry whose growth has sputtered in the U.S. and Europe, where manufacturers like Nike and Adidas are getting out of the golf-equipment business, and courses are closing. ... the country has only about 600 courses (the U.S. has 15,000). Virtually none are the type of cheap, municipal links that cater to beginners. Almost every course is a private club located far outside the city center, behind closed gates manned by security guards. A round during the weekend pushes $200 or more, four or five times the norm in the U.S.—in a country where the typical urbanite has only about $5,000 a year in disposable income.
Surely a golfer who drives the ball longer than anybody else is teed up beautifully to compete on the Tour, right? ... Think again. Any weekend duffer will tell you that one of the most frustrating aspects of golf is converting length into low scores. That is the challenge facing Sadlowski: to turn his lightning-strike drives into consistent birdies, enough to become an everyday touring pro. It is a butterfly dream in which no previous golf-ball bomber has emerged from the chrysalis stage.