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10. Can Rory McIlroy win at Augusta — completing the career Grand Slam?

Rory McIlroy and his victory trophy from the DP World Tour Championship, Dubai, courtesy of Rory’s official Facebook.

The most exclusive club in all of golf is the men who have won each of the four major titles for a career. That list is a small but stellar one — Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.

Rory McIlroy will again try in April at The Masters to add his name as the newest member to join such a select club.

 In his last three appearances at Augusta — McIlroy has finished in the top ten each time. But what is still remembered was his complete collapse in ’11 after going into the final round with a four shot lead. The meltdown did not derail the Northern Irishman for long as he came back to win his first major title that June in a record setting performance at the US Open at Congressional.

Nonetheless, McIlroy will again have to deal with the litany of questions that invariably be asked when he steps foot on the grounds of Augusta National. Foreign players have shown a clear affection for the course — the defending champion is Englishman Danny Willett — who seized the moment when defending champion Jordan Spieth had his own meltdown on the par-3 12th during the final round.

 McIlroy has clearly shown that when in top form he is fully capable in dominating any event — including majors having won four. But there have been times when a balky putter has betrayed him and the ever swift greens at Augusta are quick to expose golfers who cannot handle the array of vexing contours they possess. There’s not many players who have won three of the four majors in a career but Rory at 27 has plenty of time to push himself into the most exclusive club in all of golf. Until he does those nagging questions will continue to be asked.

 


9. Can Tiger compete in a major championship?

Woods at the Hero World Championship, courtesy of Tiger’s official Facebook.

After sitting nearly all of the ’16 season and not having played in a professional event since the ’15 Wyndham Championship, Tiger Woods emerged to play in his own event — the Hero World Challenge in December. Woods did complete 72 holes but his play was erratic —  far from the kind of form he will need to show if he is ready to compete on a regular basis with the world’s finest players.

The question remains can Tiger compete in a major championship? His last win came in ’08 with his epic 3rd US Open win at Torrey Pines. His last PGA Tour win came in ’13 at the WGC Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone. 

The last time Woods finished in the top ten in a major came in ’13 at The Open Championship at Muirfield where he earned a tie for 6th. The last time Woods broke 70 in a final round of a major championship came in ’11 when shot 67 at Augusta finishing in a tie for 4th at The Masters.

Woods has another streak going — one he wants to end now. In his last three major appearances he has missed the cut in all of them.

The bottom line is simple – can Woods re-establish himself as relevant on the world stage of professional golf? That question remains to be answered. Woods will turn 41 before the New Year commences. Tiger is eager to show he can once again stir the crowds and show all the doubters he has one last final chapter to write. Curing a wayward driver and getting the chipping yips he showed in ’15 in his rear view mirror is all part of the storyline that will play out in ’17. No pun intended — Woods is not just yet out of the woods yet.

 


 

8. Can golf really speed up?

The constant chatter among golf observers is whether the sport is heading the same way bowling did just a few years back. The number of players playing the game has fallen in the last few years and that includes new course construction which has literally come to a halt in America as supply still outraces demand.

The big question is whether Millennials, women and minorities will view golf as a recreational pursuit worthy of their time.

The world of 2016 — soon to be 2017 — is fixated on quickness — how much can one do in a compressed time frame. Twitter, Instagram — you name it.

The biggest mark against golf is that 18-hole rounds takes up too much time to play. The four hour round of golf is akin to seeing dinosaurs walk the face of the earth — clearly extinct in both instances. The world is rushing even faster and faster — trying to accomplish more is seen as an absolute imperative.

3 young golfers having a blast, photo courtesy of ORCA Report.

There have been attempts to alleviate the time crunch — 9-hole courses are leading the way. Some courses even offer less number of holes than that.

There’s been a push by major golf organizations — the USGA promoted the “While you’re young” campaign to get people aware of what they are doing when on the course. A companion program was also pushed urging golfers to “Play it Forward.” This program would set golf courses up with tees located in a far forward area so that golfers would face less acreage to cover and thereby finish rounds sooner.

How much of this has really changed the way golf is operating? Hard to say. Traditionalists don’t see much wrong and those who have not played the game see golf as a throwback to what Grandpa and Dad used to do with their available time.

Golf is facing another time crunch. When baby boomers age out the replacing of them will not be automatic with the next generation. Golf will either fit into the new paradigm of what younger customers want or it faces the risk of a significant uptick on the number of golf courses shuddering their operations completely.

 


7.  Is Dustin Johnson finally able to really become the world’s number one player?

Dustin Johnson in action, courtesy of Dustin’s Facebook

The word “talent” can be a heavy anchor to haul around. Dustin Johnson has been on the PGA Tour since earning his card in late ’07 and in that time frame it’s easily been conceded he has always possessed a deep reserve of top tier talent. The issue has been can Johnson harness that talent and reap dividends of the highest order.

