Over The Green
Sausages, Laws…and Golf

I used to watch for mentions of golf in the non-golf media, looking for signs that this was a good thing or not. Stories of deals done on courses, politicos escaping to hedge-shrouded fairways, celebrities picking up the game. Back in the go-golf late 1980s and ’90s, almost any mention of golf was ultimately a positive, luring potential new players to sporting-good stores, clubs, and (my personal favorite) newsstands.

Now I’m not so sure. After yesterday’s story in the Wall Street Journal about President Obama forsaking basketball for golf (read it here), today’s New York Times has a much more local—but no less squirm-inducing—story about former New York State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno and his golf jones. Bruno, “who federal prosecutors say improperly mixed his political and business interests and sought to deceive the public about it,” as the Times describes it, apparently used golf as a way of drumming up his bad business. The story also mentions other well-known slimeballs who loved and used golf, including Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

It’s enough to make you want to take up…basketball?

Happy Anniversary!

It just occurred to me—jet-lagged as I still am—that a very significant anniversary recently passed. Of no importance to you perhaps, but life-changing for me so I can’t let it go unnoticed.

In mid-November, 1984, exactly 25 years ago, I began working at Golf Magazine. I’d been in magazine publishing for a number of years, mostly travel books and in-flights, and had taken up golf just a few years earlier, having gone to a Golf Digest school at Pinehurst for a week in order to write about the experience. Having never held a golf club before, I suddenly found myself enraptured by the game. Then, in what now seems the blink of an eye, I was in the business. And now, it’s been 25 years.

The mantra in my household long has been, “Golf has been very very good to me” (apologies to Garrett Morris from “Saturday Night Live” in the days it actually was funny). When I think about where I’ve been, what I’ve done, the people I’ve met, and most significantly the people I worked with…well, let’s just say I’m one lucky SOB.

I will resist the impulse to get sentimental and/or maudlin, but thanks to everyone with whom I’ve shared my life and career over the past quarter-century. But most of all, thanks to George Peper for taking a chance on me.

A Little Unabashed Shilling

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I was reminded today of a mildly auspicious event happening in exactly one month’s time, the opening on December 18 of the Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain north of Tucson, Arizona, in the foothills of the Tortolita Mountains.

Admittedly this event probably wouldn’t mean much to me if I hadn’t toured the hotel—which was nothing more than a construction site and girders—last August. At the property’s expense, I had come out to see the new Jack Nicklaus golf course, which was undergoing its final prep before the PGA Tour arrived to give it their blessing in anticipation of the Accenture Match-Play event a few months later. I was able to play the course—early in the day, thankfully, as it gets pretty damn hot in Tucson in August—and witness the work going on literally underfoot as everyone worried about the upcoming inspection.

As you know by now, the Tour came out, the course received its blessings, the tournament was held, the players complained about Jack’s greens, Geoff Ogilvy won (collecting $1.4 million), and Jack came back a few weeks later to soften the course in anticipation of next season’s event, to be held February 25-March 1.

I liked the course—wide fairways, desert washes, gently rolling landscape, and funky greens. And it didn’t take a genius to realize that the putting surfaces were the only protection it could throw up against the world’s best players. But I thought a little roller-coaster putting action among the cacti would make for good match-play and good television. Because even at something like 7,400 yards, making it the longest course on Tour, it was too wide open and too devoid of hazards—except for the random stray into the desert—to bother those guys. Indeed, they came, they played, they whined, they won. We’ll see how it goes next winter.

Now what I want to see is the hotel, which opens next month. Travel around the country or the world and it’s hard not to like Ritz-Carltons. They know what they’re doing. And while they have only a few golf properties, they’re good ones: Reynolds Plantation in Georgia; Kapalua, Hawaii; Half Moon Bay, California; Lake Las Vegas; plus a few others in this country and overseas.

What I liked about the Dove Mountain hotel is its location, tucked so tightly into a box canyon that you can almost reach out the window and touch the rock walls. There will be three restaurants, a pool with a 235-foot-long water slide, and a spa. Also numerous hiking and equestrian trails that will let visitors get up-close to artifacts and petroglyphs (discovered during construction) of the Hohokam Indians who lived in the hills 2,000 years ago; plans were to protect the remnants while leaving them in their original habitat. Sounded cool to me.

