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Market Watch: "How much longer can golf survive?"

It's been a while since we've had a golf-is-dead piece to consider and as much as it pains me to say it, this one from Jason Notte at Market Watch scores a few points. Thanks to reader Blake for sending and sharing some thoughts on how, unfortunately this resonates with him as a 30-year-old golfer.

Looking at The Masters and other recent data Notte notes the many issues golf faces are related to demographics and a change in what people want to watch.

In 2014, Nielsen noted that 63% of the PGA’s television audience was over the age of 55. Some 87% of that audience was white, while only 12% was younger than 35. By comparison, only 25% of the National Basketball Association’s audience is 55 or older, 47% is younger than 35, and 57% is nonwhite.

The LPGA’s key demographic isn’t all that different from that of its male counterparts. Both the PGA and LPGA have a viewership that’s about 63% male. Roughly 64% of the LPGA’s audience is 30 or older, and 84% is white.

Golf’s core audience is literally dying, and it’s affecting golf far beyond its television broadcasts.

This conclusion will sting for many of us, and while an exaggeration, serves as a good wake-up call to keep up the current dialogue about livening up the game and how it is presented on television.

There is no second coming of Tiger Woods. There is no burgeoning generation of children longing to play a four-hour game filled with nitpicky, self-policing rules. There is no city in the U.S. willing to trade density and tax ratables for divots and rough. If golf has little to offer this country but televised shots of manicured greens and galleries and living rooms of cranky, aging diehards, then it should prepare to take a seat beside horse racing among U.S. sports antiques.

My main quibble with these types of stories and all other stories: golf has been around for centuries and will continue to be because it's a sound, interesting and unusual sport that can be enjoyed by all age groups.

The current cycle we are in is certainly not a positive one given that millennials, obsessed with their phones or other activities that do not extend their stay by more than ninety minutes, are the center of the business world's attention. So even though the folks with the buying power haven't cooled to the sport, the young but small audience is given too much weight in evaluating the viability of golf as a pastime.

Golf has been slow to keep its facilities up-to-date and this generation, which has high standards when it comes to food, beverage and experience, is understandably not enthused by golf's experience. There has been a shocking lack of imagination in offering promotions, incorporating technology or simply adjusting to basic societal shifts by golf facilities.

Golf's various tours and governing bodies are increasingly aware of these issues and making strides. Yet remain stubborn about addressing issues that will return the sport's ideal scale and pacing. Worse, there is often an air of desperation around initiatives that is noticed by those on the outside looking in.

And while golf on television has never been a young person's game or one that will attract mass audiences,  the right amount of broadcast modernization and incorporation of technology can at least keep viewers more engaged while serving players and sponsors better.

The question, however, remains: are all of these efforts just a bit too late?

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Reader Comments (70)

I've been a newspaperman for 30 years, a golfer for 45. Why does everything I touch die?
04.19.2017 | Unregistered CommenterPrut
A bit overdone and melodramatic...

golf is in better place than 90s... 80s.... 70s... etc... it may be in a holding pattern right now - that's about it.

Demographics suggest there was a population lull btwn baby boomers and millenials.... many take up golf later not earlier... the millenials coming of age will respark the growth.
04.19.2017 | Unregistered CommenterJohn C
So what if golf "dies". I'm sure I will still be able to play my round every weekend and will be able to find the pga tour on some outlet. Everything seeks its own equilibrium. The post tiger era for golf means golf is reverting to its mean. I'm fine with that.
04.19.2017 | Unregistered Commenterimasundevil
So the purveyors of golf must change the product radically to capture other demographics or die. As a cranky, aging diehard, I'd rather attended the funeral of golf than have it taken beyond the slam dunk contest it is now due to the current ball and equipment. This can happen when mom & pop become unhappy as the neighborhood grocery store because somebody convinced them they can be Publix.
04.19.2017 | Unregistered CommenterD. maculata
If golf reverts to being a game instead of an industry, I'll be quite happy. If the purses on the PGA Tour are nearer $1 million than $10 million, I'll be quite happy. Golf will always be a niche sport and guess what? I'm quite happy about that too.
04.19.2017 | Unregistered CommenterPeter Norrie
I am the golf course superintendent at the University of Georgia Golf Course. Historically we usually sell 32,000 rounds of golf on an annual basis. This past year we sold 38,000 and we are on pace to sell even more than that this year. The vast majority of those rounds sold are being purchased by UGA students (Millennials). What's not helping is the lack of quality paying jobs for the students when they graduate. Golf is good when mom and dad are paying for it but it becomes expendable when they have to pay for it themselves while making an entry level wage. I think that is what John C was saying in his post, in that they will come back once they can afford it or don't have the body to play more rigorous sports. I do however agree with Geoff's point about facility and operation upgrades. I'm 42 and I myself enjoy the incorporation of technology just as much as someone from a younger generation. I can go on forever but I'll stop here.
04.19.2017 | Unregistered CommenterScott Griffith
I feel with most things related to the game of golf, we have been systematically destroying the only real asset we have - our golf courses.