Until this past season — Johnson was seen as an underachiever — a golfer who often contended but when crunch time came in major events there would be any number of things happening that would push him outside the winner’s box. 

That storyline ended in ’16. Johnson earned his first major event in winning the US Open at Oakmont this past June. It was a gallant effort given how Johnson just the year prior three-putted the final hole and handed the championship to Jordan Spieth.

Getting the first major title had long been something the lanky golfer from South Carolina had wanted to do. At Oakmont Johnson had to overcome a rules fiasco — not of his doing — but how it was handled by the USGA during the middle of the final round. Johnson would go on to win 3 times in the season — be the leading money winner — and earn player-of-the-year honors.

Johnson took seriously his situation as ’16 was ready to start. His commitment to personal workouts increased — his desire to sharpen a flawed wedge game was considerable. Johnson’s home life has been a key factor with a Gretzky connection — with Wayne the former all-time hockey great and his fiancé Paulina and now young son.

The issue for Johnson now is to show that at 32 he is now ready to claim the top position in the world rankings. Such a position has been shared by a range of players — but Johnson has never been at the top. Is Dustin ready to make that leap? He says he is. The year ahead will clearly answer that.

 


6. Will other golf equipment companies follow the lead of Nike?

Image courtesy of Nike Golf.

The famous “swoosh” is no longer in the golf equipment industry after selling clubs for 14 years and golf balls for 18. Nike pulled the plug — ending a golf connection mainly aided by the likes of key endorser Tiger Woods. Frankly, Nike never really developed a deep following with core golfers.

#TeamAdidas, courtesy of Dustin Johnson’s Facebook

What became clear to Nike is that golf as a sport is not growing — but actually losing players. Nike will continue to sell shoes and apparel — two core areas it excels in doing. But the broader issue is how healthy are the other equipment companies?

Adidas, the parent company for TaylorMade put its golf company on the sales block. Callaway, at one time, the leading golf equipment company in terms of revenue, finally returned to profitability in 2014. Titleist filed for a public offering this past October and the results were good — but far from off the charts.

What’s hanging over golf’s head is a simple reality — in 2005 there were 30 million people who played at least one round of golf. By 2016 that number had dropped to 24 million, according to the National Golf Foundation.

Losing Nike will help the remaining equipment companies but the spike is likely going to be a small one and only temporary at best. But the reality is that few saw Nike leaving given what seemed to be its deep commitment to the sport. With one big shoe now having been dropped — is a second just around the corner?

 


5. How good a course is Erin Hills?

When the USGA opted to include legitimate public courses into the rota for the US Open starting in ’02 with Bethpage State Park’s Black Course — the question was how many other similar type courses would be considered? Since that moment two others have hosted with the likes of Torrey Pines and Chambers Bay respectively. In fact, Torrey will again host in 2021.

Gorgeous view of Erin Hills Golf Course, courtesy of Erin Hills official Facebook page.

In 2017 the US Open heads to Wisconsin for the first time and played at Erin Hills — a big brawny layout in north central Wisconsin that opened its door in 2006. Just four years later — the facility landed the host role for America’s national championship.

After having been played at Oakmont — a perennial old-time favorite — the impact of Erin Hills remains a huge question mark. Many of the world’s best players have not played the course and likely many won’t until the event draws nearer. 

The course can stretch beyond 8,000 yards and the interesting question will be how Executive Director Mike Davis sets up the course for the event. Likely the course will be in the 7,600 to 7,800 area.

Erin Hills hosted the ’11 US Amateur but taking on the game’s best amateurs is one thing — testing the world’s best players quite another. The USGA took criticism the last time the Open was played at a public course with Chambers Bay in ’15 given its lack of suitable viewing areas and inconsist putting surfaces, to name just two elements of concern.

To its credit the USGA firmly believes public golf is the backbone of the game in America and the staging of its premier event at such courses is a solid way to expand the profile of the game.

Erin Hills will clearly reap the bounty that comes with staging a US Open. Whether such a host role proves memorable is one key question that needs answering come June.

 


4. Can the Kirkland ball displace the Pro V1 and ProV1x and with it the Titleist brand?

4 Layer design of Kirkland golf ball, courtesy of GOLF WRX

Golf ball loyalty is something golfers take very seriously. For a number of years the Titleist ball family has been the most dominant golf ball in the market. The market share for just the Pro V1 and Pro V1x is nearly 30% of the total and when all of the ball brands handled by Titleist is added up that easily exceeds 50%, according to Golf Datatech. Getting a high quality golf ball is central for core golfers and they’ve shown a willingness to fork over $50 or more for a dozen for the Pro V1 and Pro V1x models.

Titleist 1, courtesy of INFOBOLASDEGOLF

Now emerging is a new competitor — the Kirkland golf ball. Say that again? That’s right — the Kirkland golf ball. Sold in your neighborhood Costco for just $15 per dozen. How popular have the balls been? Even after restocking the balls quickly sold out in just a few hours. The quality of the ball is said to be a close match to what the other high performance balls are providing. 

