EXPLORES THE ALARMING DOWNTURN IN THE GOLF INDUSTRY
WHEN THE EMMY®-WINNING SHOW RETURNS JULY 22 ON HBO
REAL SPORTS WITH BRYANT GUMBEL continues its 20th season with more enterprising features and reporting when the show’s 208th edition debuts TUESDAY, JULY 22 (10:00 p.m. ET/PT) on HBO.
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*Overgrown Green. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, the golf industry saw its popularity soar and business boom. Thanks in part to superstar Tiger Woods, young and old alike were drawn to the sport like never before, as evidenced by strong TV ratings, raucous crowds, a retail explosion to sell new equipment, and most of all, a massive building boom that saw roughly 5,000 golf courses built over nearly two decades.
Most observers and industry executives agree that the bubble has officially burst. Over the last eight years, participation is down 20% nationwide and more courses have closed than opened in the U.S. annually. Industry leaders believe drastic measures are needed to ensure the future of the sport. Host Bryant Gumbel speaks with industry leaders, including Jack Nicklaus, the most decorated golfer of all time, and executive Mark King about the state of the sport and what innovations need to be embraced.
Producer: Nick Dolin.
Voiceover: Bridgewater is one of hundreds of courses nationwide that have gone belly up lately. On average, 130 American courses have closed every year for the last 8 years. And they’ve closed all over. From mid-western Michigan to the coast of California and from the tip of Florida to top of Minnesota.
Steve Ekovich, a realtor who specializes in golf course properties, says: “There’s people that had this idea that build it and they will come. They didn’t come.”
Gumbel Voiceover: Call it the hangover after golf’s big party… after the boom years of the late 90s and early 2000s… when golf, thanks largely to Tiger Woods, was suddenly, for the first time in its ancient history actually hip and cool.
From 1986 to 2005, five thousand new golf courses were built in the United States.
GOLF LEGEND JACK NICKLAUS: “I was doing, you know, 20, 30 golf courses at a time. And, yeah, it was a blast for us. It was great fun. It was a great business.”
V/O: Jack Nicklaus is arguably golf’s greatest player of all time.
But as a golf course architect his income has dwarfed the money he made as a player…earning seven figure fees during those boom years every time he designed one of his signature courses.
JACK NICKLAUS: “It was kind of ridiculous. People were belonging to ten, 12, 15 clubs. Those days are gone.”
V/O: It all turned for the worse about 7 years ago. The US economy tanked and then Tiger Woods went into a tailspin. Almost overnite, few Americans still wanted the golf life… and even fewer could afford it. As a result, it has come to this. Somewhere in America these days, a golf course closes every 48 hours.
JACK NICKLAUS: “Back in China I’ve got between 15 and 20 under construction. Then another ten or 15 under planning. I’ve got three under construction in Russia, a little bit in Brazil, in India.”
BRYANT GUMBEL: “But in the United States?”
JACK NICKLAUS: [makes a zero with his finger]
BRYANT GUMBEL: “The mindset of the American public has changed. You know, when you and I were younger, I mean, that was what we aspired to…”
NICKLAUS: “It’s changed….”
GUMBEL: “…living on a golf course and being able to play. I’m not necessarily sure young people view their, their senior years that way.”
JACK NICKLAUS: “They don’t, they have no interest in that.”
MARK KING: “Every macro-indicator that we’ve been looking at for the past 20 years, rounds played, number of minorities playing, women coming into the game, all of these things that we’ve tracked, says that there’s less people playing. And the ones that are playing are playing less frequently.”
V/O: Mark King would prefer not to believe any of this. Because for the last 15 years, he’s been president of TaylorMade, one of golf’s leading manufacturers of clubs and equipment.
But as one of the most powerful men in the game, he can no longer afford to ignore the obvious. That even as the economy recovers, golf remains in a nosedive.
MARK KING: “Young people entering the game after high school, 18 to 30-year-old kids down 35% in the last ten years. So I just don’t like where the game looks like it’s going. And it’s not in the right direction.”
BRYANT GUMBEL: “Where’s it going?”
MARK KING: “I think it’s shrinking to the point where you are only going to have traditional people play and it’s going to be an elite game again.”
BRYANT GUMBEL: “You and I both know that somewhere there are a lot of old white, fat cats who are going, ‘Fewer golfers? Good. Fewer minorities? Good. Fewer women? Good. Fewer kids? Good?’ “
MARK KING: “Yup, of course there are. But if you own a golf course, if you’re selling golf clubs, if you’re selling turf, if you’re employing people. It’s awful scary watching it go down.”