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And I want to visit the hotel, shown above (and at this site), in a finished state—with walls and beds and such.

Finally, if you’ve never had the pleasure of being coddled Ritz-Carlton-style, a little story. Yes, I know, I was there as their guest and as a member of the fourth estate, so it was in their best interests to be nice. But this took the cake: As the pro and I approached the ninth green, a welcoming party waited—the general manager, marketing director, a few other suits, and a guy wearing an Augusta National-like white caddie jumpsuit and holding a big insulated box. After putting out, we walked over to chat and were informed that lunch was served: The caddie opened the box to a feast—Double-Doubles and fries from In N Out Burger, undoubtedly the finest fast-food chain anywhere (and a personal obsession of mine, as they had been informed). Say what you will, it was smart, fun, and classy in a lick-your-fingers sorta way.

And proof once again that the way to a man’s heart—or in this case, his pen—is through his stomach.

Course photograph by Jim Mandeville

Thai Sticks

imageI made it back from Thailand both exhausted and exhilarated, which is how travel is supposed to be. There is an enormous amount to say, which I’ll do first in the various magazine assignments I have as they, unfortunately, pay a little better than you all do. However, a few observations.

First, Thailand is an adult amusement park. That is both good and bad. Good in that tourism is the country’s leading industry and they are experts at it, from hotels to airlines to restaurants (there is no such thing as bad Thai food!) to golf courses to massage parlors. And by massage parlors I mean legitimate ones where a two-hour full-body Thai massage can cost as little as $12 including tip. Bad, if that’s the right word, in that much of the country’s notoriety has been earned for its sex trade, which is also quite cheap and also a combination of amusing and pathetic. But more than one reliable source told me that prostitution/companionship is an acceptable trade over there, a way for young women to make pretty good money (in a country where the average worker earns about $15 a day), most of which is sent home to parents and children. Of course a lot of that is justification, and also helps explain why the country claims a 60% return rate among tourists. Sad, and weird, but true.

Second, the golf in Thailand was a very pleasant surprise. With all the notoriety of China, Korea, and Vietnam, among other Asian countries, as new golf destinations, it’s worth noting that there are more than 250 courses in Thailand and the game has been played there for more than 80 years. Most of those courses are not very good, and many are military owned and operated (the army, which is in sight almost everywhere you go, seems to love its golf), but the other 60 or so range from fair to outstanding. I played nine, spanning the country from the resort island of Phuket in the south, through Bangkok and the resort towns of Pattaya and Hua Hin in the middle, up to Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, two fascinating old towns in the far north near the Burmese and Laotian borders in the heart of the “Golden Triangle.” Of those nine, four or five were really special, interesting, dramatic, challenging, and fun.

Third, hot. Ohmygod, hot! And humid. There was very little rain, but temperatures were routinely in the upper 90s and the humidity was at least that. Strangely, a few courses are walking-only, others are carts-only. I usually love to walk, but not there. Sorry.

Which leads to fourth, caddies. They are required everywhere and add greatly to each club’s charm: Lovely young ladies, swaddled head to toe for protection from the sun, they almost all speak enough English to be very helpful, are terrific at reading greens, are pretty good at yardages (but never figure in for pin position, only giving distances to the center of greens), will even give a quickie massage to an aching golfer’s back, and are wonderful ambassadors (ambassadresses?) for the country and the game. And like almost everything else in Thailand, they’re a bargain: Fees are usually about $8 a round whether driving the cart or pulling a trolley with the bag. (They never double-carry.) Add to that a tip of another $8 or so and you’re talking a bargain.

I’ll talk about the specific courses in my articles and future posts, and also will include photos when possible. As a teaser, here is a photo from arguably the best course I saw, The Banyan Golf Club in Hua Hin, about three hours west of Bangkok, which was designed by a local Thai architect who moved a remarkably small amount of dirt while carving this course through pineapple plantations. It was a treat.

For more on Thailand golf, and to look into making a golf trip there yourself, check out GolfAsian (their site). A terrific golf-tour operator, they not only know Thailand intimately, they’re experts on the rest of Southeast Asia as well. And like the rest of the country, are terrific at service.

