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No longer just a good walk spoiled: Why crusty old golf is suddenly picking up the pace

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In a time-poor world, the luxury of spending several hours on the golf course is an indulgence fewer and fewer can afford. But now the ancient game is coming up to speed, writes Michael Blucher

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Golf and innovation. Now there’s two words that are rarely used in the same sentence.

But there’s mounting evidence that the grand old game is being dragged, kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

Outside of five day Test cricket matches, no sporting activity or contest marries up more poorly with our franticly paced modern day lifestyles than the ancient art of golf.

In this day and age, by the time you’ve tapped in for triple bogey on the 18th hole, you’re likely to glance at your phone and find you have 102 unanswered emails, 11 missed calls and 47 unread text messages, 13 alerting you to the fact that you were required in a hastily convened meeting that started 90 minutes ago.

Now, golf and 24-hour accountability in the year 2021 are hardly cosy bed fellows.

However, there’s new thinking and trends in the game internationally that are gradually filtering down to Australia, fuelling innovation that in time, might become the saviour of golf loving, time poor professionals.

Short course golf. Lots of par threes and drivable par fours. And not necessarily 18 holes – any number you like.

Bougle Run, the latest addition to the world class Barnbougle Dunes golf mecca in northern Tasmania, has just 14 holes – 12 par threes and a couple of enticingly short par fours, just because they can.

Who said golf courses had to be 2 x 9 = 18 holes = par 72? Bobby Jones might have, but he’s long gone. Besides, Jones never had a smart phone with 102 unanswered emails.

Since it opened in March this year, the outrageous success and popularity of Bougle Run has brought to closer consciousness the concept of golf facilities well removed from the traditional 18 hole model – a model that’s guaranteed to chew up at least four and and half hours – and that’s on a good day.

Overseas, short courses are cropping up everywhere – not your old style pitch and putt layout that you tackle with one club and 18 beers, but visually stunning, architecturally confronting layouts that cater to golfers of all levels – hackers right through to pros.

Roscoe Banks, the golf director of Barnbougle Dunes and Lost Farm, admitted the inspiration for Bougle Run came during the trip that he and Richard Sattler, the owner of Australian golf’s jewel in the crown, made to Scotland some three years ago.

“Richard and I had a look at what was going on at St Andrews and it was pretty clear, the dial was shifting,” Banks said.

“When you have senior people at Royal and Ancient, a club founded in 1867, muttering about golf having to be fun, you know the winds of change are about to blow!

“They were even talking about getting rid of blue blazers and striped shirts and ties, and making the game more accessible, more mainstream. That’s what the Himalayas, the putting course that opened a few years ago, is all about – pure fun. Enticing newcomers to the game.”

Former US Open champion, Geoff Ogilvy, now a leading golf architect based in Melbourne, is a huge proponent of shorter courses, citing the phenomenal success of the concept in the America. He believes it’s a precursor to what’s destined to happen with course design in Australia, sooner rather than later.

The golf industry could do a lot worse than listen to the sandbelt-raised Ogilvy – he is one of the more erudite people who’ve ever swung a club professionally.

What’s interesting however, is the number of leading golf clubs in south east Queensland that have recently explored incorporating a short course into their master plan, but many baulked before it came time to bring in the graders.

The concept is still strongly under consideration at Royal Queensland, but at Indooroopilly and Nudgee, clubs with a comparative abundance of space, it got as far as drawing up plans, only to have their respective memberships kibosh the concept.

It seems golf’s omni-present old guard are quite happy with the status quo ie: 2 x 9 = 18 = par 72. And just to be clear – that’s 72, not 71 or 73. Championship layouts are par 72, even if they don’t host championships.

That thinking is not representative of all golf club members of course, not by a long shot, but with a vocal minority. so comfortable with the status quo, shouting their disapproval, forward thinking voices of reason can often be hard to hear.

Hopefully in the fullness of time, the resistance will wane, as the rusted-on traditionalists retire their mashie niblicks, rescind their memberships and take up Bridge or Sudoku.

In the meantime, there’s still a smattering of welcoming par three facilities to savour in Brisbane – Bulimba, for instance, where groups of four, six, even eight, can regularly be seen strolling around the course dragging a heavily laden esky. Great fun, but about 10 rungs below the pure golfing experience of Barnbougle’s latest addition, and other acclaimed short courses world wide.

The game of golf, in order to thrive rather than merely survive, needs to identify ways of attracting new and younger audiences, and grow them into passionate advocates of the game.

In an era when so many other sports, in order to stay relevant to changing tastes and times, have invested in introducing shorter, more consumable versions of their game, golf has been slow to move.

The drivers of change have not been golf administrators per se, but free thinking industry professionals, searching for ways to package up and present the game differently.

Innovative extensions to the game like Top Golf, and facilities such as Golf Central, the multi-faceted golf experience and driving range at Skygate in Brisbane’s north, have spawned from entrepreneurial individuals rather than been developed through the game’s formal channels.

James Cooper, the founder of Golf Central, which now attracts in the vicinity of 250,000 visitors a year, is confident the game will continue to flourish, as long as the spirit of innovation continues.

“The short course concept is an interesting one,” he says. “I’m sure the courses would be popular – my question is would they be profitable? That’s the obvious balance that needs to be achieved, and I suspect that’s what the membership based clubs are wrestling with.

“Significantly, quite a few clubs in Melbourne are going down the short course route, even prestigious traditional clubs like Kingston Heath. They announced their plans in July.

“As a concept I think it’s excellent. Essentially that’s what we’re about at Golf Central. Introducing people to the game – making golf accessible through a variety of different channels.”

The pandemic, Cooper conceded, had provided golf with impetus he’d not witnessed since The Great White Shark and World No 1 Greg Norman, was strutting the fairways in the late 80s and early 90s.

But just because people had rejoined clubs, and Golf Central’s hitting bays were “oversubscribed” on weekends, didn’t mean that the game could become complacent.

“At some point, the pandemic will be over and life will revert to normal,” Cooper says. “That’s what we have to be focus on – not just the now, but the future.”

As the Australian business lead for Golf Pass and Golf Now, two highly successful products of NBC Sports in America, Cooper alludes to some exciting times ahead.

Possibly even the ramping up of innovative thinking.

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