V/O: Just about every sector of the business is in trouble…retail is off by double digits for each of the last three years…and TV ratings for some of the game’s biggest tournaments have been in steady decline since 2012.
V/O: King dubbed his campaign, Hack Golf, and asked everyone to think outside the box. Way outside the box.
MARK KING: “One of the first ideas on Hack Golf was free beer. Okay, now, now Bryant, that sounds ridiculous, okay…”
BRYANT GUMBEL: “Yes, it does….”
MARK KING: “…But I’ll tell you what. Let’s take a municipal golf course. And let’s say you said, ‘Green fees are $50, but there’s free beer every Saturday,’ what do you think that golf course would look like?”
BRYANT GUMBEL: “It’d look like something I don’t want to play.”
MARK KING: “It would be packed.”
V/O: Free beer is one thing but King also has bigger ideas –much bigger ideas.
MARK KING: “There it is, the future of golf: 15-inch cup.”
BRYANT GUMBEL: “God Almighty.”
MARK KING: “So think about it though. Think about a kid playing golf for the first time, and he is putting and he putts to the little tiny hole and it take him four putts from four feet and here he hits his first one from eight feet. It’s a different experience. It’s a different experience.”
BRYANT GUMBEL: “Yeah but, the game is about dealing with the frustration.”
MARK KING: “It’s still frustrating. Now, I wanted to make it 25 inches, but they said, ‘No, just make it 15.’ “
V/O: Three and half times the size of a regular hole, King claims the 15-inch holes make the game faster, shaving an hour off the average round of golf. The result, he says, is a more accessible game, for more people.
BRYANT GUMBEL: “I must say, it is more fun.” [laughs]
MARK KING: “That’s what it is. It’s fun.”
V/O: To test his theory that bigger holes lead to more fun, King’s company, TaylorMade, is having 15-inch cups installed at more than 100 courses around the country this summer. But if purists think pizza pie sized holes are somehow sacrilegious, imagine what those purists think of this:
BRYANT GUMBEL: Let me read you a quote from Curtis Strange. I’m sure you’ve seen it. He says quote, ‘I don’t wanna rig the game and cheapen it. I don’t like any of that stuff. And it’s not gonna happen either.’ It’s all talk?”
MARK KING: “That’s one man’s opinion. And Curtis Strange was a factor in golf 20 years ago. But there’s a theme to who’s hanging onto the old and who’s moving to the new. So if we don’t do any of this we’re gonna end up with a bunch of Curtis Stranges playing golf by themselves on a Saturday morning enjoying the great history of the game.”
GUMBEL: “Is the game of golf too hard for this generation, an immediate gratification generation?”
JACK NICKLAUS: “Yeah, I think it probably is. I don’t think there’s any question that the game is too hard. The game needs, the game needs to be a game for the masses. Everybody wants to play like Tiger Woods. They can’t play like Tiger Woods. Tiger finds his ball every hole. (laugh) They don’t find the golf ball every hole. That is the problem.
BRYANT GUMBEL: So these somewhat crazy ideas that are being spawned by the problems of golf. These have your blessing? Big holes?”
JACK NICKLAUS: “What difference does it make if it brings people in and introduces them to the game?”
VO: And that’s all Mark King is trying to do with his grand experiment, which, he says, doesn’t have to succeed to be a success. He just wants to nudge a reluctant industry into a better future.
REAL SPORTS WITH BRYANT GUMBEL is available on multiple platforms, including HBO On Demand® and HBO GO®.
Other HBO playdates: July 22 (3:10 a.m.), 24 (8:00 a.m., 2:00 p.m.), 26 (midnight) and 30 (7:30 p.m., 1:30 a.m.), and Aug. 5 (4:15 p.m.) and 9 (10:30 a.m.)
HBO2 playdates: July 25 (4:45 p.m.), 27 (1:25 p.m.) and 31 (8:00 a.m., 9:30 p.m.), and Aug. 2 (11:00 a.m.), 6 (2:05 a.m.), 12 (12:25 a.m.), 14 (11:00 a.m.) and 18 (1:55 p.m.)
Follow REAL SPORTS updates on HBO.com/realsports and facebook.com/realsports. Immediately following the debut of this month’s show on July 22, log on to HBO.com/realsports for a special overtime session hosted by Bryant Gumbel.
The executive producer of REAL SPORTS WITH BRYANT GUMBEL is Rick Bernstein; Joe Perskie is senior producer.