We seem daily to willingly be content to destroy these wonderful assets, sometimes at a whim, never more so than when the R&A believe they have a divine right to alter courses because they currently allocate the venues for The Open.

We have travelled so far from the heart and core of the game of golf that its acceptable to have extremely long courses, super manicured and with grass that would be privileged to be found on the rear lawn of Buckingham Palace. Modern courses are as far away from golf as they are as being sustainable.

Nevertheless, we have not learnt nor understood the damage this makes, first to our courses but more so to the game of golf. Golf courses by their very nature should be seen to be way more natural instead of artificial. Thus allowing the game to face the challenges that Nature throws up, but the game has lost its way in the pursuit of trying to achieve the lowest score for the player.

Todays game has lost sight of challenges, traps strategically verging on the penal, natural and manmade hazards, and good select of locations that can assist in the sustainability and maintenance of the course. We seem to have acquired the mentality of the Six Million Dollar Man believing in the doctrine ‘we have the technology so we can rebuild him’.

Sorry Guys, but its not the technology, it’s what to do with it and how to control it that has been lost in translation .

Super smooth fairways and billiard table smooth Greens is not the way to grow the game, nor is the idea of carts so very little walking required as that defeats the part of the reason for the game, the other is it destroys the players ability to understand the land and in particular Golf course architecture, which allows the player to understand the course. Just to finish my point today’s game allows distance aids and free reign of equipment technology which soon make the whole course and its current layout redundant in a short period of time. Add to this the obsession with long drives thanks to refusal to control technology or ball rollback and we have created an expensive course to purchase, run and maintain, pushing the game further and further back into the hand of the privileged wealthy players.

Golf is meant to challenge the player on all counts, not just to see how low his/her score can be. Of course sores will tumble if technology is geared towards the player as are todays golf courses. Clearly the fight has gone out of many of today’s players who prefer to ride instead of walking thus understanding the environment they are playing. The use of aids further reduces mental exertion and super over engineered, over manicured and over watered course that resemble more a country park than a challenging golf course.

