Last week my wife made a remark about one of our sons growing up to be a professional golfer. Where she got that notion is beyond me, but I had to quickly remind her that it's hard to be a pro golfer when as a child in Tehachapi, there’s nowhere nearby to play golf. Then the next day, the news broke that the sale of Sundale Country Club in Bakersfield hit a snag and the course’s future was in limbo. Here we go again, right?
Tehachapi has seen our golf dwindle over the last few decades. First it was Golden Hills in the mid-1990s, followed most recently by Horse Thief Country Club in Stallion Springs. At least the local deer and elk have some more open space to roam.
That’s not even counting the old Camelot Course in Mojave, which was essentially my Augusta as a kid. Many intended-to-be-pleasant Sundays growing up turned into competitive rage with my family. It shuttered in 2006.
The same fate hit Sycamore Canyon in Arvin, since farmed over in that fertile valley, soil enriched by years of great shots, swear words and the sweat off the backs of good and bad golfers alike.
Rio Bravo in Bakersfield was nearly closed before the residents of the neighborhood essentially bought the place; great call to preserve their property values, it’s a stunning loss when you go from course-view to overgrown-lot view. Not a great selling point.
I’m reminded of the words from Rodney Dangerfield’s character in “Caddyshack," Al Czervik: “Country clubs and cemeteries are the biggest wasters of prime real estate.” I guess in the early 1980s he was foreshadowing the future of the game.
More than 200 courses closed in 2017, with just 15 new ones taking their place. This could be attributed to fewer people playing the game as well. According to industry group Pellucid, the game of golf lost more than 10 million regular players from 2002 to 2016. That’s not a decline; that’s an exodus.
I can certainly be counted in that number. At one time I was a weekly player, but I got busy with life and became a once-a-year or whenever a charity tournament called my name type of player. The last time I touched my clubs was to move them into a storage unit. I needed space in my garage for things that mattered — motorcycle, lawnmower and weed whacker. I’m sure the game will understand. Usually it replaces the former players with new ones, but fewer seem to be interested.
Golf is changing as well; society seems to be too busy to be able to carve out four hours for a round. Retirees, sure, but when your weekend time is limited, fewer people want to be stuck in golf cart traffic on the few remaining courses we have available.
We certainly aren’t a golf desert with the private Oak Tree Country Club in Bear Valley available if you know the right people, or Tierra del Sol in California City, if you’re willing to brave the overwhelming “sol” in that neck of the woods. Even the United States Golf Association runs a new campaign called “Play 9,” encouraging those “too busy” for a full round to play nine holes as it will still count toward their handicap. I applaud the efforts to adapt.
Gimmicks have been attempted to save the game: soccer-golf, golf with three-foot holes, the carts that double as standing motorized skateboards and so on. It’s a shame, really; golf can be a lot of fun when played with the right people and it is the only sport to have the uncanny ability to convince you that the one good shot you made all day was enough of a silver lining to continue to return. Now it seems like it’s resorting to desperate measures to stay relevant. In a world where recreation is a buzz word, golf isn’t getting its fair share of players. Times change, I guess.
Maybe golf is just joining some of its predecessors in the cycle of sports relevancy? Horse racing was once the most popular sport in America, boxing once dominated the headlines before corruption and mixed martial arts stole much of its thunder. Maybe it's just golf’s time to focus on surviving until something sparks new interest in the game.
I figure I’ll retire in another 20 years or so. Maybe by then something will change for the better for the game of golf. Then I’ll have plenty of time to ride my golf-cart-board thingy and putt into a three-foot hole on a course I’m sharing with a soccer-golf team and a robot caddy who can automatically order me new golf balls via Amazon Prime each time I hit one into the drink.
Sounds like fun to me. Get on it, proponents of golf. You have a game to save.
Corey Costelloe has covered NCAA, professional and local sports for more than 20 years as a reporter and broadcaster. A THS graduate, he now resides in Tehachapi. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed are his own.