Golf's Escapism and the Ebbs and Flows of the Game.


The third hole at Wentworth Hills

In James Dodson’s book, The Range Bucket List, there is a chapter where he catches up with an old friend and amateur golf legend Bill Campbell. As James left Bill, sadly for the last time, Campbell would pass away shortly after Dodson’s visit, he said something rather profound about golf:

The popularity of the game has always ebbed and flowed. Golf is a personal game that curiously tends to reflect the fluctuations of the society around it. Right now golf is in a fallow time. Fallow times are useful. They let you regenerate and take stock. My feeling is that there were a number of people around the game who viewed golf primarily as a financial opportunity, not a game for enriching their lives with friends and experiences. But the old game is still with us, and it always will be.

Campbell said this in 2013. In 2020, I think we might be looking at the “enriching their lives with friends and experiences” portion of the ebb and flow of golf. It’s well documented that golf exploded this summer. It was one of very few activities that people could do outdoors together while staying safe and distanced and reaching that 10,000 daily step goal. Families played together. People rediscovered the game after years away with the help of friends or spouses or just out of sheer boredom.


There aren’t a lot of experiences out there for most of us right now. Traveling for pleasure is stressful, looked down upon, or completely impossible. Hopping in a car and driving somewhere new to play golf, thankfully isn’t taboo or shameful. It’s a way to kill time and have a bit of adventure. There aren’t many experiences at our fingertips right now that don’t involve sitting on a couch with a remote in hand.


This golf boom also reflects the “fluctuations of society.” In it’s simplest form, golf is played in a field with a stick, a ball, and a hole in the ground. That’s the “old game” that Campbell mentions. It’s the soul of the game that existed before massive, opulent clubhouses and perfectly maintained courses. Right now, society as a whole is looking for ways to escape reality during the day. To wander without a mask on, catch-up with old friends that you might typically meet at a bar for a drink.


Halloween was Exhibit-A in the argument for escapism. A quick check on Instagram provided endless posts of people in costumes, grasping at a holiday that usually brings friends and strangers together. Halloween, which is not in my top ten favorite holidays (holiday power ranking post coming soon…), gave many people a chance to try to make 2020 feel like any other year. Eating candy, walking the streets in a different type of mask, sharing sidewalks and front-yards.


Back in March, puzzles, scrapbooking, baking, and sewing were making a comeback - simple old-school activities. Things our parents and grandparents did to pass the time. Golf had the same effect, too; it became a connection to the past, to our parents or grandparents or a past version of ourselves. An old-fashioned activity that felt fun and cool and hip.


Society is going to need activities like golf to continue to grow and expand in different ways and be different things for different people. Just look at courses like Flossmoor in Illinois, bought by two brothers on March 1, 2020 (great timing). They have discovered that a little music and a laid-back vibe can replace the sports bar of the past. The last decade has seen the golf experience change and morph in different ways. TopGolf and pitch-and-putt and short courses and playing 9 holes and putting courses are not only gateways into the game but can stand alone as fun activities. Not every form of golf needs to push people towards 18 holes on a weekend and a golf trip once a year. Jim Urbina on the No Laying Up podcast this week talked about designing the punchbowl putting green at Bandon Dunes and said he wishes each city had their own massive putting green, citing Central Park as a perfect place for a bit of putting fun.


Just like any sort of hobby, some people will lose interest, but others will look back in 10 or 20 years and realize that golf, or golf adjacent activities, became an escape from a pandemic in 2020 or just a way to work off all the bread and cookies they were baking while they were stuck at home.

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