All for the hope of a low score – sorry, but why in Hell’s name are you guys playing Golf, what is the point – its no longer golf more a version Croquet. To grow the game we first have to re-establish just what game it is you want to play and promote.
04.19.2017 | Unregistered CommenterTom Morris
Except for a slight uptick about 20 years ago, golf has only been played avidly by about 7% of the population. The game needs to focus on the millions of people who will be retiring over the next several years. Shorter more playable courses that can be walked easily and don't require a second mortgage to play. All the grow the game initiatives have not produced adequate results, especially junior programs. Seniors have time and money. Most people take up the game much later in life. Focus on that demographic.
04.19.2017 | Unregistered CommenterMike Stevens
With Feinstein unleashing those Mickey Rooney jokes, I think the youngers will come around any day
04.19.2017 | Unregistered CommenterMichael
Suggest you get more "digital". TV viewership isn't the only measure of the interest in golf or viewership any given day. Happy to provide some insight if you need it.
John C
04.19.2017 | Unregistered CommenterJohn C
You're confusing "interest" with that green stuff, John C. And I don't mean grass.
04.19.2017 | Unregistered CommenterD. maculata
Golf was my enduring passion for the past twenty years or so. I took lessons, planned vacations around golf, spent every moment I could playing and practicing, bought TV packages just to watch the Golf Channel, accumulated 200 plus books, and in recent years trolled through instruction videos online. Taking it up in my 30s, I was never going to be a scratch golfer, I've broken 80 once, scores in the low 80s were "a good day", 85 to 95 was bog-standard. (Please bear with me, i ain't proud.)
Turned sixty this year, had a refresher lesson in March and instructor wanted to change my putting, adopt a different stroke for short game and then wanted me to "rev" my left wrist on backswing like DJ. I tried for a couple of days to no avail. I played twice, made a few pars, mostly bogeys, some doubles and a few blow up holes. I realized I would die a miserable hack. It was like going to work and not getting paid. I didn't want golf to define who I am anymore.
I bought a video camera, began taking dance class, started learning a new language. It doesn't matter if I make mistakes. These things are making me happy. Making a mistake on the golf course would lead to cussing, beating myself up, feelings bordering on shame. It's not golf's fault. I read all the self-help books about not needing to be perfect but they gave only temporary respite. Friends would ask: "What did you shoot?" When really they should've said: "Did you have fun?"
It was fun watching Sergio win the Masters. I walked nine holes afterwards but it was like going on a date with an ex.
Golf for me has had to take a back seat; some days it isn't even on the bus.
04.19.2017 | Unregistered CommenterRoger Fanbelt
Before I clutch my pearls and get weepy over the 2014 Neilsen stats quoted above, I'd have to know if golf's viewer profile has changed significantly over the past 30 or 40 years. Did viewers get older, or did advertising execs gradually come to consider the over-50 viewer as less than wonderful? Sure, there are things you can't bother selling to the over-50s. They're going to use the same damned brand of toothpaste for the rest of their lives, no matter what you say. I actually do wince when I see some of the products targeted to golf viewers.

My hunch has been that interest in golf will fade away if young people don't have Par 3 courses, executive courses or low-cost munis to get the newcomers going. (This would include over-40s who can't run or play basketball anymore.) Trying to introduce a novice to golf on a high-dollar course just won't work.
04.19.2017 | Unregistered CommenterHod
Golf's primary challengers, expense and time, notwithstanding; often missed is the movement away from golf being a game. The simple notion of applying the club to the ball in a manner to move the ball toward a target and away from trouble, including the joy associated with manipulating the ball around trouble, has been replaced by complex instruction where the game manifests into an engineering equation to be solved. "What did I do wrong" sounds the reverberating bell.

Accentuating this is the desire to hit the ball further. Equipment manufacturers have responded to this reauest only to see the average length of a course increase as a response. For most players, hitting longer shots into greens because of this added length does not provide more "fun" but rather, serves to aid in moving the game to engineering. Compounding this is a ball and equipment that curves less. Creating a shot provides more fun than solving the equation.

While it will never happen, a game consisting of short, creative holes played with a ball designed to go the appropriate distance to fit such a course and that is easy to spin would bring more joy to its "players". Let's PLAY golf rather than solve golf.
04.19.2017 | Unregistered CommenterBlackmar
What about Top Golf? It is one example of golf being able to shift and offer new services. Yes a cynic would call Top Golf the same as bowling.
04.19.2017 | Unregistered CommenterScott
I don't have the answer for millennia but for me walking 50 yards backward from the green to the blue tees and then walking 50 yards back to where I was just standing is perverted. So is watching 200 other golfers I'm sharing a course with hit it 60 yards away from the fairway.
At this point I want a ball I can play from the forward tees and keep near the fairway.. Save me from walking the same ground for a 1/2 mile. I have way more fun playing with only a 7 iron teeing off from the rough beside the previous green.
04.19.2017 | Unregistered CommenterDon
The demographic of the average golf fan isn't really news. Everyone knows that it is old white guys. But guess what - many of those old white guys are rich. They drop $10k/year on their private club membership, spend thousands more to travel to Bandon, Cape Breton, Monterey, Scotland, Ireland, etc chasing their passion. And the trend of the last few decades is that the rich are getting richer and the poor aren't making up any ground. That may not be good for society but high end golf courses and resorts seem to be doing ok. Pebble Beach still doesn't seem to have any trouble getting people to pay $500 for a round of golf. And advertisers still like getting access to old rich white guys despite all of the hype about millenials.
04.19.2017 | Unregistered CommenterWayner
I agree with @masundevil & others. Golf will do fine and return to the historical participation level, after the recent fad/ bubble.

Golfers will always be able to find a course, and likely at more affordable prices. Golf 'business' with inflated equipment prices and greens fees and poorly-managed or unsustainable course operations will decline, but one can argue that this is a good thing.

