Geoff Shackelford: Why We Don’t Need Professional Golfers

The more pro golfers squabble over obscene amounts of money, the less the public will care. And that’s just fine.

The verdict is in. A sport played in some form by 70 or so million around the globe does not hinge on the popularity of the few hundred or so professionals who believe they are centers of our universe. The numbers do not lie. Even with terrible weather in key regions, according to Golf Datatech, U.S. rounds played are up 3 percent over 2022 with magnificent spikes in female and junior participation. An unexpected pandemic bump has turned into a steady bounce even with offices demanding that workers return and less time-consuming threats like pickleball competing for recreational time.

Everyday golf has proved to be resilient, unmoored from the fortunes, grievances, and neuroses of those who play it for a living.

Dating back to when Young Tom Morris won so many silver belts they had to let him keep it and create a Claret Jug, and all the way up to the emergence of Tiger Woods, bursts of popularity have been tied to the dashing ways of generational talents. These special players convinced people to take up the Royal and Ancient pastime. Watching bigger-than-life types pursuing history without concern for cash gave the sport convenient boosts: Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Babe Zaharias, and Arnold Palmer injected new life at key moments. They helped the masses discover or rediscover golf as a brilliant, if a tad peculiar, pastime. A reverse effect might have been expected based on 2023’s morass of international headlines reinforcing touring pros as cartoonishly selfish.

professional golfers
Illustration by Tim Bower

Instead, all traceable trends suggest a record number of people are calling themselves golfers. Flat or falling media viewing numbers suggest longtime viewers have moved on from the logoclads. The inspiration to play, dream, practice, invest, and live vicariously through golf now comes from non-pro golf sources. And while many well-meaning overlords have issued dire pleas that a sport “splintered” between LIV and the PGA Tour would be perilous, 2023 proved the Saudi Arabia-driven divorce will remain largely a nonissue for the everyday sport and surrounding businesses.

Golf has shown people it’s more than just something to do safely outdoors. It’s a lifestyle and guiding force for many. A safe place for kids and a healthy pastime for older folks. Grass roots efforts to “grow” the sport have worked. There are (finally) easier and less intimidating ways into golf. More options have been added for those who cannot play 18 holes on a Saturday at the club. Years of effort by leading organizations to make the sport more welcoming have shown up in the numbers even as this newfound popularity has inflated costs for equipment, green fees, travel, and memberships. Because instead of taking cues from the elites traveling (private, no less) around the country playing beautiful courses for millions, the golfing public finds inspiration elsewhere.

Some folks—I’m only slightly judging here—take inspiration from the pursuits of the influencer set because they look like they’re having fun playing golf. Millions more with less time to play 18 holes still are enjoying the benefits of improving through practice on upgraded ranges or short courses. Instruction is more fun, supported by revealing launch-monitor data that makes a game of suggesting swing tweaks based on the numbers. More golfers than ever are architectionados: Some travel to check off ranked courses, but most are seeking out rich experiences and the ensuing fun of debating design merits that produce memories of a lifetime. All of this is far removed from the week-to-week pro game.

On the commerce side, just look at the number of fun and sophisticated niche brands that have forced the industry behemoths to reevaluate their approach and improve their offerings. The inspiration to play more golf and ignore the pro game is also coming from infusions of technology, incredible (and environmentally healthier) course maintenance, better food, more relaxed fashion, clever use of social media to show off the beauty of golf courses as places to rejuvenate the soul, and the long overdue embrace of time-friendly alternatives like par-3 courses and Topgolf. Yet there is still too much desperation to “grow the game” even though we all know that phrase is only uttered by those who have never tried hitting refresh on a webpage hoping to secure a tee time.

The game has grown. It’s cool with kids and the retiring boomers. Is it sustainable given the increasing costs? That’s still a matter of concern, and, thankfully, there are smart people at the USGA, R&A, GCSAA, NGF, and regional golf associations on top of these things.

While many well-meaning overloards have issued dire pleas that a sport “splintered” between LIV and the PGA Tour would be perilous, 2023 proved the Saudi Arabia-driven divorce will remain largely a non-issue for the everyday sport and surrounding businesses.

Their jobs would be easier without a professional game determined to taint the strides made by making the sport more palatable for more people. There are still too many courses under threat despite serving a vital purpose in their communities. Golf is still viewed as a vast waste of resources played by a small set of elitists, and pro golf’s money wars only drive this home. Another year of silly money thrown about, most of it caught by Jon Rahm, has sharpened the focus on player greed, the kind regularly described by people who love the game as awful and disgusting. It’s no wonder folks outside the sport still unfairly lump golfers and courses into a big waste pit of excess. Hearing pros threatening a jump to LIV because there are not enough executive restrooms or on-site parking for their caddie’s sport psychologist is enough to make even die-hard golfers hate the pros.

It’s little wonder, then, that ratings are falling and playing professionals are no longer seen as brand icons to blue chip companies. While most are still fantastic role models to be admired for their skill, the crossfire hurricane of trends suggests the recreational game and ecosystem around it will continue to drift away from the 300 or so male professionals who believe they are the sport. Or worse, bigger than it.

With the major tours failing to find common ground and much sense, the insular money jockeying will only end when the cash starts to dry up. By then it’ll be too late for the pro game and the majors will be the only time we watch. Thankfully, the rest of golf can see the unanimous verdict: The game will be fine with or without the pros. It’s a beautiful thing. And a testament to the enduring spirit of a royal and ancient pursuit.

Thank you for supporting our journalism. If you prefer to read in print, you can also find this article in the Winter 2024 issue of LINKS Magazine. Click here for more information.