Any reports of golf's demise have certainly been exaggerated. With Tiger Woods' encouraging game and health, along with new courses and golf venues opening for 2018, there is certainly reason for optimism.
One of the reasons why is that golf continues to evolve. The industry is identifying new customers (millennials, for example) and new ways for people to enjoy the sport. In some ways, the game is getting back to its roots with shorter, walker- and beginner-friendly courses.
In others, facilities are using eye-catching technology as the carrot to lure new customers.
So looking ahead to 2018, here are 10 trends we saw in the amateur game and travel this year.
1. Natural disasters continue to test golf industry
It was certainly a devastating year for golf courses in many parts of North America. Hurricane Harvey ripped through the Gulf of Mexico into Texas, Hurricane Irma cut through the center of Florida, and Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane Maria. Meanwhile, the west coast faced a series of historically-severe wildfires. The PGA Tour's Safeway Open wrapped up mere hours before wildfires descended on Silverado in Napa. Climate change is hard to deny, and we can certainly expect more in the way of natural disasters in the coming years if these patterns don't change. In the case of Houston, for example, a few golf courses took on so much water that they may never open again. But it's not all bad news. Most of them are up and running again and are taking measures to deal better with storms in the future by building up greens and fairways. For example, the Jack Nicklaus-designed Ocean Course at Hammock Beach Resort on the east coast of Florida, had to delay its reopening after Irma, but it came back better than ever.
2. Golf that takes less time
We're not sure how long this trend will continue, but we like it. Of the new courses in 2018, several of them were of the short variety, par 3s and even a putting course or two. The most high profile of the group is the new Cradle at the famed Pinehurst Country Club and Resort in North Carolina. Designed by Gil Hanse, The Cradle is just 789 yards with holes ranging from about 50 yards to 180 yards. Best of all, the naturalistic wiregrass rough gives it that distinct North Carolina Sandhills look. And while it's not super easy, every level of player will enjoy it. Chances to make an ace are better than normal, too, since a couple of pin positions are usually set up at the bottom of a punchbowl on a green or two. It's also in terrific shape.
The Cradle at Pinehurst Country Club and Resort
Other examples of short courses that have opened recently include the Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw-designed 17-hole Sandbox at Sand Valley Resort (developed by Mike Keiser of Bandon Dunes) in Wisconsin as well as Li'L Wick at Wickenburg Ranch and the Short Course at Mountain Shadows, both in the Phoenix area. Both the Sand Box and Li'l Wick provide a variety of teeing options, making them perfect for a game of golf H-O-R-S-E. The Short Course at Mountain Shadows is an 18-hole premium par 3, with holes between 60 and 200 yards. (More: Ginella attends The Cradle opening at Pinehurst)
3. Bigger courses, less rough
This may seem to counter the above claim of shorter courses, but of the regulation courses being built, they seem to be getting bigger, but not necessarily much longer. Take the newest course at Streamsong Resort in central Florida, the Black Course by Gil Hanse. It covers 300 acres and has 11 acres in greens complexes alone. In other words, it's almost impossible to hit it off the golf course. And you can putt from anywhere.
Another course that fits that bill is Trinity Forest Golf Club (Coore & Crenshaw). It's the new home of the PGA Tour's AT&T Byron Nelson and this venue couldn't be any more different from its former home, TPC Las Colinas. Trinity Forest, which is built over an old landfill, is also wide open, with huge undulating greens complexes.
The new Sand Valley Course (Coore & Crenshaw) in Wisconsin certainly fits the criteria above as well. The heathland-design Sand Valley has plenty of acreage, and like the two courses above, you can play much of it with your putter. Early reports from Sand Valley's next course, Mammoth Dunes, suggest that it is even bigger. These courses are generally more playable, but not easy, for every level of player.
Video: Golf Advisor Staff debates favorite trends in 2017
4. More distractions on the golf course
So if golf isn't enough for you, you probably already carry a portable Bluetooth speaker with you on the course, but there have been efforts recently to ramp up the distractions on the course. One, in particular, that will debut in 2018, is something called the Shark Experience, which is the result of a partnership between Greg Norman, select golf courses and a Club Car. In short, the Shark Experience will provide media through the golf carts, including touchscreens where you can watch sports and powerful speakers to listen to programming or your own tunes. Norman concedes it isn't for everyone, but is banking that it will appeal to a significant faction of golfers, particularly millennials.
