In a Forbes.com piece posted this week, Michael Buteau raises many fine points in wondering if Kevin Kisner's Palmetto Country Club suspension "illustrates golf's millennial conundrum."
You know the themes: golf is stiff, stale and dull, hostile to fun on-course antics, loud music, hats on backwards, pot smoking and general wackiness. It all discourages growth of the game.
Yes, it’s clear that Kisner and his buddies were being a bit reckless and could have damaged club property. Everybody understands that he broke the club’s rules and there’s a price to pay for that.
To Steve Mona, CEO of the World Golf Foundation, Kisner’s suspension serves as the perfect example of golf’s “old guard” clashing with the emerging “new guard.”
“That’s a really good example of the balancing we’re trying to adapt to,” Mona said. “On one side, when you join a club you know what the rules are. I can see why they took the action they did. On the other side, when you’re talking about the need to bring this new generation into the game, that is exactly an incident where you might say ‘hey, if we’re going to be more welcoming to that generation and we’re going to change our image from a stodgy game played by upper, middle-class white males, to more of a cool game played by everyday people, then you could argue about something like that being fine.’ That’s exactly the conundrum.”
Certainly generational dynamics are in play, as I can attest from how personally millennials took it that someone would question the coolness or grow-the-game-wondefulness of #SB2k16's extreme examples of on-course antics, deemed tolerable by the conspicuous consumption sensibility of the super-high end Discovery Land. Many noted how relatable all of these antics made the protagonists and how groovy Bakers Bay golf appeared. However, golf's millennial problem has little to do with the coolness quotient and mostly everything to do with economics.
For years the First Tee has always felt slightly deranged in its mission to introduce new players and instill life skills to kids. The First Tee turns their graduates loose into an American game that has, in my lifetime, made it very hard for non-children of privilege to afford quality golf on a regular basis or to allow reduced-price access to clubs for those trying to build a career and/or family, with the eventual goal of full membership.
While I'm hearing the occasional heartening story of clubs re-introducing old membership programs to attract younger membersin grad school or who seem like upstanding citizens, most clubs in major cities do not have a need to go that route. The same goes for high-end, shiny new resorts like Bakers Bay where so many could relate to behavior they can only experience if they were...famous millionaires.
Most of the facilities "stooping" to this sensible, smart grow-the-game activity in the form of cutting some slack to a new generation are desperate and see bleak futures. Yet in major, thriving American cities where there are millennials who can afford to join a club or consider some sort of investment in the sport, they often have few decent options. Several clubs have gone down in flames trying to retain the "value" of membership entry over caving and letting in a new generation of a lower price.
Consider millennial loving Mona, who is a member of a private club in Ponte Vedra Beach.
He said he’d even welcome a backwards-hat-wearing-headphone-listening 20-something onto the very same fairways he plays.
“As long as they’re not slowing us up or interfering with our game in some fashion, let them do what they want to do,” he said. “I tell my friends that, too. What difference does it make if the group ahead of us is drinking beer, listening to music and having a good time as long as they’re not interfering with us. You have to be adaptable.”
I'd ask though, does that private club have an adaptable membership program for someone under 35 who is not the child of a wealthy parent, but who loves the game? In most major cities, such programs are rare and even at clubs in trouble, the desperation to protect existing member "value" indicates that affordable access to halfway-decent continues to be far more problematic for golf's future than suspending someone for having a cart race.
Golf's millennials have developed very much of an Us vs. Them attitude, though I'd argue the rise of Bernie Sanders' message suggests this attitude clash is an economic matter separate of golf. Though certainly some of the generational tension stems from a divide created by the dated atmosphere they find at golf facilities or or how antiquated some rules appear. But one of my favorite millennials, GolfDigest.com's Alex Myers, starts the Golf Digest podcast by noting the show originates from One World Trade Center, "overlooking dozens of courses that would never have us as members."
Oh they'll take you Alex, if you're willing to pony up $200,000 and $15,000 a year in dues. But golf now faces a generation that is eschewing the ownership society in part because of more economical ways of doing things (i.e. Uber), and in part because they simply can't afford the price tag attached to contagiously fun, satisfying golf access.
And that, I believe, is golf's real millennial conundrum.