“Let’s play 12!” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongues of most golfers headed to their local tracks for Saturday morning Nassaus. Jack Nicklaus, however, said Monday that shortening a typical day on the links to 12 holes would attract more kids and older people to the game.
Nicklaus even offers 12-hole options at two of his courses — Muirfield and the Bear’s Club — much to the delight of some of the clubs’ players.
“My seniors are loving it,” Nicklaus told The Tennessean. “The game is so difficult to start with. You take kids. They start basketball at a 6-foot hoop, 7-foot hoop, small ball, big ball….All the sports work their selves up. In golf, you start with a set of clubs and a hard golf ball and it’s not easy.
“It’s the health of the game, the growth of the game, keeping people in the game, that I’m interested in,” he said.
How about four? Jim Remy, recent past president of the PGA of America, applauds Nicklaus’ initiative but goes him one better. Remy has introduced a four-hole “Family Fore Golf Course” at Okemo Valley Golf Club in Ludlow, Vt., where he is VP of golf.
“I learned from skiing, which has beginner trails,” Remy told us Wednesday. “In golf, we give you lessons and tell you to go out and stay up with the people in front of you.
“This is like a beginner’s trail for golf,” noted Remy, whose course is part of the
Okemo Mountain Resort that includes a winter ski destination. “It gives people the opportunity, in a comfortable environment, to get introduced to the game and succeed at it relatively quickly.”
Anyone with a passing interest in golf knows that the industry’s in trouble. Courses are closing and rounds are down — some 2.3 percent in 2010 compared with the year before, according to the National Golf Foundation. Some 1.5 million rookies tried the game and another 2.1 million returned to the course, but 4.6 million golfers who played in 2009 took their discretionary income elsewhere in 2010, said the NGF.
The economy is the most obvious culprit, but you could point to the difficulty of the game and five-plus-hours on the course as deterrents to newbies. Courses are doing everything they can — from offering daycare to cooking classes — to attract and retain golfers.
The newest trend appears to be charging lower rates for fewer than the traditional nine or 18 holes. In addition to Okemo Valley, which launched its four-hole circuit last season, Blissful Meadows in Uxbridge, Mass., is experimenting with a three-hole scorecard and accompanying $10 fee ($17 with a cart).
Too much time. “One of the biggest reasons why people don’t play golf is the time factor,” Blissful Meadows’ head pro Matt Griffith told us recently. “They don’t want to spend six hours on the course.”
Between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m., golfers may play a path at the central Massachusetts course that includes the 17th, 15th, and 16th holes. Holes one, two, and three are available for the short course on weekdays after 5:30 p.m.
Remy chose another route. He worked with his course superintendent to develop a training area into a separate trail. Golfers may play four holes, ranging from 60 yards to 100 yards, any Friday through Sunday from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Okemo charges adults $10 and juniors $5 for eight holes.
“We have to address, as an industry, how to get people to play more golf and have more fun,” said Remy, who has been deeply involved with player development with the PGA. “We need more easier and [fewer] harder golf courses.”
Of course, shrinking courses, expanding golf holes, and other attempts to make golf more accessible to newcomers is not for everyone. Eric Chapin, the accountant for Millwood Farms Golf Course, a 14-hole track in Framingham, Mass., believes shorter courses are not the prescription for a healthier industry.
Gimme 18. “He’s [Nicklaus] old now, though,” Chapin, a single-digit handicapper, said in reaction to the golf great’s idea for condensing a round of golf. “I’m not going out there to play 12 holes. I’ll walk 18.”
The family-owned Millwood Farms GC opened in 1968 on the site of an actual dairy farm. Originally a nine-hole course, the Drake family purchased additional land but only had room for five additional holes.
Chapin recognized the advantage of shorter courses for some aging golfers or youngsters new to the game. As for “more serious golfers,” however, Chapin said even his course was a non-starter.
“[Nicklaus’ concept] is an interesting idea,” he said, “but I know for someone like me if I played 14, I’d want to play six more.”
(Emily Kay is a regular contributor to New England Golf Monthly. Check her out on the Waggle Room, Boston Golf Examiner, National Golf Examiner, and GottaGoGolf websites. You may also follow Kay on Twitter @golfexaminer.)