DUBLIN, Ohio - Take a long look around at the iconic Muirfield Village Golf Club this weekend - when the storms aren't rolling in, anyway - and you know the PGA Tour is in great shape.Cars are jammed into every place that allows parking, with a small army of fans ferried from the nearby Columbus Zoo. Those fans line the lush green fairways, creating a constant buzz - even after Tiger Woods finishes his round.Golf Channel people are everywhere, and then CBS invades the grounds on Saturday, David Feherty in tow, of course.And it doesn't just happen at this event, which could be called a "mini-major." You can see similar scenes like this in California, Texas, Florida, Charlotte, Hilton Head, Akron and ... even West-by-God-Stand-Up-and-Shout Virginia.The purses are sweet, from $6 million to $6.5 million for many "regular" events, $8 million and more for majors to $9.5 million for The Players Championship in May.And get this - the winner of that yearlong obstacle course known as the FedExCup pockets a $10 million bonus. And it's tough to get to that prize without raking up $5 million in loose change along the way.The LPGA Tour is rebounding, the "minor-league" Web.com Tour is lucrative enough to make a living, and the Champions Tour is still keeping the stars of yesteryear swinging for Benjamins.The big tour survived the economic plunge of 2008. Even more impressive, it survived the Tiger Woods exile - heck, the sport became more interesting.But the game is coming to a crossroads, and we're not talking about deer antler spray or belly putters the size of telephone poles. We're talking about the true backbone, the average Joe. (Or in my case, the way-below-average Doug.)Really, how is the state of the game?"The game of golf, in itself, has lost a lot of players," said Jack Nicklaus, who needs no further introduction. "Some 5 million or so regular golfers have left the game. We've lost, I think, 27 percent of the women, 36 percent of the kids in the last five years. Why are we doing that?"That's a tough question, but one with too many simple answers.When Nicklaus speaks, the golf world listens, and he was stalking the flagstick on all those answers, including:
Cost - I don't have to explain this one. There isn't a piece of equipment that doesn't seem to cost twice as much as it should at retail. In the past 20 years, there seems to have been a price war in greens fees - in the wrong direction.
When I first heard about the Big Bertha driver some years back, I wondered (a) how high into three digits could they price it, and (b) how badly I could slice with it. I've never paid to find out.
Time - Who really has time for 18 holes these days?
"People don't want to spend five hours doing anything anymore," Nicklaus said. "So you really need to play the game in three hours or less, that's where we need to be. And we're not there."We need more Coonskin Parks, Cato Parks, nine-holers, bargain-basement public tracks where you don't have to invest a whole day.And who says every course needs to be nine or 18 holes? The recent LPGA tour stop in the Bahamas, when flooding closed six holes, was instructive. That tour adapted, playing three 12-hole rounds to achieve an official tournament.
How many of you hackers find yourself wanting to play 18, but getting sick of the game by about the 13th hole? Yep.Difficulty - When you hear about a new course opening, you can bet the owner wants to trick it out like Winged Foot. Those are fun for hardcore players, but we need more dialed-back tracks.
Kenny Perry seems to get this. In a celebrated example, the three-time Greenbrier Classic participant incorporated the countryside near Franklin, Ky., to construct a scenic course of his dreams - but not his ego.Greens fee is $30, and 30-handicappers don't feel out of place. He reports 30,000 rounds played per year, so he must have the formula."I built it for your 20-plus handicapper," he said. "That's the majority of your play. Your scratch golfers are going to play the elite courses, but your everyday golfers are going to come play [my course]."Long holes, long courses, large real estate - As Nicklaus succinctly asks: "Do you need 619 yards for a par 5?"
He was talking about the fourth hole at Merion, the compact Philadelphia-area course that is hosting the upcoming U.S. Open. Just as easily, he could have been talking about the 17th at The Greenbrier's Old White, which was lengthened to 616 yards - and Gary Woodland still overshot the green in two.When the back-tee yardage shoots past 7,500 yards, walks/rides get longer for players on the forward tees, as well - and pace of play gets even worse. And the land needed to accommodate bigger courses is getting scarce.When Nicklaus was told Merion takes up 115 acres, he was a bit surprised it was that much. He readily knew the Old Course at St. Andrews uses just 95 - acreage that might work for nine holes at a new championship course today."You need 160-plus acres to do a golf course today," he said. "The whole [concept] is basically saying we've obsoleted 17,000 golf courses."Nicklaus discussed "bringing back the ball," i.e., reducing the ball's spring off the clubface. That will be more efficient and effective than trying to overhaul equipment specs, and Nicklaus said you can look for the sport's governing bodies to address that after the putter controversy.Personally, I don't care if players putt with a goalie stick. Let's talk about the ball.Our sedentary world (kids) - How many kids can break 65 on EA Sports' "Tiger Woods PGA Tour" video game, but haven't picked up a real club in their life?
Rest assured that the pros are attacking that, with the First Tee program and any number of related initiatives in cities like Columbus. That's a constant in every sport - who thought there would be a need for "NFL Play 60"?Our sedentary world (adults) - How many adults can walk an 18-hole course? A nine-hole course? Coonskin?
Shoot, many average-Joe golfers get gassed playing 18 with a cart. If you get that fatigued that easily, you'll drop the game.As a course designer, Nicklaus sees the end result. He has 30 courses under contract in China and four being built in Russia, but nothing here, or in Britain or Japan.Golf is a great game. You can leave the concrete and the rat race (and 13-month football seasons) behind for a few hours, and you don't have to be Tiger to play.But the sport needs to regenerate itself at the grassroots level to remain vibrant at the very top.Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, email@example.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.