News & Opinion

18 years ago, it all changed, including golf

What I seem to recall most vividly is how perfect a day it was. Morning temperatures in the mid-to-upper-60s with a high of around 75, not a cloud to be found, not a breath of humidity. One of those late-summer beauties in the Northeast that people in southern California might take for granted. A day that dawned with the Manhattan skyline pointing straight to heaven, representing all you could ask for in a country.

About 90 minutes north of New York City, we met at Great River Golf Club in Milford, Conn., an upscale public with three or four of the most ridiculous holes you’ll ever play. On the par-4 seventh, which featured a bus aisle of a fairway between a swamp on the left and a pond to the right, my editor, a 3 handicap, refused to leave the tee box until he put a drive into play.

It was pretty funny at the time. We made the turn and ordered drinks while longtime Golf Digest writer Guy Yocom called his wife. Despite a half-dozen or so lost balls and several hundred profanities, the three of us had buzzed around Great River’s front nine in an hour and a half. The place was empty. Nobody with the day off would come here to unwind, and the women were far too smart to hold their Tuesday morning league at this luxuriant parlor of horrors.

Yes, life was good. Very good. And then it wasn’t.

“An airplane just crashed into the World Trade Center,” Yocom announced before his wife corrected him. “No, it was two airplanes! They smashed into both towers! This is going to be the biggest story ever!”

We rode off to the par-3 10th and hit our tee shots, none of which came close to landing on the green. Dumbfounded but still clueless, we left those balls there. Nobody wanted to play golf anymore.

It changed everything, of course, from the way we travel to how safe we feel when we’re home, from the long-term ramifications that affected our total worth to the notion that a United States president would build walls to keep foreigners from entering the land of opportunity. No matter where you stand politically, economically or philosophically, the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 altered life as we know it.

Eighteen years later, it’s easy to see how the game we love has never been the same, either. Pro golf was cruising at an all-time high in terms of mainstream popularity during the summer of ’01. Television ratings were bursting through the roof, primarily because Tiger Woods had won his fourth consecutive major title that April. A “Tiger Slam” not only became the ultimate statement of domination, but an addition to golf’s lexicon, a landmark achievement that further fueled anticipation for the Ryder Cup matches that fall.

The meeting between the Americans and Europeans would be postponed after 2,977 people were killed in the senseless acts of jealousy and cowardice committed by Al-Qaeda. When the Ryder Cup resumed in England a year later, the momentum generated by the remarkable U.S. comeback in 1999 had been stunted by the delay. Sensibilities had changed. A lot was made that week of the reason why the matches had been pushed back, as if the innocence of an intense, three-day battle on the golf course needed a real-life intrusion on the silly games grown men play.

A conscience-clearer, for sure, but the biennial brawl has never quite returned to that same level. Europe now pounds the U.S. on a regular basis, leading the fallen Yanks to conceive task forces and point fingers. It was a total blast while it lasted, providing some of the best passion and drama in all of sports, but the Ryder Cup hasn’t aged so well.

You can’t blame that on a couple of giant buildings that were demolished by purveyors of evil, but it does serve as a point of demarcation. Reality has a way of inviting itself to the party, whether we like it or not.

At a recreational level, golf would begin to plummet as the economy struggled in the early- to mid-2000s. Between $40 billion in insurance losses, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a lengthy stretch of listless performances by the global stock markets, all of which came about because of Sept. 11, America’s financial health finally hit the skids in 2007. You could drive through sections of Arizona, particularly in northern Scottsdale, and see expansive, golf-related housing communities that were half-finished.

Come back six months later, and not a hammer had been lifted. The game had been riding a high for a while, and at one stage of the euphoria, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem predicted that golf eventually could rival the NFL in terms of growth. It sounds silly now. The number of rounds played in the U.S. dipped sharply as expendable income became far less abundant. And the entrepreneurs who envisioned making another bundle of millions on the real-estate/golf combo suddenly found themselves on a dead-end road with a tanking market and a whole lot of construction guys who still wanted to get paid.

Things didn’t quite come to a complete stop at the end of the first decade of the 2000s, but golf was no longer a hot and sexy business venture. When Woods hit the fire hydrant in late 2009, the shift hit the fan. Commercially, the game had its hands full, just trying to tread water, and lots of lessons eventually were learned. Some at a much greater cost than others.

Golf is a niche sport, played largely by a demographically friendly constituency that counts on this great country humming along without a hitch in its giddy-up. Eighteen years ago today, the horse fell down like it had never fallen before. It would eventually climb to its feet, a creature of pride and determination in a world full of degenerates and haters, but the race already had been run.

John Hawkins is a longtime sportswriter who spent 14 years covering the PGA Tour for Golf World magazine. From 2007 to 2011, he was a regular on Golf Channel’s “Grey Goose 19th Hole.” Email: