For a golf fan, it’s difficult to sit across a table from Jack Nicklaus and pay attention to what he’s saying because most of your mental energy is being expended on the implausible idea that YOU’RE SITTING IN THE SAME ROOM AS JACK NICKLAUS. It’s all you can do to not interrupt him to ask if he will describe his tee shot on No. 16 during the final round of the ’86 Masters.
So I admit that I was having trouble focusing while Nicklaus was in town last week talking up his ideas for new and repurposed golf courses in Buffalo’s parks, all while being true to preserving the vision of Frederick Law Olmsted. But later, I realized his plan is part of his desire to save something else: golf.
At age 78, the greatest golfer of all time – argue with me; I dare you – wants to use his name and his golf cred to breathe life into a game whose popularity is sliding faster than a downhill putt at Augusta National. And he wants to do it in Buffalo.
“The game of golf has some problems,” Nicklaus said Monday during a meeting with The Buffalo News editorial board. “The game of golf takes too long, it’s too expensive and it’s too hard.”
To which every golfer who has dropped $80 to spend five and a half hours hauling around $1,000 worth of equipment to shoot a 107 would say, “No duh.”
Nicklaus owes his life to golf, so when he says it needs a reboot, we should listen. But the statistics about its popularity speak louder than he does.
Here’s the number that should get your attention: The National Golf Foundation said there were 30.6 million golfers in 2003. Eleven years later, that number had fallen by about 6 million people, an almost 20 percent drop.
It’s for changes like that that the word “plummet” was intended.
That we’re even talking about golf’s appeal fading like a weak 3-iron is surprising in the context of how the game’s popularity seemed to be on a perpetual upward trajectory for a half-century or more. The gentlemen’s game monopolized by the country club class was co-opted and grown thanks to municipal course construction in the postwar era and its attendant mass appeal for men and women of all ages.
Television and Sundays with Arnold Palmer and his Army, followed soon after by Nicklaus and his fans, brought a new audience and new practitioners. That was followed a generation or so later by the appearance of Tiger Woods on the scene, diverse growth for the first time, and another explosion in popularity and course construction, something with which golfers in Western New York and southern Ontario are all too familiar.
But all that growth has been derailed by a foe that already has laid waste to such onetime traditions as owning a house, going to the bank and eating cereal: millennials. That same National Golf Foundation report that tracked golf's general decline found that the number of golfers between the ages of 18 and 34 has fallen by 30 percent over 20 years.
Spend any time on courses around here and the only thing more scarce than players who regularly break 90 are players who were born in the '90s.
Nicklaus doesn’t think it has to be that way. So while he tries to shape a couple of golf courses into Buffalo, he has his eye on making the game a better fit by addressing all of its problems at once.
He noted that most courses are designed around how far a custom-made club can make a high-tech ball travel, a notion he described last week as “kind of foolish.” It means that you need enough land to make a course to challenge that ball, creating a course that measures more than 7,000 yards for 18 holes, none of which helps with the problems of cost, time and difficulty.
Delaware Park is not big enough for that kind of course. So his idea is to make a ball that would make Delaware – which would never be confused with the type of course professional players favor – more of a challenge. The ball would be more like the kind that was used two decades ago before technological changes improved it, a “70 or 75 percent ball,” he called it.
Nicklaus has pushed this idea before; it has been written about in multiple publications, including Sports Illustrated. Some writers question whether it would have much of an impact and golf ball manufacturers who market the idea of pounding the ball farther and farther are not on board.
Nicklaus is undaunted.
“When I was growing up, the best player at the club is the one who kept it down the middle, bumped it up around the green and he’s the guy winning the club championships,” he said in an article in Global Golf Post. “And they were playing in about three hours, three hours and 10 minutes. That doesn’t happen today. So if the golf ball came back, it would solve, I think, a lot of those issues.”
Last week, he said the idea is a perfect fit for Delaware Park.
“I think it’s a win-win situation, what I’m trying to create,” he said. “And I think Buffalo would be the first place as a pilot for this.”
Getting these projects done is no sure thing, given the $42 million price tag and Buffalo’s communal unease for any kind of change to Olmsted’s parks. But the payoff could be two courses with the Golden Bear’s paw prints on them and a role in helping to revive the game.
Can he do it? Put it this way: It’s never been a good idea to bet against Jack Nicklaus.
Or maybe you’ve never seen the final round of the ’86 Masters.