Throughout my travels in golf this year, I detected a good dose of optimism on both new courses and old, whether it was in Scotland or Michigan. Tee sheets and resorts felt pretty busy, and new and renovated courses opened coast-to-coast. Both private clubs and resorts are seeking out buddies trips by building villa and cottage rentals. Those clubs that weathered the mid-2000s downturn appear to now be in a place of strength. Ballyneal (above) for example has added accommodations and has healthy membership rolls despite being located in the far-flung fringes of eastern Colorado.
While in the office however, it was clear to see that while some cities are investing in golf in a huge way (like Houston, Jacksonville Beach or Palo Alto), municipal golf coast-to-coast as a whole remains in the political crossfire, grappling with declining rounds or budgets in the red, and a citizenry questioning why taxpayers are funding these facilities. Golf course owners also seem to not be waiting for an equipment rollback to sell off land and shorten their golf courses. More developers seem to be realizing that chasing pro events isn't as important as pleasing the daily, paying golfer.
Here are just a few thoughts that stuck with me as I wandered the golf world throughout 2018.
St. Andrews: Bucket-list golf meets community golf
Another visit to St. Andrews was a reminder that when it comes to worldwide golf destinations, it's the Home of Golf vs. everything else. When we take vacations, we often want to feel like we're getting an authentic or local experience. No golf destination is more local or authentic than St. Andrews. The town, university and links are deeply interwoven. Locals literally walk through the Old Course to get to work or walk their dogs and they genuinely inquire as to how your game went that day.
The town's courses represent a ladder of skill level and price, from the Himalayas putting course and short Balgove course up to the Strathtyrum (5,000 yards), Eden and finally the four medal links. Playing the Himalayas one evening, every demographic imaginable was out enjoying the game for one quid. It makes those multi-course golf developments elsewhere with three or more championship golf courses with no springboard for beginners that much more head-scratching. Fortunately, several places I visited this year had added putting or short courses. The blueprint for sustainable community golf has been there since the beginning.
The allure of 5,000-yard golf
What I love about these places more than a 9-hole course or 18-hole par-3 course is you can hit all the clubs in the bag and still feel like you got a full round in, but you don't lose 4-5 hours of the day or feel particularly worn out afterwards.
The idea of 12-hole courses are romanticized from time to time. But when you do the yardage/step-count math, a normal-sized 12-hole round is equivalent about 4-5,000 yards or 4-5 miles walking, about what many of these shortish 18-hole routings play. With owners of golf courses in hot real estate markets considering shortening their courses to create new revenue streams and reduce maintenance costs, we could start to see more of these sub-par-70 layouts, and I'm fine with that.
Bringing luxury to a greater audience
One of my favorite trips of the year was a weekend to Frederickburg's Boot Ranch, a poster child of pre-Recession development excess. Originally designed as a bigwig retreat, its new shared home ownership model complete with a two-up/two-down generational membership presents an opportunity to enjoy million-dollar luxury for something closer to $350,000.
When you see millennials entering the workforce with mountains of student loan debt and wage growth not keeping up with rising housing costs, you wonder if more destination clubs aimed at being a family's second or vacation club will flip to a shared model. I'm going to be keeping an eye on this trend not just as a golf editor but as a dad of a growing family.
U.K. and Ireland's best value pocket?
I've typically considered Wales to present some of the best links values (like Pennard & Southerndown or up north at Nefyn & District), as well as the remote links of northwest Ireland, but I did not expect the low green fees I discovered around Carnoustie Country during The Open. Its proximity to St. Andrews meant many visitors stayed there and played the courses around Fife instead of in Angus. They missed out. Scenic and exciting Montrose, at £50, is one of the best links values I've ever seen, and Downfield at £45 might be my favorite inland course in the U.K. I've played. I'd never heard of Arbroath (also under £50), and it delivered a solid links experience with more scenery than its famous neighbor. And Monifieth's 36 holes were special as well. The Ashludie twlight round at £15 ranks among the best shot-for-shot values I've ever played.
You didn't have to play Carnoustie that week to get the experience of firm-and-fast golf. A U.S. parkland course might bemoan fairways this baked out, but locals everywhere were beaming with glee at the presentation of their brown courses (even the inland ones).
I saw four brand-new golf courses this year and for the most part they were very different from one another, besides the fact their respective scales were all quite large. Shot-for-shot, my favorite loop was the South Course at Arcadia Bluffs, Dana Fry's quest to deliver something different to the current Neoclassic movement, while TPC Colorado was scenic and fun to play with three short par 4s and a few odes to classic architecture. As I mention in this group feature, Streamsong Black left me a little confused but nevertheless appreciating the boldness, while Kissing Tree in Texas proved not all new courses need be long or expensive at just $50-75 and 6,500 yards.
Swinging in the rain
This year, I played several rounds in a sustained rainfall as the only soul on the course. It's sublime. In Scotland, I walked first off at 7 a.m. at Downfield Golf Club, the only sound being the rain hitting my jacket and my ball echoing through the trees. Back home in Texas, a rainy fall opened up a rare opportunity to play a few fast rounds in peace on the usually-log-jammed Lions "Muny."
I vividly and fondly recall other rainy and solitary rounds recently, from Machrihanish to Omni La Costa. As much as I enjoy the solitude amongst nature, it's also a chance to play golf at a brisk pace. A rainy walk of 18 holes in two and a half hours soaked beats a sunny round in four-plus. The rhythm typically leads to better play, too.
I saw a remarkable example of shrunken greens at Horseshoe Bay's Apple Rock course this spring. Imagine hitting mid-irons into thimbles and it certainly felt that way at times (the course will reopen next year following renovation). Courses built in the 1970s and 80s that haven't been refreshed have probably experienced similar shrinking, and it can have a serious affect on playability and enjoyment. Courses that choose not to renovate and recapture lost green space will almost assuredly lose golfers.
What growing the game really means
When we talk about "growing the game," we are usually assessing data from rounds played or junior golf participation. Coming off another year in which municipal and urban courses are sliced and diced by city councils and even voted on in referendums, my definition of "grow the game" is a little different.
Growing the game means widening the tent of golf. This includes not just players but people who appreciate what golf can bring to a city and will go to bat for it politically.
Melreese Golf Course is one of the busier and more important municipal courses in the country. It's the city of Miami's sole muni and is home to a First Tee facility. But the advocates generated by 60,000 annual rounds were no match for the star-power of David Beckham and the prospect of building a new stadium development on that land when put to a city vote.
Land-use battles are only going to accelerate as urban land grows in value. Earlier this year a Toronto Mayoral candidate tweeted that its munis had no business being a part of the city. Last week, a Buzzfeed contributor's headline, in an epic moment of false equivalence, proclaimed, "America Has 14,000 Golf Courses And 6,000 Refugees Waiting At The Border."
My endangered muni at home, Lions Municipal Golf Course, is set to have its fate decided in 2019. It's one of the state's busiest courses, but if it's to survive, it will need widespread support from the total population, not just the regulars who fill its tee sheet, or would-be redesigner Ben Crenshaw.
It's clear the golf industry is going to need clear and powerful messaging that resonates with the general population - even those who will never take a golf swing - and explain the benefits of golf in urban spaces if these coveted pieces of parkland will survive the microscope of city politics. We will also need to further demonstrate that the average city golfer is by no means an "elite."
I had a lot of fun playing golf courses of all shapes and sizes in 2018 with players both brand new and aspiring to play pro. Here is a rundown of many of the courses and swings i saw throughout the year.
To modernize an old Harvey Penick line: And if you play golf and I have video of you in my phone, you're my friend.