Post-election lessons for golf and politics

Barack Obama after winning Tuesday's presidential election.

Barack Obama after winning Tuesday's presidential election.

Turns out the golfer won, but you wouldn’t know it from the immediate reaction of the industry. Not, that is, if you judge by the withering tweets of former Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger (“Americans chose big govt, big entitlements, and big taxes. . .“) and others in golf.

Perhaps more representative of the professional golf industry’s political tone throughout the presidential campaign was evident in Jack Nicklaus’ effort aside Mitt Romney out on the campaign trail. Nicklaus said he regretted not coming to the defense of golf-playing Gerald Ford in 1976 against non-golfer Jimmy Carter.

President Barack Obama’s love of golf is well known. It's so well known that it became an object of criticism earlier this year, when Republican candidates during the primaries took aim at the commander-in-chief for his visits to the links, saying the nation’s pressing business should have claimed his attention. Apparently, bosses are not supposed to take some time off and de-stress. It’s a line of political attack that was famously self-imposed by President George W. Bush, when he announced he was swearing off golf while American troops were fighting in Iraq.

But in Obama’s case, and in the aftermath of the 2012 elections, the focus on the president’s golf is scarcely limited to the matter of his time away from the Oval Office. The criticism has to do with the larger nature of his policies, and the widespread sense among many golfers that they suffer at the hands of his liberal policies and that they’d do better under Republicans.

From the standpoint of income, it’s true that most professional golfers (at least those who win a lot of money on the PGA Tour) would benefit from lower taxes under a Republican administration than under a Democratic one. It’s also true that golfers in general have a higher income profile than the population at large. So on economic terms, it’s understandable if the golf industry tips “red” rather than “blue.”

But there are larger political issues at work here, and there’s no insulating the golf industry – estimated in the U.S. to comprise some $70 billion annually – from the economy and culture as a whole.

It’s well known that golf in the U.S. is in some version of gradual decline demographically during the past decade, with the round count generally down, fewer golfers claiming their avidity for the game and retention of newcomers to the game an ongoing concern. Recent evidence suggests something of a rebound in the round count, but the private-club market is especially vulnerable, and with course closings dramatically outpacing course openings, there is every reason for the industry to address issues of belt tightening and operational efficiency, along with recruitment of new players and retention of existing ones.

In this, there might be some deeper lessons for golf from the 2012 elections than simply who won the White House and Capitol Hill.

To start with, golf is a recreational choice made by everyday consumers. If consumer purchasing power doesn’t grow, the game stagnates. And that’s not just a matter of the private-club industry, since 70 percent of all U.S. golf courses and 75 percent of all U.S. rounds take place in the public sector – daily-fee golf, resort and municipal courses. It’s no secret that we’ve seen a concentration during the past two decades of more wealth in the hands of fewer consumers. That might help the elite private clubs, but it doesn’t help everyday golfers who can only afford everyday rounds if employment is up and if they have more purchasing power.

Second, the demographics of the industry are changing, just as the demographics of the electorate are changing. The Republican Party’s traditional power base is diminishing, and the Obama campaign along with the entire Democratic Party made considerable inroads among the ranks of Hispanics, black Americans, single women and non-traditional households. The lesson here for the golf industry as a whole is to broaden the appeal of golf and to make golf facilities more receptive and more inviting to more diverse peoples.

Finally, there’s the issue of climate change. The “October surprise” this time was a massive storm, Sandy, which not only devastated East Coast communities but threw the Romney campaign into crisis by displacing its candidate from the airwaves and showing that real bipartisanship (between New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Obama) was at least momentarily possible.

That storm was not an isolated event. Ask most golf course superintendents these days and they will tell you they are dealing with more intense weather extremes – whether it’s massive rain events of 3-4 inches or sustained drought – often in the same area. The result is an overloading of the weather environment that golf courses have to deal with – more demands upon drainage, more need for drought-resistant turf, greater strains on water availability. There’s no need for a consensus upon the dynamics of causes or even the solutions to climate change for the golf industry to take seriously the increased natural stressors that confront golf courses.

Election politics is not just about Democrats and Republicans. It’s about larger demographic and economic issues at play, as well as ecological demands. There’s no reason to think any of this will be easy to reconcile. And there’s no reason to think that everyone will back the president as these issues unfold. But being more open about the full range of issues we face is the best way forward after these latest elections.

Golfweek senior writer Bradley S. Klein holds a doctorate in political science and was a university professor for 14 years.

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