Golf can be a relatively expensive pastime even for the publinx player. According to a recent study by the National Golf Foundation, the average player on public courses spends close to $500 a year on equipment, clothing and golf-course fees. That figure undoubtedly will rise as the cost of maintaining a public course spirals upward—an average of about $11,000 a year is now spent in caring for a single hole. Fortunately, there may be a way out of golf's economic bunker: less-manicured courses with smaller fairways to lower maintenance costs and thus playing fees. The new Tournament Players Club at PGA Tour headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. has fewer than 50 acres requiring regular maintenance, as opposed to the 80 to 130 acres on most 18-hole courses.
But who will play the svelte new courses of the future? It's getting tougher and tougher to attract kids to the game. In part, the problem is inherent in the nature of golf. Unlike disco, racquetball or backgammon, golf offers no instant gratification. The rewards are worthwhile but hard-earned, and caddying, once the surest training ground for future pros and the best way to interest young people in the game, is becoming an endangered occupation. Electric golf carts are often the villains. I've played on courses where golfers were required to ride. Electric golf isn't exercise for anyone, and it is driving kids to other sports.
Happily, a form of scaling down may also solve that problem. Consider the PGA Tour's Wee Links Golf Course at the Walt Disney World Golf Resort near Orlando, Fla. The brainchild of tour Commissioner Deane Beman, Wee Links is the first course ever laid out especially—though not exclusively—for junior players.
It consists of six holes—1,150 yards—on a 25-acre plot near Disney World's Magnolia Course. In "junior yards," two feet to a yard, the course measures 1,725 yards. The par 3s actually measure 95 and 108 yards, the par 4s 173, 238 and 255, and the par 5, 281. Youngsters are given clubs, balls, instruction and playing time—all for $2. The Wee Links management makes ends meet by keeping maintenance costs to a minimum. The tees and greens are of Mod-Sod—an artificial surface of compressed sand and grasslike fibers—and irrigation has been reduced to a minimum. Golf-shop supplies and snack-bar food are provided on a break-even basis. And in Disney World the Wee Links Golf Center operates out of the main clubhouse, using the Magnolia practice range for group instruction.
The PGA Tour decided to locate the first Wee Links course at Disney World for several reasons, two of them being: It seemed the best place for the greatest number of children (and other beginners) to try out the concept, and Disney World donated the land and management personnel for the pilot project.
In March I toured Wee Links with my sons, Benjamin, 12, and Matthew, 11, neither of whom had ever played golf. Our round took about 90 minutes. The kids enjoyed themselves. I was ecstatic. A mid-90s golfer, I shot even-par for the first time. So what if it wasn't the standard par? I felt great. And the experience left me with strong feelings about regulation-size courses:
1) Mod-Sod should be adopted forthwith by virtually all public courses. A flat, even tee-off area is a golfer's birthright, yet most public, and not a few private, courses have disgracefully unkempt tee-off areas. It's easy to stick a tee into Mod-Sod, and the stuff isn't as slippery as it looks. The only problem is that Mod-Sod can't withstand chopping blows by irons. But if tee shots must be hit with unfamiliar upswings on par 3s, the flat surface on the other holes will more than justify the trade-off.
2) Mod-Sod greens are worth considering for wider use. They're simple to putt on, like carpets—hot damn, I was canning putts from all over! Granted, Mod-Sod is much too easy a surface for the pros. All tournament courses—in fact, all courses that can afford them—should stick to regulation greens. But if Mod-Sod is all that stands between a course and bankruptcy, I'm all for it.
3) Wee Links will assist big links, not compete with them. Future Wee Links—one is already planned for Arizona—will attract newcomers, give experienced players a place to work on their short games, siphon off dilettantes from overcrowded regulation courses and create new golfers. There's something for everyone, and the price is right. To quote from the Wee Links Development and Operation Profile: "While the youngsters are in school, senior citizens, women and other adults will have access to the facility. Weekends will provide families with an excellent opportunity to discover golf."
Wee Links is probably an accurate statement about the future of golf: Only by cutting back can the sport hope to grow.