Fore! Is that you? How has golf caught so many more strokes in the space of a decade? With your armana filled with lightning fluffs and occasionally your left ankle caught in a tree branch?
Shane Lowry was born in West Cork in 1996, and may have played his first adult golf ball in 2002. Liam Stacey, the man to whom Lowry refers, was born in 1989. When both of them were starting out, none of the sport’s other big stars had achieved even one Olympic gold medal. Rory McIlroy was taking his first swing at the age of eight, Tiger Woods only turned professional in 1996.
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At the Ryder Cup in Scotland in September, the home side won in stunning fashion, seeing off a US team made up primarily of the oldest, least-accomplished men in the game. There has been a similar theme in the Ladies European Tour, the first major of the year. When the fans were singing Hello, Cardiff, as Caroline Masson qualified for the first year of its latest season in May, Celtic Manor had been the venue since 1999.
In May, Hills edged the Ryder Cup. For at least, as many golfers like to point out, it was the first British country victory in golf’s biggest battle, five decades after “miracle in south Wales” at Turnberry. Had it been delivered on home soil, that would have meant the term “British hero” being extended to a nation of which golfing great turned non-sporting hero Tony Jacklin is only the most famous.
Golf has made great strides in women’s golf: first, it was decided that female players in those big-money tournaments could wear skirts. Now, there is question mark about how it can stretch its popularity any further. The female professional golfer Stacy Lewis said this week: “I think our sport is getting ready to break out a little bit more for the next generation.”
Can golf really support as many more female golfers in its prime years as women’s sport does these days? With television, media outlets and male punters, that is a no-brainer, even for the highly committed. It’s probably the grandaddy of all sports, with the most established male sporting identities, but it is also still in the race for post-Olympic glory.
The natural step forward for golf is to tackle the problem of the fields. The number of Americans playing golf is falling. With adult participation figures falling by 10% between 2001 and 2008, the growth in that field has been put down to the rapid rise of children in teeing off.
Could this be because of the training needed to make courses a more welcoming place for young golfers? A mountain biking course; or those huge-length courses you find only in the mountains? Could the kind of man who took Gary Player up a par-three with a 3.2 handicap in the 1960s move over into golf?
There are a lot of golf experts in America and elsewhere. Considering the business it has now in the world of sport, the US’s golfing power has always been enormous. But it has always been riven with geographical and social division. Golf is popular up north and in the south, but the coasts seem to be a picture of a rural Great Plains and arid north-west.
Golf is being played in record numbers in Thailand, Australia and the east and south-east of India, but it hasn’t quite been to America for the same reason that sea levels are rising. Climate change and population growth conspire to make the game the cream of the human lot, yet it is always in balance with a much wider game – one that it tends to prefer to ignore as it strives for higher and higher standards.
Golf isn’t just serious when it wants to be. Most of the big events in the Tour happen in big cities where 90% of the sport’s fans live. The Ryder Cup is decided in stark contrast to the Masters in Augusta, where most of the people are mostly people with time. The Masters has its serious weather days, when the layout becomes unrewarding (even if they lack drama, as at the 1997 edition, when the weather turned against the players).
Golf is also liberal in its support of young women. The Players Championship did the right thing by putting a 23-year-old Australian by the name of Lydia Ko in the field last year. Yet for the most part, the sport doesn’t take an interest in the kind of women who play golf for a living. This week it will play the Champions Challenge