The game of golf is in trouble, or so they say. And if current trends continue, a decade or two from now it may fade into obscurity, becoming just another past-time of the privileged or the uber-wealthy like yacht racing or (Gasp!) polo. Now trust me, I’m not one of those doom & gloom pundits in the car crash media, trying desperately to jump on the bandwagon of the latest burning building or sinking ship that I have little invested in. Nor am I the affluent sort who wears deck shoes or riding boots. I wear golf shoes, and it’s how I make my living, so in truth, I’m just the opposite. I am an optimist, an everyman, and, as chairman of one of the PGA’s Growth of the Game Committees, I’m one who spends more time than most singing the praises of the Royal and Ancient game and trying to insure it is accessible to everyone. And while I’ve previously gone on record to say how the media’s almost eager portrayal of the game’s decline is lazy, opportunistic, and overblown, I’ve decided, at this point in time, to take their conclusions at whole cloth. I do this not because I’ve now become resigned to their validity, or because I merely want to start a conversation. I do this because it’s a notion I refuse to idly accept, and because ifthey are correct, and the game really is in its eleventh hour, we need to start a movement to save it. And because I think I know how we all can do that. So lend me your ear, at least for a moment, as I will preface my solution with just a bit of a story. It’s a story that, in one way or another, I’m sure is a lot like your story, and it sets the stage for where we find ourselves today.
I first learned the game on military and public courses at a young age. I mostly walked, after nearly putting a three-wheeled Harley in the ditch at the McClellan Air Force Base Course when my grandfather, who was stationed there, handed me the tiller for the first time. I carried an old canvas bag with one pocket and a hodge-podge of leather gripped clubs that he had cut down for me in his garage. I played with balls (many with smiles on them) that I had fished out of the pond on the hole adjacent to my grandfather’s backyard or that I had found in the weeds. My clubs had names like Hagen, Snead, and Littler stamped on them, and the balls bore names like Club Special, K-28, or Kro-Flite when you could actually read them. I took one group lesson from a grizzled old pro, which allowed me to get a junior card and play all day (which I did a lot) for $1 at the local three-par. I got invited to play in my first regular foursome at the age of 10 by three very patient and good-hearted retired guys who played every day. One of them would give me a dollar for every par I made, and on an average day, I had enough money to buy lunch by the time we finished. He stopped the practice about the time I started making enough pars to buy lunch at the turn. It was a grand game (the best game, I thought), and as it turns out, it was likely the best (and cheapest) baby-sitter my folks could have found too, as the most trouble I ever remember getting into was when I stepped in the line of someone’s putt prior to learning the proper etiquette.
Fast forward to today, and I’m a golf professional, but that sacred playground where I cut my teeth as a junior player long ago looks sadly different. A victim of over-development, that once novel Robert Trent Jones Sr. design (the only 18-hole executive course he ever built) is little more than a playground for the occasional squirrel or fox in hunt of the former. The over-grown bunkers, moss-covered lakes, old hole signs, and familiar thickets of trees that had shaded me on many a hot summer day stand sentry, like weathered headstones in an abandoned graveyard. They watch over the ghosts of golfers past, still traversing the almost unrecognizable former fairways, pulling a bag, fishing a ball from a lake, or tending the pin as a kindred spirit cozies up a 40 footer from the imagined edge of a long-forgotten green. The little old clubhouse still stands too, a last vestige of the pre-round hopes and post-round revelry of another generation. With its missing roof-tiles, windows boarded, and long-dead landscaping it barely resembles the oasis of my younger days, where many a french-fry, milkshake, and joke were shared among friends. It’s a difficult vision for me, one that not only reminds me of lost youth and the years we can’t reclaim, but the lost opportunities that shuttered courses all around the country represent for our future generations as they slip through our fingers like so many grains of sand through the hourglass of time this game has left…
This brings me back to the decline in golf’s participation in the U.S., the decline responsible for the many industry struggles we’ve seen since 2008. At its height, shortly after a certain Mr. Woods arrived on the scene, there were close to 30 million players in this country, but in recent years that number has dropped to less than 25. In the past, I’ve argued and argued loudly that this decline was to be expected and that it ran parallel to the drop-offs in participation seen by many other leisure-time activities during the difficult economy of the Great Recession. But that rate of decline has been steeper now than even what was seen following the Great Depression, and despite the fact that the stock market is now at an all-time high, and the economy has rebounded, the game’s participation hasn’t, and so it is becoming harder and harder to pass it off as merely a temporary reaction to unfortunate economic realities. And almost 8 years into it, if we don’t turn it around soon, it won’t be long before this may come to be known as “golf’s lost decade”, a decade where the game lost not just it’s brightest star to father time, but its relevance for a whole generation of new players too.
Not so long ago, in the heady after-math of golf’s aforementioned “Tiger Boom”, courses were built with an “If you build it, they will come” type of optimistic abandon. And for a while they did, but today the closure of courses both significant and obscure, something almost unheard of a mere eight or nine years ago, has become an unfortunate but accepted part of the new normal. And as the long-treasured sites of many golfers’ first par, birdie, eagle, or hole-in-one see their last hook, slice, chunk, or chili-dip as well, we see the window of opportunity to introduce this Royal and Ancient game to a new generation close along with them. As a golfer, and one whose entire life has not only revolved around the game, but one who has made his living by the grace of those who do, it is painful for me to watch. And I really can’t abide it, so I won’t, because it is by no means inevitable. So as long as I have even the smallest platform from which to teach and preach, I will continue to do whatever I can, and if I can get a few of you to join me, maybe, just maybe the game’s well chronicled struggles won’t end up being the harbinger of a demise that would be all the more tragic because of how avoidable it really is.
Now at this point, I could dive into all the great many reasons why the game is so great and why you should be playing or playing more, but if you’re reading this I’m likely preaching to the choir, so let me instead move on to what I propose. Regardless of the reasons, it is obvious by now that fewer and fewer of us every day are investing the time it takes to play. And for a game that gives so much back, not only to those who play, but to millions who’ve never even picked up a club through its philanthropic arms, that is an investment that I think we can ill-afford not to make. And despite all the great programs the PGA, USGA, and other allied associations come up with, when it comes right down to it, only YOU can save golf. So if you’re a golfer, and you cherish this game and way of life as much as I do, or maybe even make your living from the game and those who play it, and want to pass it on to future generations to enjoy in the way that we all have, here is what I hope you will make a New Year’s resolution to do.
PGA research tells us there are more than 90 million people in the U.S. interested in playing golf. If we accept those numbers at face value, that means there are more than 65 million potential prospects out there (more than 2 for every existing golfer), and so this undertaking shouldn’t be terribly difficult. Take a brief moment and think about one person you know who could benefit from everything this game has to offer. Whether it be a spouse, neighbor, co-worker, friend, mother, father, sister, brother, child, or grand-child we all know someone who isn’t yet a golfer, or whom for one reason or another just doesn’t seem to make the time to play anymore. And once you’ve come up with that one person, resolve to introduce (or re-introduce) them to the game. That’s it! If they’re a new golfer, you may have to invest a little extra time until they’re engaged, and if they’re just a lapsed golfer it may be as simple as getting that trusty old 7-Iron back in their hands, but whether they are new to the game or experienced, young or old, spouse, friend, family or colleague, I am pretty confident you won’t regret it, and both of your lives will be better for it. And if even a mere 20% of you took this pledge the game of golf could not only return to its heyday, but potentially to heights previously unseen.
I witnessed another course closure the other day; another unfortunate victim of golf’s shrinking customer base that has become all too commonplace. Not the closure of a quirky insignificant mom & pops three-par, or a tired muni which had fallen out of favor with its constituents when a brighter shinier model was introduced nearby. This was a course ranked in Golf Digest’s Top 100 you can play just a handful of years ago. Another sad event. And the solemn procession of golfers who lined its now abandoned fairways in the closing weeks was eerily reminiscent of a funeral procession, where long-forgotten friends reunite a final time to pay their last respects. To an extent, it’s the cycle of life, and those of us who are fortunate enough to walk down the 18th fairway of life after a lengthy and fulfilling journey will see a great many things come and go, but the game shouldn’t and doesn’t need to be one of those things. It is more than just a game, and more than just one of those many things in life we do for a moment and look back upon one day with little more than passing fondness. For more than 500 years and 50 generations Golf has endured. It has survived revolutions and World Wars, the passing of Kings, Queens, and their Monarchies and even countries along with them. And each generation in turn has not only enjoyed it, learned from the great many lessons it has to teach, but also done its part to insure that it was preserved, and passed along to the next generation like a precious family heirloom. So let it not be said that when our time came we stood idly by as this Royal and Ancient game and cherished way of life diminished because we were either too busy or the work was just too hard. Let it rather be said, that when our time came, as true golfers so often ardently preach, we left it better than we found it… WE can save golf. So please join me and please please please pass this message on to everyone who you know that cares and will join us too. And then go find that one person...