This Is How Close I Was

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I’m the one on the right.

This is about an hour from Chiang Rai, way up north in Thailand, in the Golden Triangle. Yes, that Golden Triangle. In fact, the Museum of Opium was across the street from the Anantara Resort where we stayed, but it was closed. I really wanted to see it.

The resort maintains a very cool, humane “elephant camp,” where about 30 elephants reside. Guests can ride them and all that, but the animals live in the jungle and are tended to by their mahouts, the guys seen riding on top as their charges wade into the Mekong River to bathe. The elephants seem very tame, comfortable around humans (more so, I’m sure, than the other way around), eating from our hands and spraying us with water on command. I think I heard them laughing, too. An Australian couple at the resort just came down from China where they also have elephant parks, but they described the conditions there as awful. These guys looked to be having a pretty good time of it.

If anyone is interested, learn more at www.helpingelephants.org

At The Border

Almost nothing in what follows will be about golf, but I just did some things so incredibly cool that no matter what else happens on this trip, I’m happy.

We were driven this morning from Chiang Mai, in the north of Thailand, about four hours north and east, north of Chiang Rai, another 900-year-old city, up into the Golden Triangle. No longer quite the drug haven it used to be (although there is a Museum of Opium across the street from the magnificent Anantara resort we’re staying at), this is the gateway to Burma, which I can see from my window, and Laos is a little bit of a bend and look, but it’s there, too. This also is where there are a few elephant camps, including one run by the Anantara, to feed, ride, and see elephants and where the population is being tended to and conserved.

After arriving, we went to see the elephants, who were almost done with their workday, bathe in the Mekong River. And there we were, face to trunk with about a half-dozen adult elephants, their maghouts on their backs, being led into the river where they sprayed one another with their snouts, rolled over to wash off the dirt, and squealed. Someone took my picture, which I’ll send along at some point. We then walked over to where the younger and smaller (too small to bathe in the Mekong) elephants are trained and run around, and we fed them bananas and got right up to the little (hah!) guys. Really amazing. Very smart creatures, they understand the language, which is a mix of Thai and some tribal language spoken by the natives who train them. Many of the elephants were “saved” from the cities, especially Bangkok, where they are used to wring money from tourists. This is far more humane and they aren’t as likely to wreck cars and such. At the end of the day they go back into the jungle and are chained to trees with 30-foot chains so they can moved about and mingle, but according to the head guy they have no interest in breaking free. It’s a happy life.

After that, I was driven about 1/2 hour away to the Burmese border. Mae Sai is a market town with a regular flow of people back and forth (through immigration, handing over your passport, the whole works) and street markets. All the usual knock-off junk, very little authentic other than some jewelry and wood or stone carvings, the rest a wide selection of the latest ripped-off DVDs, Lacoste shirts, electronics, etc. Many many stalls, the same stuff one after the next. And that’s the Burmese side. The Thai side is only slightly nicer, and a slightly better class of junk, but not much. And people begging, zipping through on motorbikes, and shopping. Spent about an hour on the Burmese side, and there is nothing “Burmese” to see over there, but now I can say I’ve been and my passport boasts a stamp from Myanmar. A good day.

Tomorrow we’re playing golf. There’s one good course, which we’re playing, about an hour away, not sure which direction or what it will be like. Then Wednesday we fly down to Bangkok, Hua Hin, and Pattaya. That portion will be almost all golf, but I’m going to break away for a day and see Bangkok.

That was my day, which is one that will be hard to top for quite some time.

A Modest Proposal

From halfway around the world, it’s very difficult to monitor what’s happening in the world of golf, or at least those parts of it that interest me. But from logging on half a day earlier, or is it later, than you in the U.S., I’ve been able to keep track of a few things. And as I’m sitting in the spectacular Anantara Resort in Phuket, Thailand, sadly waiting to check out (and head north to Chiang Mai, near the Burmese border), I’ll extend my time of pleasure by doing a bit of pontificating. Or is it rabble-rousing?

