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California needs to improve its golf game

Joe Mathews, co-author of “California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It,” is California editor for Zócalo Public Square.
Joe Mathews, co-author of “California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It,” is California editor for Zócalo Public Square.

I’m no Olympic athlete, but I recently managed to play 18 holes of golf in just 45 minutes, without using a cart or lifting a golf club. And, no, this wasn’t a video game.

I was playing FootGolf, which involves kicking a soccer ball into extra-large holes placed on regulation golf courses. This new sport, spreading fast in California, is one promising answer to a full-blown statewide challenge: What to do with our glut of golf courses?

In California, golf is not just fun and games. It’s a $13 billion industry that has defined our state’s landscape, tourism, real estate market – and the finances of the hundreds of California cities with public courses.

But golf has had a bad decade, with the number of golfers and courses declining after 60 years of growth.

This decline is jarring because California’s growth has been so tied to golf. The game was central to the leisure economy that helped lure millions here in the 20th century. In the 1950s, Thunderbird Country Club in Rancho Mirage, one of the new courses built to sell housing, allowed Ford to use its name on a new car model, which in turn inspired a classic Beach Boys song. Does it get any more Californian than that?

While playing golf can be an individual pursuit, the game’s growth was heavily subsidized through development-friendly tax laws and by local governments that saw courses as an essential amenity. That investment in golf seemed wise in the 1990s when an Orange County kid raised on municipal courses – Tiger Woods – inspired a younger, more diverse generation to take up the game.

But in 2006, California’s housing crisis crashed the global economy, and the whole word turned against golf. The middle class that sustained so many courses no longer had the money to devote to an extravagant pastime. Suddenly, golf was out of step – a face-to-face hobby in a world that prefers digital communication; a slow, courteous game in a fast and impolite society. Trends in fitness also work against golf, with many seeking tougher exercise and slimmer bodies than you find on golf courses.

With fewer customers and higher water bills during the drought, California golf courses are struggling, with a few dozen closing. But replacing a golf course isn’t easy. Regulations and politics make it hard to turn courses into the housing and parks California communities so desperately need.

For now, golf course operators are seeking new uses for their courses, including concerts and car shows. Courses have experimented with events for young singles that combine hitting golf balls with video games and drinking.

One innovation is FootGolf, being popularized by the Palm Springs-based American FootGolf League. More than 150 golf courses nationwide added it last year. I tried it out recently at an 18-hole par-3 course in Arcadia.

The course has added small greens, with 21-inch-wide holes, off to the sides of the regular greens. At the pro shop, I paid a $15 fee to an employee named Jordan Godfrey, who happens to be America’s first national FootGolf champion. He warned me not to damage the well-manicured regulation greens by kicking off them.

I had a great time. Without a bag of golf clubs to carry, I jogged around the course quickly. Real golfers greeted me warmly and let me play through. My only mishap came on the damp fifth tee, when I fell as I kicked the ball down the fairway, landing hard on my bottom. That’s never happened to me playing regular golf.

But no great California transformation is without its risks.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at joe@zocalopublicsquare.org.

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