5. Flexible courses expand
While big 18-hole courses certainly represent a new trend, so do flexible courses. The Loop at Forest Dunes opened in 2016, and the latest to debut is The Retreat & Links at Silvies Valley Ranch in Central Oregon. Inspired by the Old Course at St. Andrews, which can be played reversibly, Silvies Ranch with its Craddock and Hankins courses depending on the direction you're playing, has more than 100 feet of elevation change. It also plays to nine shared greens. (More: Jason Deegan visits the opening of Silvies Valley Ranch)
And now, the city of Atlanta is redoing its Bobby Jones Golf Course as a reversible course. Designed by the late Cupp, it too was inspired by the reversible nature of the Old Course at St. Andrews.
While we don't expect reversible courses to become the norm, we do expect to see more of these in the future.
6. New ways to get around the course
Taking a powered golf cart or walking with or without a caddie has always been the standard methods of getting around the golf course, but we're seeing more and more alternatives. Perhaps the most popular of these in recent years has been the GolfBoard, which is a powered scooter of sorts that's somewhat similar to surfing, but not nearly as difficult. Golf Segways and Golf Bikes have been around for years, but most recently, Scottsdale's Kierland Golf Club introduced the TurfRider, an electric scooter with fat tires that's as fun or more fun than any of these other methods. Developed in Arizona, it's only available so far at Kierland, but I wouldn't be surprised to see some other courses put in some orders.
7. New golf courses and renovations roll along
While golf courses continue to close, it's not necessarily a reflection of the health of golf. According to the National Golf Foundation, since 2006, when the market correction trend began following a tremendous period of growth, the overall net reduction in courses is just 5.9 percent. Many of those closed simply because the value of the golf course land was just to high to pass up on sales. And while courses have indeed been closing, the good news for public golfers is that public golf has never been this accessible (75 percent of all courses are open to the public). There are actually more municipals than ever before with nearly 2,500 of them in the United States, according to the NGF.
Looking forward to 2018, several high-profile courses will be opening, including another course at Sand Valley, this one called Mammoth Dunes. It's designed by David McLay Kidd, who did the original course at Bandon Dunes in Oregon. Arcadia Bluffs in Northern Michigan is getting a new course as well, the South Course, designed Dana Fry and Jason Straka). And close to Branson, Mo., Big Cedar Lodge will be unveil Ozarks National, also a Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw layout. Among the renovations to look forward to in 2018 will be Pinehurst No. 4. The course, being redesigned by Hanse, is expected to open late in 2018.
8. Walking it back
One of the coolest aspects about many of these new courses is that not only do they not ban walking, but they encourage it. While most resorts aren't going to get rid of their cart fleet anytime soon, many of the new courses are designed to be walker-friendly, and that's a good thing in our estimation. And with that, often comes caddies. Courses like the three at Streamsong, the two regulation courses at Sand Valley, Trinity Forest, and of course, Pinehurst No. 4, all have caddie programs and are easy to walk.
9. Instruction, GPS technology go low
If you're looking for a golf watch or something electronic to help your game, the good news is that they prices continue to fall. You can get a good golf watch for less than couple hundred dollars, and not only will these devices from companies like Garmin, Golf Buddy and Bushnell give you yardages on the golf course, but many of them are also fitness trackers. You can also keep score or even your stats, like greens hit in regulation, putts, etc. And speaking of stats, if you want to know your swing speed, ball speed, smash factor, spin rate and launch angle, you can buy your own portable launch monitor and they work pretty well. The Swing Caddie from Voice Caddie, for example, is about the size of a smart phone and costs around $300 or less. (More: Five portable launch monitors you can afford)
10. TopGolf thrives, and competition is afoot
It seems that there's no stopping TopGolf, which now has 38 venues worldwide and seems to be opening locations as fast or faster than new golf courses. The high-end driving range/entertainment complexes are providing a fun place for golfers and nongolfers to hang out. For beginners, it's the perfect entry point to the game, since they don't have to worry about where they're hitting the golf ball and never have to retrieve their shots. Plus, the atmosphere is fun with plenty of other things to do. And, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it's no wonder that TopGolf now has competition. A new venue called Drive Shack is expected to open in Orlando and Richmond, Va., in the next year, and 4ORE! Golf is already open in Lubbock, Texas.