TopGolf is NOT 'golf', and compares to an electronic game on your smartphone. It may be successful and be enjoyed by a lot of people, but it is not 'golf'. TopGolf customers will not likely migrate to real golf.

The only threat to golf is is being screwed up by changes aimed at growing the business, like relaxing rules and adding use of technology to make it easier.
04.19.2017 | Unregistered CommenterBud
@Prut, please touch the NBA...
04.19.2017 | Unregistered CommenterPops
Another golf is dead piece, while my local muni that is a solid course, decent shape and priced fairly will do 45K rounds this year. Eyeball demographics include every group except female millennials...
04.19.2017 | Unregistered CommenterConvert
The matter of correlation between viewership / ratings and advertising markets and the health of recreational golf seems plausible. The passing of Arnold Palmer highlighted the growth of golf with the rise of Arnold and TV.

I would disagree to extent that the game of golf, recreational game of golf needs to make dramatic changes to appeal to TV viewers and advertising execs.

But to extent of changes to make golf more affordable, more appealing to recreational golf - that I gladly agree. The cost of private golf membership (which was affordable to most middle income familys in the 60,70,80's), public/for profit courses, the cost of equipment, the pace of play, all need to be addressed and corrected to increase participation.

My local club, while failing at annual costs and pace of play - has added a junior membership for a high school or college player to join for the year with substantial access for an annual fee that is reasonable.

No matter what TV viewership is like - if costs, access and time required to play are not improved - golf will decline.
04.19.2017 | Unregistered CommenterCT007
"TV" golf and muni golf have little in common. The fact that all these metrics roll them into one is part of the problem. As a munihack, I like watching the Euro tour because I see more conditions that I recognize. This past weekend was a good example at the Trophy Hassan. Lots of loose impediments,leaves,twigs etc. Lots of inconsistent bunkers and green surrounds for short game shots. And lots of greens not exactly stimping the same. The result? -10 gets you in a playoff. So golf course conditions, just like lowering your HDCP gets much more expensive the closer you get to scratch. Well I have been at this game since I was 8 so I know this. But what about a newbie? They are asked to shell out $50 or more to play and they expect a "TV" course and instead get a muni. Imagine that expectation gap. Now kids get exposed thru first tee and junior tourney golf not tagging along with Dad or caddying.
Just like a lot of folks I didn't really play a lot until I was over 30 due to time and money and other sports. Until 30 I played city bball,softball, raquetball etc. My body didn't like that as much after 30 so I started playing more golf. Once millenials start hitting 30 a few will find golf. Golf is fine - "TV" golf is another issue.
Private clubs were changed forever when the tax laws subsidizing memberships thru business were changed 2 decades ago. Again,separate from golf. Resort golf relying on visitors got hit after 911 when traveling with clubs became more expensive and such a slog. But that affected the zealots more than casual players. The Tiger era was an exception- the game is returning to the mean.
04.19.2017 | Unregistered Commentermunihack
My family and I recently joined a country club in southeastern PA. Laid back, fun membership. Not stuffy. Nice old William Flynn design. Kids love the clubhouse, food, pool, etc. However, the club lost 40 golfing members during the off-season. There is one explanation...families have changed. My wife works full time as do I. Although she's awesome about it, I feel guilt leaving her with our 3 kids on Saturday and Sunday for 5-6 hours. I'm late 30s, with young kids. These are the prime years of these kids lives and I like to be around for them. I also don't like ditching the wife with the kids. That's the big problem these days. Everyone works just to make it and there is no primary child raising parent anymore. We both do so much.

When the kids are older and more self sufficient and our values are fully instilled in them, I will feel comfortable spending more time doing the hobby I love the most. I think most people my age feel the same way. There is a lull in the business because those of us in our 30s and 40s are trying to build our careers and raise our young families. We'll come back to the game when we feel a little more secure in both of those things.