First, the LPGA. I know Mike Whan. Or more accurately, I knew him from his days at Wilson Golf and then TaylorMade. My recollections are of a very bright, capable, and good guy. We won’t know for a while if the LPGA made the right choice, but Mike strikes me as someone who will sincerely give his all to make the right things happen. And as for those people who wonder why the ladies keep drafting “marketing people” to head their organization, I have two questions: First, what other kind of person would you suggest? An accountant? A politician? A lawyer? And second, what do you think marketing is? It’s selling across many different boundaries and areas of interest, which is exactly what the LPGA needs, sales to sponsors, countries, players, courses, networks, and so on. Mike’s wide range of experience in golf and package goods seems to me a good fit. Again, we’ll have to see but I am initially impressed by the LPGA’s choice and pleased they found him.

Second, my modest proposal. I’ve already mentioned this to a few people with ties to the Pebble Beach resort and if I’m screwing things up by airing it to the world (the world? My audience? Hah!), so be it. You tell me if you think the following is a good idea, pass it on to your friends, and let’s see if we can actually get a response from someone on Monterey Peninsula.

As I understand it, Pebble is suffering like everyone else in this economy. Rounds are down, and you actually can book a tee time almost immediately. I don’t remember what the green fee is these days (upwards of $425?), but I’m sure they’d like to ring up more of them. My idea should not only bring in some people who’ve never had the pleasure of a round at Pebble but is designed to bring back many who have already been and at that price can’t find a good reason to return. Maybe this is it.

Let the real world play Pebble under U.S. Open conditions. Starting immediately after the AT&T is done and the amateurs are gone—I wouldn’t do this to the likes of Charles Schwab, Ray Romano, and Clint (although Jack Lemmon would have loved it!)—the grounds crew should grow the rough to Open length, tighten the fairways to Open width, and speed up the greens as much as they can. Then give every amateur willing to plunk down the green fee (and maybe add a “maintenance surcharge”) the opportunity to play Pebble almost the way the pros will in a few months.

Whether you like it or not, Golf Digest’s Open challenge with Justin Timberlake, Michael Jordan, Tony Romo, and one “real” golfer is smart marketing (yes, there’s that word again). All golfers want to know how they’d fare on a U.S. Open course. They can get on Bethpage Black or Torrey, of course, but never at anything like Open conditions. Since Pebble isn’t full now anyway and the Open is there soon, I think this is the perfect way to generate some buzz, frustrate some golfers (is it possible that rounds would be slower? At Pebble? I doubt it. And so what, you know what you’re getting into), and get people thinking about the Open.

I’m sure there are many reasons this is undoable. So what? Isn’t it worth the effort?

Your thoughts?

Okay, gotta pack

Tempest In A Tee Box

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When I was working at Golf Magazine in the 1980s and ‘90s, a time concurrent with the last “golf boom,” I reveled in finding references to the game in non-sports media. It was in business magazines because golf courses were as popular as boardrooms for making deals; it was in the celebrity/entertainment rags because the game had status among the Hollywood elite (Nicholson, Eastwood, Douglas/Zeta-Jones, even Wahlberg); and it was in international news as a popular way for undeveloped countries to promote tourism (e.g., Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia).

Unfortunately, golf isn’t as hot, or cool, as it once was and as a result, the non-sports coverage trends a little more negative. Now we read about the game’s environmental impact, bankers taking big shots to fancy golf resorts while also taking Federal bailout money, and the downside of development on some of those same undeveloped countries (such as the New York Times article on Vietnam cited a few posts below).

Here’s the latest “golf is bad” story. The Obama White House is being compared to a “frat house” in which the boys make decisions and the girls make tea. Despite a nearly 50-50 gender split in senior administration posts, the President, it is said, relies too much on male advisors while the female staff is treated like second-class citizens. What’s the proof of all this? The all-boy basketball games and the all-male rounds of golf.

Here is the key golf-related paragraph in today’s NYTimes story:

Ben Finkenbinder, a junior press aide and scratch golfer, was recently invited into a foursome with Mr. Obama. (In records kept by Mark Knoller of CBS, the president has played 23 rounds of golf since taking office, none of which have included women, though Mr. Knoller allows that the press office does not always release the names of every player. A White House spokesman, Bill Burton, said Friday that Mr. Obama planned to play this weekend with Ms. [domestic-policy advisor Melody] Barnes.)