For the big time golf ball producers — especially Titleist — the impact the Kirkland ball is causing clearly merits attention.

Titleist has been the 800-pound gorilla in the golf ball category for many, many years. However, the consumer of today has certainly shown a quick capacity to switch purchases especially when performance is connected to a price point that’s winning the day.

Will the Kirkland phenomenon continue? Clearly, Titleist and other big name ball producers will be watching if the sensation this holiday season has real staying power.

 


3. Does the American course market need to lose 20% of its existing portfolio to regain its health?

Illustration courtesy of Nate Beeler / Washington Examiner, PoliticalCartoons.com

Since the end of The Great Recession in ’09 the hard cold truth is inescapable – new golf courses are no longer being built in America and the norm is that closings will continue to far outpace any openings for the foreseeable future.

The major golf organizations came slowly to this new reality — some initially stating the impact was simply cyclical and not a clear paradigm shift.

Courses are being forced to provide huge discounts to attract players and the resulting scrum has pushed facilities already weak from limp demand into the critical phase of day-to-day survival.

It now appears more and more courses will be at the point of no return. Some have suggested that for the market to truly stabilize the elimination of a number of courses — there are approximately 16,000+ in America — could prove an overall strengthening for those that survive.

Is a 20% decline likely? Hard to say. But golf courses do cost a significant amount of money to operate. Escalating costs are clear for any with eyes to see. Water is becoming an even more serious issue for facilities located in arid areas. The very elite courses will remain for sure but those operating close to the margin may find a continued existence will only delay the inevitable.

 


2. Can the 60% of newcomers to golf who head to TopGolf actually be enticed to actually playing the real game?

TopGolf’s Edison, NJ course, courtesy of the official TopGolf Twitter.

Since coming onto the scene just a few years ago — TopGolf is accelerating its position in today’s marketplace. Originally started in 2000 in the United Kingdom — the company was purchased by American investors with Dallas now as its corporate headquarters. TopGolf reinvented the driving range business. Want to talk about growth? Try the following numbers — closing in on 50 locations the bulk in the USA — over 10,000 employees and serving 13 million guests annually. There’s only one word to describe that — staggering.

TopGolf has taken the staid driving range and made it into the chic cocktail party serving food and drinks — with golf part of the agenda. 

Roughly 60% of the people who come to TopGolf have never picked up a golf club until that visit.

The issue is whether a good portion of that percentage actually decide to take up traditional golf. That’s unknown. There’s no metric at this moment to measure that element.

TopGolf has demonstrated in a very quick manner that making golf more “fun” is central to why people are flocking to their locations. Can such momentum continue? Right now the leadership in TopGolf says “yes” in a big time way. If TopGolf can show it can provide a real pipeline for future players then its role will clearly be a tipping point for an industry clearly in need of being resuscitated.

 


1. Where has the American female professional golfer gone?

Professional Golfer Lexi Thompson, courtesy of Lexi’s official Facebook.

For many years the imprint of women’s golf rested with American golfers. The names of Nancy Lopez, Pat Bradley, Amy Alcott, Patty Sheehan, Julie Inkster — were all key performers. When Sweden’s Annika Sorenstam entered the scene in the mid-1990’s that dominance of USA-born players started to turn.

In the last several years it’s become clear that American female professional golfers are at best a side note to what has become truly an international presence — with those hailing from South Korea leading the way in a big time manner.

The current world rankings have just three (3) Americans in the top 25. The leading player is Lexi Thompson who has shown fine form and likely will be a major contender for a number of years to come. The rest of the picture is anything but sure. Stacey Lewis — ranked 13th, has not won an LPGA event since 2014. Recently married the question is can Lewis rekindle the early drive she showed when winning two majors.

So what country is dominating?

The prodigy Lydia Ko meeting her fans, courtesy of Lydia’s official Twitter.

No less than eleven (11) female professionals are from South Korea among the top 25. With one each from the following other Asian countries — Thailand, China and Japan. That doesn’t include the world’s number one player – Lydia Ko — who hails from New Zealand but has Asian parents.

American women’s golf is not in total retreat as many of the colleges and universities are promoting various players to the next level. However, few have shown a competitiveness to handle the various players from all different corners of the globe.

The Asian influence has shown no inclination to dissipate and if the recent past has shown anything — it is the sheer likelihood that the overall dominance will only increase.

The key factor for LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan who has excelled in building the international side of things is getting an American presence which will be able to add a real interest to the game in the States. Michelle Wie was supposed to be that golfer — the reality is that despite wining the Women’s Open a few years ago — she is not likely going to be anything close to what her potential had predicted. The weight for the moment is on the shoulders of Thompson — she will need to somehow climb a mountain that’s proved ever too steep for her fellow American players.

Ladies Professional Golf Association

 

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