I have suggested to our membership committee that having a few retired school teachers come and run a day care at the club on Saturdays and Sundays would bring a lot more people to the course on those days. Llanarch in Upper Darby is already doing that I've heard...
I'm retired, in my 60's, and play golf about 5 times a week.
When I was young I played baseball, football, basketball, tennis, and hockey.
I don't play those sports anymore.
I play golf.
That is what makes the game of golf unique, fun, and interesting.
That is the biggest selling point for the game.
04.19.2017 | Unregistered CommenterDave Andrews
The author goes on to detail the demographic of today's TV golf viewer...but without numbers from 10, 20, 30 years ago, they mean NOTHING....for all I know, they could be others have mentioned, golf has always attracted rich, old white men! That's a pretty good demographic to advertise to, I'd imagine!

Also, in a similar vein, stop showing stats without a baseline...for example, a new stat shown all the time is total feet of putts holed. Without knowing what the field average is, the stat is completely meaningless! Same with driving distance etc....
04.19.2017 | Unregistered CommenterManku
I wonder why the writer didn't reach out to a couple of corporate executives and ask them why they continue to spend millions on PGA Tour sponsorships.
04.19.2017 | Unregistered Commenterrgw
While golf is dying , the Golf Channel is selling new "short" courses being built at places like Pinehurst . Someone should let Matt Ginella know we HAVE short courses all over the country and they don't cost a small fortune to play. Tiger has designed a course for that fishing guy in the Ozarks. I am sure he sat at the design table late into the night , drawing up the plans for that one. Are the M's taking trips to Pinehurst and the Ozarks to play expensive golf ? The answer is NO. What age groups ARE showing up at those places to play expensive golf ? The people at those resorts can answer that question.

Old guys (and gals) have always been the demographic that keeps the local golf courses alive. This is not news . I didn't start playing golf until I was in my 30's . I made no appearances at Augusta for chipping and putting contests , yet somehow found my way to the game without the help of 150 dollar short courses at Pinehurst and digital technology. There is bifurcation in golf. People with money and time play the game in their world. The rest of us find our golf courses and spend our money on the game year after year , never setting foot on a Tiger Woods golf course , or even a Jack Nicklaus golf course. If golf is dying on the vine , I hope it starts at the top and takes a very long time to reach me out here in the wilderness of the game.
Golf is the best game on the planet . Maybe we don't need to carve a driver from a tree limb and play a leather ball stuffed with feathers , but we need the continuity of the game . It remains a very hard game to play and a very rewarding game to play. Don't mess with it too much for the sake of the people at the top . HEY ...TEACHER....leave our game ALONE !
04.19.2017 | Unregistered CommenterJJBeck
Golf is not going anywhere. TV golf is going away, eventually. It won't be missed, much. Ghost Jr. lives in Atlanta, has a good job. No place to play though. He grew up playing public courses that were well maintained and welcoming in a different city (which is now making noise about the nonexistent "waste, fraud, and abuse" associated with them). Municipal courses in Atlanta are indifferently maintained, unwelcoming, and crowded. No possible entry into any of the clubs/courses that should/could be available. He is a good player and will wait it out. Others, not so much. They do love Top Golf, though. For now.
04.19.2017 | Unregistered CommenterKLG
To me it's all part of the evolution of the game.....we are where we will always live on but it will never be the dominant species....those of us who love it will continue to do so and play wherever and whenever we can... the over commercialization of the game will continue to retract but that is a good thing IMHO.....for a lot of the reasons already stated above it is simply not a game that will ever appeal to the broader segment of the population...I don't agree with Trumps 'aspirational' view but I do think that expense, time commitment, and degree of difficulty will limit participation and growth...but I do agree that some of today's young people will be drawn to the game in their 40's and 50s when their lifestyle is more in line with the prerequisites of the game.
04.19.2017 | Unregistered CommenterKeith - NYC
Stated above, but I'll say it again...go by a TopGolf and then try to contend that golf is dying. It's not. It's changing.
04.19.2017 | Unregistered CommenterChris in NoVa
With so many insightful comments, from everyone, I almost have nothing to say...except...who gives a flying X about golf on tv? The sponsors? The club makers? The golf cart builders? Hasn't golf, like most sports, been abused long enough in the name of the almighty dollar? Golf does not need professional golf or tv golf. And the poor fellow who listened to a "golf pro" and changed his technique; stop playing strokes play, and find someone to have a match with!
04.19.2017 | Unregistered CommenterFore
I hope it survives till this weekend.
04.19.2017 | Unregistered CommenterJim
Exactly, FORE, exactly. Golf is not the pro game.
04.19.2017 | Unregistered CommenterMatt Evans
The decline in interest is there across the board, every network that televises golf is down, here is the info from Sports Media Watch:

"For the 11th straight week, Sunday PGA Tour ratings declined from last year.

