The year 2016 was a roller-coaster ride for golf.
For every high -- the return of Tiger Woods and Olympic golf and a rare American victory in the Ryder Cup -- there was a steep low -- the passing of Arnold Palmer and some fine courses. (RIP, Elk Ridge and Yarrow, two of my favorites in Michigan.)
Golf spent most of the year doing its share of soul searching. Should golf's future bend to the whims of millennials, who crave instant gratification and anything with a screen, or stay steadfast to the time-honored traditions of the game?
Despite all the new gimmicks -- big holes, FootGolf, Topgolf, Speedgolf, FlingGolf, you-name-it golf -- participation in the game is mostly static. According to recent numbers from Golf Datatech, rounds nationally were up 1 percent in 2016 compared to 2015. These numbers are part of the reason why gloom-and-doom attitudes still plague the industry. In some ways, golf remains archaic, stuck in the dark ages with rules that most players don't follow or understand. Rules debacles at the U.S. Open and U.S. Women's Open certainly didn't help.
But some intriguing bright spots emerged this year as well. Here's a look at a few interesting trends in 2016 that caught our attention:
1. Shorter is better
The argument that golf takes too long will probably never go away, but the industry is fighting back by building more short courses -- anything from executive courses to facilities with simply 12 holes. The feel-good moment of this movement was Woods witnessing 11-year-old Taylor Crozier ace the first hole of The Playgrounds at Bluejack National, a 10-hole family-oriented short course at the private club Woods designed near Houston.
A little known fact about the upcoming 2018 Ryder Cup I learned while traveling abroad in France this fall: The French bid is delivering on its promise to building dozens of "urban compact" golf courses throughout the country to help grow the game. Nearly 90 facilities of various sizes -- mostly nine-hole executive courses, some with driving ranges, some with synthetic greens -- have been built since 2009 or are currently under construction.
In Arizona, the popular Wickenburg Ranch Golf & Social Club just opened the Li'l Wick, a nine-hole, par-3 golf park where four holes are lighted for night play. No tee times are required for this $25 experience. Mountain Shadows in Paradise Valley offers a new 18-hole, par-3 course with classic hole templates like Biarritz and Punchbowl designed by Forrest Richardson.
2. Growing youth golf
Golf's governing bodies and other nonprofit initiatives have done a better job lately of focusing on getting clubs in the hands of children for the future's sake. Participation in youth golf seems to be on steady ground, if not gaining momentum, a stark contrast to many other sports. According to a 2015 study by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, tackle football (down 17.9 percent), volleyball (down 21.6 percent) and wrestling (down 41.9 percent) were among the sports that suffered significant drops in participation (see chart).
Now consider these recent statistics from various youth golf programs:
- A total of 4.1 million kids participated in The First Tee in 2014, the most in the program's history.
- The PGA Junior League Golf has seen a 300-percent increase over the past three years, from 9,000 kids on 740 teams in 2013 to 36,000 kids on 2,900 teams in 2016.
- The Drive, Chip & Putt competition attracted 25,000 competitors from all 50 states in 2016.
- The LPGA and USGA Girls Golf program continues to grow from 4,000 participants in 2010 to 40,000 in 2015.
- TGA, a company where individual franchise owners introduce golf programs to schools and community centers, began the year with 46 franchise chapters serving 2,400 schools and will end the year with 54 franchises serving 2,700 schools and partnering with 150 golf courses (up from 115). TGA has worked with more than 570,000 participants.
- Youth on Course, an initiative where golfers under age 18 can play for $5 at 330 participating courses in 12 states, has grown to more than 17,000 members.
3. Hanse is hot
Mossy Oak in Mississippi
No architect in the world is hotter than Gil Hanse. His Olympic golf course in Rio was widely praised. I thoroughly enjoyed his new Mossy Oak Golf Club in Mississippi, which held a soft opening this fall. Next fall will be the splashy debut of Hanse's new Black Course at Streamsong in central Florida. The announcement that he will transform Pinehurst No. 4 and build the resort's first short course is big news. Plus, Hanse is the front runner to turn the legendary Sheep Ranch property into the fifth course at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Oregon, according to Matt Ginella.
Hanse's approach seems good for golf. He produces a good variety of holes that are playable and still strategic. Owners and course superintendents like that his work emphasizes sustainability.
4. Fighting Mother Nature's wrath
Whether you believe in climate change or not, the reality is that golf courses are getting battered by more extreme weather events than ever. The good news is that many are bouncing back better than ever.
Flooding that decimated West Virginia still haunts The Greenbrier. Only a 12-hole loop on the Greenbrier Course, an original Seth Raynor design that hosted the 1979 Ryder Cup, was available this fall. When the Old White and Meadows courses reopen is to be determined. Hurricane Matthew hit Hilton Head Island, S.C. pretty hard this fall, although the famous Harbour Town Golf Links and courses at Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort are back after extensive cleanups.
Kananaskis Country Golf Course should reopen in 2018, a full five years after flooding of the Evan Thomas Creek destroyed the popular 36-hole municipal facility in the Canadian Rockies.
More courses fell victim to the ongoing drought in California, closing for good. Pasatiempo, the Alister MacKenzie classic in Santa Cruz, found its savior by striking a 30-year deal to receive recycled water from the neighboring community of Scotts Valley.
