Golf Is Becoming a Game of Wider Demographics

The most social of all games is reflecting changes in society, with the landscape of the 800-year-old sport molding itself to more diverse duffers and families
Photo: Roy Ritchie

Along a marshy stretch of shoreline in Myrtle Beach, S.C., known as The Grand Strand, rests a vintage Old South private club embodying the essence of America’s 20th-century golf tradition. So iconic was, and is, The Dunes Club Golf & Beach Club, that it was the inspiration for a classic Saturday Evening Post cover illustration.

The portrait depicts a rainy weekend afternoon in The Dunes Club’s locker room. Men of middle and elder age, all white, and all of presumed economic advantage, are whiling away the hours, waiting for thundershowers to pass ahead of their return to the course.

Some are depicted playing cards. Others are practicing their putting strokes or inspecting equipment. A few are enjoying conversation. The message is as clear as the scene that has unfurled, absorbingly, from the artist’s brush: This is a man’s game. And this is a classic man’s moment of camaraderie and fellowship in post-World War II America.

Almost five decades later (the cover appeared in 1961), golf can be seen through a different prism, at a place such as Shepherd’s Hollow Golf Club in Clarkston.

On a sun-splashed morning in spring, in the balmy pre-twilight hours of summer, one of metro Detroit’s most upscale public (or, daily-fee, as they are more fashionably known) golf courses is a haven not only to men, but to women, African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics, and adolescent kids of both sexes. Even at some of the area’s private clubs — local versions of The Dunes — women, non-Caucasians, and girls as well as boys, are now among the people teeing up.

“There’s a diversity to the game that was never evident in the past,” says Mike Bylen, who built and oversees three metro Detroit golf clubs: Pine Trace in Troy; Cherry Creek in Shelby Township; and Shepherd’s Hollow, the gloriously hilly and pine-laced golf retreat built on 300 acres leased from the Jesuit order of Roman Catholic priests. “Golf the past 20 years went from what people would term a rich man’s sport to a very eclectic game.”

A few miles away, at Carl’s Golfland in Bloomfield Hills, a parallel scene to the Shepherd’s Hollow tableau occurs just about any day of the calendar year. Carl Rose, Jr., son of the man who founded one of the nation’s most prosperous retail centers for golf equipment and apparel, has noticed the difference.

His perspective is visual and empirical. Retail data have supported general observations by Rose and his staff and made it necessary to change, proportionally, the way in which Carl’s Golfland orders and presents merchandise.

“Kids from different backgrounds,” Rose says, summarizing one of golf’s big changes in the past 20 years. “Golf was more of an elitist, country-club thing for so long. But now you have all these kids who have an interest in playing — and girls, too. You can have 30 or 40 girls trying out for a high-school girls’ team.”

Those of minimal consciousness the past 10 years get one guess as to which golfer and mega-celebrity has had the heaviest influence on the kids. Tiger Woods has been to golf what Johnny Carson 40 years ago was to late-night television entertainment.

“I would say a lot of young people coming into the game are taking golf very seriously, and I think they get that largely from Tiger,” Bylen says. ”And I don’t’ mean just African-American kids. It’s kids from all ethnicities and backgrounds. They’re influenced by his professional approach to the game.”

Al Kalita is assistant sales manager at Jawor’s Golf in Roseville, which, like Carl’s Golfland, is a 50-year-plus retail outlet and golf range that has been an institution within metro Detroit’s consumer-golf culture. Kalita, too, can point to Woods’ effect everywhere: on the increasingly broad range of people who come into Jawor’s; and on those who ask about Nike equipment, the label Woods endorses.

“He’s actually made an impact on golf in every age group and every segment,” Kalita says. “He’s generated more interest in the game, no question. He’s an incredible person and golfer. No adjectives are left to describe the guy.”

What golf’s wider demographics have not yet brought about in 2008 is a serious advance in golf’s economics. The game in most areas of the United States, including metro Detroit and throughout much of the state, is suffering from a glut of golf courses, as well as from a sub-par economy and its consequences, beginning with fewer disposable consumer dollars. Facilities that were expensive to build, risky to finance, and costly to maintain, are begging for more customers. “We’ve just got an oversupply of courses, no doubt about that,” says Dean Horn, president of Franklin Management, a golf-course consulting business based in Clarkston. “Last year, for the first year since the 1940s, more golf courses in the U.S. were closing than opening.”

As for private clubs, the cover illustration would be a different picture today. Clubs in southeast Michigan that 20 years ago had long waiting lines of prospective members who might pay anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000 and more, merely for the right to join, are in many cases now recruiting new members and asking for a fraction of their old initiation fee.

Golf merchandise is a vast and separate galaxy of commerce. Equipment and apparel sales, nationally, have been challenged by the economy, but golfers seem to find a way to scrape up cash for the latest and greatest.

Increasingly, those investors are women. Metro Detroit’s trends have been in step with the rest of the golfing nation. Women have been playing and enjoying golf in expanding numbers, finding in golf the same personal and professional gratification that once was the nearly exclusive province of men.

