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Golf industry needs a better lie

My name is Mark Larrabee and I am a PGA Golf Professional. I have been a PGA member since 1985. I have gained most of my golf industry experience as a head professional. Six of these years educated me from a golf facility's general manager position. For the past three years, I have been teaching golf. Prior to my professional experience I caddied for 10 years. I have been a tournament competitor for over 20 years.

My clear intent with the following thoughts is to communicate precisely to the golf industry at large, conditions that would allow the average golfer to succeed at golf.

What does succeed mean?

Simple. Get the ball in the air more, preferably with less curving. Golfer confidence in ball striking is what will grow the game to new levels. I would like to think that my instructional skills, along with those of my fellow PGA, LPGA and USGTF professionals commonly produce consistent success for the average golfer, but I am not talking about grip changes, swing tweaks and aiming adjustments at this time. I am talking about easier course conditions, smarter equipment offerings and simpler swing methods.

If golfers watched the ball become air-born more often do you think they might have more fun and play more? Do you think more potential golfers might pursue the game? Do you also think it is possible that the golf industry as a whole could then stop massive discounting and let up on the creation of alliances, programs and grants to "save" the game?

The simple fact is, golfers expect more from the collective improvements of golf equipment, instructional methods and superb course conditions.

I think the golf industry is missing the most obvious issue when it comes to "growing the game." Marketing imagination and creativity will always have a part in helping golfers think that they can improve. We need equipment advances, video analysis and the chance for all (citizens) to play golf, but I think a huge part of the solution for a long term rebound in golf, is under the feet and wheels we traverse the courses with everyday. The grass.

The height of cut on a typical fairway is too short. The height of cut around most greens is too high and the speed of greens is often ridiculously too fast. The turf conditions that have evolved over the past 20-30 years have caught up with us. Many fairways today, public and private, are the speed of greens from the 70s. Has anyone noticed that the average player has the most success when a ball is struck from the typical "intermediate" rough? Why? This is due to the fact that there is air under the ball. This air allows for a bit of room for error. Does anyone you know need some room for error around the impact area of the golf ball?

We all thought that every course needed to look like the one we saw on TV over the weekend. This mentality has blossomed like a quadruple bogey from a bad lie. But since when should a bad lie occur when the ball sits in the middle of the immaculately maintained fairway at a 7/16 of an inch?

The average swing speed for a male golfer with a driver of forty-five inches is in the range of80-85 mph with a distance of approximately 210 yards. For a female it is in the range of 70-75 mph and 175 yards. These club head speeds cannot produce, on a reliable basis, the characteristics of impact to generate reasonable trajectories from tightly mown fairways. Also, the serious scoring problems start when an average player is asked to extract a ball from three-inch fairway rough and possibly even higher rough around the greens.

The possibility of these shots stopping anywhere on the green is dubious, never mind "sucking the ball back." Only 3-5 percent of the golf population is in the single digit handicap levels and the average score for golfers in general has not changed for 30 years or so. This is sad.

Coincidentally, that is about the beginning of the era when the effort was made to clearly "define" golf courses by the height of cut between fairway, rough, approaches, naturalized areas, etc. The reality is, as turf care and mowing machinery immensely improved conditions, at least from a consistency of turf standpoint, the ability of your average golfer to make a clean strike on theball decreased. Trying to sweep the ball off these beautifully "tight" and "striped" fairways with the above swing speeds is about as much fun as putting on the hood of your SUV.

OK, I can come at you with, put the ball back in your stance, cock that lead wrist more and try to pinch or squeeze the ball off the ground. I definitely would suggest seven and nine woods for 90percent of golfers, too. The easiest solution though would be for golf facilities to adopt a drastic new measure. Hold on to your visor now. How about, simply raising the height of cut by a quarter to a half inch on most fairways and lower all rough by an inch.

This would not change maintenance schedules at all and actually reduce the stress on turf health. The net result for a golf facility could be lower costs in the maintenance budget and happier players with shots flying upwards toward the green. An additional benefit would be a quicker pace around the course by the casual golfer.

Here are a couple other suggestions, too. Build, reconfigure and set-up golf courses that are between 4,500 and 5,500 yards and make golfers use them. The ski industry equivalent is bunny slopes. Most golfers play 500 to 1,000 more yards each round than they should have ever imagined.

Next, how about a simple steel headed driver, with a 2 degree closed clubface angle, 44 inches being standard and with about 300 to 350 cubic centimeters? This titanium headed craze is completely out of control. At least half of those golfers who have been schmoozed in titanium driver marketing hype, are paying the price now in more ways than one. Remember, golfers are trying to drive it into the fairway. OR ARE THEY?

I meet hundreds of new players every year and the No. 1 objective they have for playing golf is more consistency in ball striking. In 2002, according to Golf 20/20, when participants were asked, what factors influenced their enjoyment of golf the most, ball striking was the No. 1 factor.

Translation: Golfers are sick of hitting the ball poorly. The golf course conditions could supply some of the "joy" golfers are looking for. Sometimes, the simplest solution is "sitting up" nicely, right in front of us.

As far as instructional methods go, we are living in 2003. There are alternatives to the finger grip, two-planed set up and highly rotational swing that have been around for 100 plus years. Entrepreneurs are refining methods that allow a golf swing to be easier, repeatable and incredibly kinder on the body.

The golf industry should be embracing valid, proven, PGA, LPGA and USGTF professional supported ideas that make a golf swing fun. The time is now, for the "influencers on golf" to take whatever measures are necessary to help the average golfer replace frustration and failure with hope and satisfaction.

We moved on from the western roll to the Fosbury Flop. We moved on from the station wagon to the mini-van. We moved on from the eight track to VHS and now to DVD. We moved on from a persimmon head to a metal. We can move on to solutions that will make golf joyful and exciting for people.

Business goals usually refer to a situation as, WIN-WIN-WIN. In this case it would be the golf industry, the golf facilities and most importantly, the golfers.

By Mark Larrabee, PGA Golf Professional 2002 Natural Golf Teacher of the Year, Oxford, MA

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