This is not a political issue. I don’t care if you think Mr. Obama is the messiah or a foreign-born interloper. If you are a golfer, you know that there are basically two forms of recreational (non-tournament) golf: client golf and fun golf. In Mr. Obama’s case, client golf would be going out with a fellow politician to twist his/her arm about upcoming legislation, something not uncommon in Presidential history. But Mr. Obama seems to primarily view golf as an escape, an attitude even more prevalent among Presidents going back to William Howard Taft (I wrote about Presidential golf history for The Met Golfer earlier this year; access that story here). He plays it on vacation and as a release from the pressures of the job. As a result, he likes to play—not very well, from all accounts—with people he can relax with, although there have been a few big contributor-types and corporate titans along for the cart rides, as well.

I say leave him alone. Let the President play with whomever he likes. Do you like being told who to play with?

Yes, it would be nice if more of his rounds included women with whom he is comfortable enough to shank, sclaff, and talk trash. And after this tempest in a tee box, I’ll bet we’ll see more women in the First Golfer’s foursome.

Therefore, I suggest he use his golf as a “teachable moment” and play with some LPGA players. This shouldn’t be done simply to address any “women problem” but to see, up-close, a game that is a realistic archetype for many male amateurs: Watching how most women pros manage their way about the course would be a great lesson for the President as well as the rest of us men.

It might also be a safe way to get an earful from a generally conservative clique (pro golfers, the men for sure, are predominantly Republican). And maybe Mr. Obama has some candidates in mind for the next LPGA Commissioner: What’s Christine Todd Whitman doing these days? Sandra Day O’Connor? Wanda Sykes?

Maybe some of the women who work in the White House should take up the game. I have no idea if any of them play: Hillary? I doubt it, but ask Bill; Judge Sotomayor? Breaking her foot a few months ago can’t have helped her game, if she has one. But if the boss plays golf perhaps learning the game is a smart career move.

Wait a second. That’s it! Let’s get Mr. Obama to use his staff, male and female, as the trendsetters to launch a national “take up the game” campaign. His America—young/old; male/female; in all colors—needs golf, a game that is competitive but not bellicose, gets people outdoors, calls for thinking as well as hitting, can be played in teams or individually, and when it’s over ends with a few beers and a lot of laughs.

And don’t forget the kids. You think young America would notice if Sasha and Malia took up the game?

Maybe like Ike in the ‘50s, Obama in the early 21st-century can give golf a big boost. Now that’s something both red states and blue states can agree on.

Doctor, Tee Thyself

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A sport both urologists and proctologists can love.

While working on the X-Blog (below) about golf’s problems finding new players, I got to thinking about why the ranks of golfers haven’t swelled over the last decade. As I’ve often noted, we had the world’s most exciting athlete (or if not the most exciting, one of them), and until the last year or so, the economy was booming.

So what went wrong? I think I have the answer.

Poker.

Okay, not just poker, but games like it, starting with videogames. Games that keep people, many of them young adults, indoors and try to give the misperception that they are sports. (A poker player is on the cover of this week’s ESPN The Magazine. Cancel my subscription.)

Why is this a problem? Because golf used to attract the kind of person who now thrives on poker and Playstation: a little geeky, someone who doesn’t mind playing by him or herself, and who likes using his head, not just his body. (And, let’s face it, may have a body not ideally suited to running, throwing, and hitting.) Plus, there’s the allure of winning a fast buck.

However, I recently heard some encouraging news regarding golf’s growth, and it comes from exactly the kind of brainy (and not necessarily brawny) types we like.

Good friends have a son, 25-ish, in med school. When I saw him the other day he reported that many of his fellow fledgling physicians spend hours playing the latest Tiger Woods videogame while talking about taking up golf for real when they are done with their training and have more time and money.

So maybe the PGA of America should start working with America’s med schools offering a different sort of internship. Partner with teaching hospitals and give residents reduced rates on lessons and green fees. Trade tee times for appointments. Putters for procedures. Cleeks for catheters. First T-Cell program, anyone?

Then business schools, engineering schools, law schools… The future Judge Smailses of the world have to come from somewhere.

Exaggerating to prove a point? Perhaps. But maybe golf should be looking to a different pool of potential players, ones who are a little older and likely will have the wherewithal and the motivation to give the game a try in a few years.