“You see more women, in part, I think, because they can now use golf for business purposes,” says Kalita, a nephew of the late Chet Jawor, the PGA golf professional and retail wizard who founded Jawor’s in 1954. “Women get invited to outings now. They’re doing more of the sales work that used to be done exclusively by men, and they want to entertain clients. The women take the game pretty seriously, too. They want the nice equipment and nice clothes.”

Rose agrees, saying, “[Women] expect the same things available to men. Years ago, manufacturers didn’t even address that part of the market. A product geared to women was, most of the time, an after-thought.

“Now, manufacturers have embraced the women’s market. They realize women are spending their own money, rather than getting golf equipment from their husband or boyfriend.”

For most golfers, however — regardless of gender or ethnicity — the game is not about equipment, or even about the number of strokes recorded on a scorecard. Golf, rather, is about the soul. It is an experience of the senses, wrought from sunshine, fresh air, and lush grass. Perhaps the most social of all games, a golf round enables sport to be interlaced with conversation, laughter and, so many times, a deepening human bond that can be traced to the sense of honor and individuality at the heart of a game more than 800 years old.

It’s no wonder that golf found such harmony in Michigan and, particularly, in metro Detroit. Here, the convergence of water, hills, and accessible land enabled golf courses to become a natural part of the recreational landscape.

Detroit Golf Club and Oakland Hills Country Club were constructed in the early 20th century (the venerable Scottish golf-course architect, Donald Ross, designed both) as true country clubs — golf havens catering to Detroit’s affluent city-dwellers. The past 25 years have seen a different kind of golf expansionism in Michigan. The northern Lower Peninsula became home to a string of resort-based golf courses, many of them built on property already established as ski resorts, such as Boyne Mountain and Crystal Mountain.

Metro Detroit saw a construction boom, as well, with upscale courses coming aboard: The Orchards, Pine Trace, Cherry Creek, The Golden Fox, Twin Lakes, Shepherd’s Hollow, and others, all offering golfers a more cushy golf experience than could be typically enjoyed at no-frills municipal courses.

With the additional courses came the newer, more inclusive culture to which Bylen and Rose refer. Ethnic minorities and women — including girls liberated by Title IX and its legal decree that school-age girls had the same right to participate in athletics as boys — broadened golf’s appeal and helped fuel the course-construction rage.

The golf industry’s question, locally and beyond, is whether enough new players, and sufficient consumer dollars, can be found to sustain those new courses. Another question is: Where will people in the 21st century find the necessary time to play?

Workplaces are more productive than they were 30 and 40 years ago. Men and women spend more time at their jobs. The days when Dad was home for the day at 5 p.m. and then fled to the country club are not as prevalent.

Sandy Mily, general manager and part owner of Fox Hills Golf & Banquet Center in Plymouth, says the 63-hole facility she and her sister, Kathy Aznavorian, own has been walloped in the past seven years by financial and cultural realities.

Fox Hills now does 15 to 20 percent fewer golf rounds each year than before the 9/11 terrorist attack that ushered in a period of economic decline throughout most of the country.

In the case of Fox Hills, corporate golf outings, which were a huge revenue-producer for years, began to dwindle, in great part because Ford Motor Co. and its ripple businesses encountered tough times.

Mily also remembers a scene from 1974, the year her father, Alexander Dul, bought Fox Hills. She compares that setting with today’s realities and sees how life for many has changed.

“Golfers, men, sat for hours at the golf course,” she recalls of those days in the mid-70s. “I used to be appalled that men would come in at 6 a.m. and sometimes not go home until 6 o’clock that night, or later.

“Today, I have children, so I’ve seen the difference in the times,” she says. “Where my dad would never go to a game I played in, today when you go to any game or sport where your child participates, the dads are all there. They’re really involved in their kids’ activities. So it’s not only [tough] economics at work now, but the switch to the household family unit has really represented a flip-flop.”

Pat Damer can speak personally to the same change in habits, and even values. Damer, who is based in Oxford, is Midwest representative for Golfswitch, an international online booking agent for tee times at courses (Shepherd’s Hollow and Cherry Creek are local courses served) here and abroad.

“I’m 38 and I have three little girls, and I struggle to find time to play,” says Damer, a Bellaire native and PGA golf professional who began his golf career as a caddie in northern Michigan’s resort-golf circle. “And I’ve got good access to facilities.”

Damer realizes that the baby boomers are heading into retirement and deeper into their twilight years. He sees too many golf courses with too few players, and too many of those facilities selling tee times for the same money — and sometimes less — than they were 10 years ago, because of over-supply.

It’s a problem that neither Tiger Woods, nor the increasingly robust women’s workplace, can by themselves remedy. “We’re gonna have to get creative in this business to drive the 25-to-40-year-olds onto the golf course,” Damer says. “You go anywhere on Saturday, you see all those kids on soccer fields, which tells you we [those in the golf industry] need to roll up our sleeves and get more people out there.”

One wonders what the Saturday Evening Post artist would sketch today if he were preparing his easel for a glimpse at golf in America — at golf in metro Detroit. The likelihood is that he would simply study a particular setting, note the innocence and the humanity in whatever fashion it manifested itself, and let us enjoy the scene and subtleties. That it would be a different, more diverse, picture from 1961 is reason enough to believe that golf, and America, have evolved for the better.