Final round coverage of the PGA Tour Heritage tournament earned a 1.4 final rating and 2.3 million viewers on CBS, down 13% in ratings and 8% in viewership from last year (1.6, 2.5M) and down 39% and 34% respectively from the Jordan Spieth-fueled highs of 2015 (2.3, 3.5M).

It was the lowest rated and least-watched final round of the event since 2014, the last time it took place on Easter weekend (1.3, 2.0M).

Ratings and viewership have now declined for 11 straight final round windows on broadcast, with seven of those hitting multi-year lows in one or both measures. There have been some caveats — the Easter weekend, rain at the Houston and L.A. tournaments — but those alone cannot explain nearly three straight months of erosion.

Third round action on Saturday pulled a 1.1 and 1.5 million, flat in ratings and down 7% in viewership from last year (1.1, 1.7M) and down 21% and 23% respectively from ’15 (1.4, 2.0M). Overall, 17 straight PGA Tour windows on broadcast — and 19 of the past 21 — have declined.

Lead-in coverage on Golf Channel had a 0.3 (-25%) and 467,000 (-7%) on Saturday and a 0.3 (-25%) and 498,000 on Sunday (-20%)."

Since I track Golf Channel numbers as a hobby, here are the last 3 years of Golf Channel ratings during Masters Week, typically their best week of the year even though they don't broadcast the event.


PRIME TIME 2015-246,000 2016-214, 000 2017-196,000 DOWN 20%
TOT. DAY 215,000 201,000 177,000 DOWN 18%

I also noticed a big drop in Golf Central ratings but all of a sudden they aren't available anymore. SOURCE: Nielsen, Inc.
04.19.2017 | Unregistered CommenterBill Wilson
Man, I've been so buried in US political articles that I almost forgot what actual, reasonable, civil public commentary looked like. Thanks for all the great comments here, folks.
04.19.2017 | Unregistered Commenterdsl
First of all, golf's demise is being greatly overstated and perhaps the drop in the ratings at the Masters is actually a good sign. People are actually going out and playing the game. One thing is for sure Geoff, there were more people in attendance at the tournament than ever before and everyone from the Members of ANGC to rules officials to gallery guards who noted it privately to me. Television ratings for everything except the Super Bowl have gone down dramatically in the last decade because there are so many options in terms of viewing options and means of viewing them (namely internet streaming).

There are still over 15000 golf courses in the US and 150 in various stages of planning and construction according to a recent report and I am guessing that the correction is ending soon. What hurts is that the game has lost the basic and less complex courses that are needed to draw new players to the game. The other thing that hurts is the dumbing down of the game to members at clubs who have relaxed policies to draw in people and keep some who were thinking of dropping. Playing music on the course and stuff like that is not golf and really should not be around, particularly on practice tees where others can notice. So.. the game is becoming like Donald Trump's America, the haves vs. the have nots with a few of the have nots lacking the understanding of what he is doing.
04.19.2017 | Unregistered Commenterdrr345
Geoff Shackelford comes on here complaining that golf is not attracting millennials and then he participates in the laughable ripoff of First Take with Feinstein. What do millennials think when they see two homely middle age white guys trying to act all NBA cool with that lame act? Yo Shack, wassup wit dat? Lol, And you wonder why Golf Channel turns off millennials?
04.19.2017 | Unregistered CommenterChris Hughes
The Golf Channel turns off everyone with a brain in their head, aside from when they run Tournament coverage. At least the European Tour, which they would appear to have sod-all to do with. In order to have any credibility they need to do some real reporting, not just rah-rah stuff. Nobody wants to watch cheer-leading all the time.
04.19.2017 | Unregistered CommenterV.Lind
Played forever with 2 friends...until they had kids.
Golf will always be a game dictated by the time you have to play it...and thats not going to improve for people between 25 and 65 that are married with kids.
Golf will never be more than a niche sport and hobby. All the "growing the game" blather can't change real life.
Embrace the niche.
04.19.2017 | Unregistered Commenterjjshaka
And yet no one can get a tee time anywhere living near civilization. Not worried.
04.19.2017 | Unregistered CommenterBSloan

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