Anyone have other suggestions on how to get to this group? Or other groups we should be reaching out to? (Please don’t suggest retirees: The way things are going, no one will ever be able to retire again.)

Where Have All The Golfers Gone?

X-Blog, second installment. Stephanie Wei (Wei Under Par) and Jim Frank (Over The Green) have little in common other than they both play golf (occasionally) and both blog. X-Blog is where they comment on the same issue in the game, and maybe have a few barbs/comments for the other, as well. Once you’ve read it, we’d like to hear your thoughts on what can be done to grow the game and create more golfers.

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If Rafael Nadal thinks golf is cool, why don’t other 20-somethings?

Jim: Okay, Steph. Let’s talk about what I consider the most important issue in golf. No, not square grooves or there not being an Olympic-caliber course in Rio. Not even the lovely economy. All those can, and will, be fixed. What I’m most concerned about is this: Where are the new golfers going to come from? There are so few caddie programs, kids don’t go outside to ride a bike or throw around a football, let alone play golf. And yes, The First Tee and other programs like that will help a bit. But just a bit. So where will the next generation of players come from? Is there one out there? Is the game really in trouble?

Stephanie: It’s all about the kids. People who are introduced to golf at a young age are also the ones who keep playing it. Like you mentioned, there are programs like the First Tee that do great things to promote the game, but it’s probably not enough. I think playing up the cool factor would have a huge impact—Justin Timberlake’s tournament last week was great, there were items about it in mags/websites like People, US Weekly, etc. He clearly loves the sport and is a GREAT spokesperson to promote the game (and coolness). Also, tons of people had issues with Michael Jordan (the team mascot) acting as Freddie Couples’ assistant Captain at the Presidents Cup. I mean, seriously? Chill out. The Tour even “suggested” he shouldn’t attend the Opening Ceremony. The presence of basketball’s all-time best player is a positive. Fact of the matter is that many kids want to emulate their idols/heroes. So, when kids see that guys like JT and MJ love golf, they might think, “Oh, maybe I should give it a shot. I want to be like them.” Playing up celeb involvement and making a connection between golf and pop culture is key. It sounds kinda superficial, but we gotta get rid of the uptight crap the powers-that-be seem to pride themselves on trying to uphold.

Jim: No argument from this old fart about changing the perceptions of the game and making it if not “cool” (hey, it’s golf; be realistic) at least welcoming, fun, challenging, interesting, competitive, and somewhat youthful. But you have to be careful. Golf has tried chasing “cool” before; there used to be a magazine called Maximum Golf that was all about “cart girl of the month” and zipping around the course in a souped-up cart with beer cans flying around. Surprise, it didn’t take because one of the things that make golf truly cool is that it doesn’t need to change to be great. I’d like to see golf play up its retro side—some of the new fashion does that; maybe the fascination with the show “Mad Men” and the ‘60s will help. But keep one thing in mind: For the last 13 or so years, we’ve had arguably the “coolest” athlete in the world playing our game and he hasn’t done much for increasing participation. TV viewership and corporate sponsorship, yes. Tiger has been worth billions. But if he hasn’t been able to attract new players, we need to think very seriously about what will.

Stephanie: My turn to agree with you, up to a point. There are people who are fans and those who are both fans and golfers. People start playing golf usually by being introduced to it by a parent, colleague, friend, or spouse, etc. That said, golf being “cool” isn’t necessarily going to get people to pick up a golf club. But I am shocked that Tiger hasn’t attracted more people to take up the game: How accurate is this information? And even if he hasn’t grown the game much, how many fewer golfers would there be without him? In my personal experience, younger people have started playing because of their admiration for Tiger. Also, he’s surely built up a larger fan base and caused more people to follow professional golf. I mean, he can be accused of allegedly farting during a telecast and it makes national news (!). I hope that by continuing to entice fans through the pro ranks—improve the media coverage, make the telecast more fun (with commentators like David Feherty), build up the personalities and back stories in an entertaining way—it will eventually tip to a point where more people will start playing. We just need to be patient, it won’t happen overnight. The game is most definitely NOT in trouble.

[Photo by Photo Agency]