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These days, if you care about golf, you have to care about how to sell golf. The economic malaise of the last few years has hurt the game. Rounds played have dropped four years running, equipment sales have wavered and, more worrisome, it's hard to shake the sense that golf is becoming less and less relevant.
There has been no shortage of hand-wringing, and people are hardly asleep at the switch. The PGA Tour is touting a generational shift. Equipment makers are doing what they always do—promoting technological improvements. What's missing is this: a marketing message that speaks to how golf fits in with life as it is now lived.
The pessimists say that golf doesn't fit in. I'd argue that golf does fit if we can turn some of the game's perceived weaknesses into strengths. Golf takes time to play? Where else can you spend four uninterrupted hours in the company of friends? Golf is hard? You know what's easy? Googling, and you do enough of that. Golf takes you away from your iPad and BlackBerry? Golf takes you away from your iPad and BlackBerry!
I'm not talking about an appeal to golf's traditional values, even though I very much believe in them. We've preached to the choir plenty. Yes, golf has a rich history. Yes, golf is a great game of honor. Yes, golf can help build character. None of this matters unless you can convince people that they'll enjoy golf—that the game will provide something they didn't even realize they were missing. We can't keep pushing golf like a mother pushing vegetables. We need to reposition the game.
We need to acknowledge the world of Twitter and Wii and two-breadwinner households. That's not to say we encourage golfers to post their birdies on Facebook before moving to the next tee. (They can, so long as they keep it moving.) And it's not about replacing reverence with irreverence—such efforts usually prove embarrassing failures. Only that we acknowledge people's time-crunched lives and speak to them. What we have to offer is counter-programming. A chance to get away from the 24/7, plugged-in existence. Not because we ban cellphones and demand collared shirts, but because we bring you back to your friends and family, to the outdoors, to a challenge that tech support can't fix for you.
For the fortunate few, golf is a lifestyle. For everyone else, golf can be a part of their lifestyles—but only if we make it fit.
Rees Jones has designed or redesigned more than 100 golf courses around the world.
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