5. Investing in the game
Atlantic Dunes at Sea Pines Resort
The amenities arms race continues full throttle at top golf resorts around the country beyond the Pinehurst plans already mentioned. Pebble Beach Resorts is in the midst of a two-year renovation effort to look its best for its centennial celebration at the 2019 U.S. Open. Rooms at the Lodge at Pebble Beach are being remodeled, with more being built. The Sea Pines Resort in Hilton Head just opened Atlantic Dunes, its new Davis Love III design in place of the old Ocean Course. Several other big-name courses -- the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, featuring a new drivable par 4, and Pine Needles -- are also back in business after significant renovations.
6. A monumental year in flexible golf course routings
The Loop at Forest Dunes
The 2016 opening of The Loop, the Tom Doak course in northern Michigan that can be played forward one day and backward the next, has ushered in a new era of more flexible routings. Another example is the Trilogy at Ocala Preserve in Florida. This design by Tripp Davis and Tom Lehman can play anywhere from an 18-hole, par-3 course to a six-hole, regulation course depending on tee configurations, and it takes up only 50 acres. It will offer public access on weekends.
A controversial plan by the state of Georgia calls for the 18-hole Bobby Jones Golf Course in Atlanta to become a reversible nine-holer that could open in the fall of 2017 (red tape may delay the project, however). And even Tiger Woods has gotten into the flexible craze at his course in Mexico, unveiling a short course, The Oasis, that can play as three long holes, too.
7. Trump this
Donald Trump's connections to golf will continue to stir up controversy, even though the President-elect has stated his children will take over his business interests once he takes office. It doesn't appear that the USGA will move the 2017 U.S. Women's Open from Trump National in Bedminster, N.J., despite a letter from several U.S. Senators asking for a change of venue.
Trump's global golf reach has expanded into Asia for its first project there at the Lido Golf Club in Indonesia, where a Trump-branded resort and course designed by Ernie Els are scheduled to open in late 2017. Trump International Dubai, designed by Hanse, is also scheduled to open. Politics aside, Trump's 2016 reboot of the Ailsa Course at Trump Turnberry Resort in Scotland -- executed by Martin Ebert -- is nothing short of fantastic.
8. New courses
A steady stream of new course construction is a good sign, considering how few opened in recent years.
Visionaries such as Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris and Bandon Dunes Golf Resort founder Mike Keiser are still pushing the envelope. Keiser's new toy, Sand Valley Golf Resort in rural Wisconsin, celebrated a soft opening for its Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw course this fall and is already building a second course, to be designed by David McLay Kidd. Morris, the driving force behind the Top of the Rock and Big Cedar Lodge in Missouri, has several projects on tap -- Gary Player's 12-hole course at Top of the Rock, and Coore & Crenshaw's brand new course, the Ridge Course at Buffalo Ridge, which is being built on top of the now-defunct Murder Rock Golf Club.
Other developers seem to be playing it cautious, only building where it makes financial sense. For example, the Island Resort & Casino is building Sage Run, which could have a soft opening in the fall of 2017. The resort needed a second course beyond its Sweetgrass Golf Club to attract more players to Michigan's remote upper peninsula.
Other "new" courses, where extensive renovations are giving older layouts a second chance, offer enhanced playability. The Cape Club by Troon replaced the former private Ballymeade Country Club on Cape Cod. Gone are the blind shots and narrow fairways. Now the public course and its renovated clubhouse encourage golfers to stay all day to play, practice and dine. In Arizona, Tom Lehman's sole goal of redesigning the Vista Verde Golf Club, now the Verde River Golf & Social Club, was to make it more playable and fun.
9. The Brexit bargain
Brexit -- the United Kingdom's decision to exit the European Union -- has done wonders for the exchange rates for the U.S. dollar against the pound (not so much for the Euro for those interested in Ireland). If you've been putting off that dream trip to Scotland, Wales, England or Northern Ireland, now is the time to book.
Daniel Grave, a founding partner of Golfbreaks.com and the CEO of Golfbreaks USA, says that bookings since July have "been really strong." He indicated that golfers get roughly a 20-percent discount, meaning a $2,500 trip will cost $2,000. That also means 20 percent off for a new shirt in the pro shop, a pint in the pub and the fish and chips for dinner.
"This exchange rate will not change prior to March when Article 50 is supposedly triggered," he wrote in an email. "This is when the Brexit process begins and could take up to two years. During that time, the exchange rates will fluctuate depending on how the negotiations go."
10. Fun with technology
During my travels, I discovered several new technology concepts I could see taking off in the future. A fall trip to South Korea introduced remote-control, driverless carts. They stay on the paths, driven by caddies at the push of a button. Sooner or later, they'll make their way to America.
A new app, Quick.Golf, has launched in northern California where I live, providing golfers the opportunity to pay for golf by the hole at local courses. Instead of paying nearly $52-$64 for a round at Chardonnay Golf Club in Napa this winter, a golfer could pay as little as $3 a hole after 1 p.m. How quickly the app will catch on nationally remains to be seen.
And I'll leave you with this: During a wide-ranging interview with Greg Norman at his new course at Vidanta Nuevo Vallarta in Mexico, The Shark hinted he will announce something new in 2017 that could change golf. Norman has always been an entrepreneur and out-of-the-box thinker. What could it be? Sounds like one of the many surprises to be revealed next year as golf tries to stay relevant in our crazy world.