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Does Golf Need to Grow?

By: Tony Dear


Rarely, if ever, will you hear a football commentator talk about it, and neither is it a subject baseball or basketball announcers ever seem to bring up. But you can be fairly certain the next time you turn on the Golf Channel, read a golf magazine, or visit a golf website, you will come across the phrase "growing the game." Golf organizations around the world have offered initiatives to increase participation for decades, but the number of programs aimed at introducing golf to the masses has risen dramatically since the turn of the century.

"We have to keep promoting the game," says Steve Mona, CEO of the World Golf Foundation which oversees GOLF 20/20, a collaboration of groups representing various parts of the U.S. golf industry. "In business, you are either getting bigger or you are getting smaller. You can't stand still. If you try to do that you will inevitably get passed."

Mona, like many of golf's top administrators, is concerned that golf could conceivably end up a niche sport in the U.S. similar to tennis which, though enjoying something of a resurgence in recent years (participation was up 30 percent in 2011 compared with 2010 according to the U.S. Tennis Association), struggled desperately to maintain its popularity in the late-1990s and early-2000s after American superstars like John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi had all drifted away.

In the UK, the tennis analogy is especially applicable as the expected increase in interest following Andy Murray's victories at the Olympic Games and U.S. Open has failed to materialize. In December, it was reported that Sport England, which issues funding for grassroots sport, had decided to withhold 10m from the Lawn Tennis Association as participation in the country (okay, Murray is Scottish, but the figures for both countries are obviously linked) had actually decreased 10 percent between 2008 and 2012, the period that coincided with Murray's rise to prominence.

"He may have won the Olympics, but it hasn't caused a big upsurge in the number of people playing tennis in Britain," says Duncan Weir, Director of Golf Development at the R&A which spends over 5million every year on projects designed to fuel involvement in golf from Caledonia to Colombia where it is sending 30 British golfers to compete in the country's amateur championship later this year.

"Tennis has the same problem all sports have these days - stimulating young people's interests. We're competing all the time with other sports, plus all the other activities and distractions on offer nowadays."

Some might wonder why golf has made such a big deal of growth and why so much time, effort and money is being committed to it when it is already a $69 billion industry that employs close to 2 million people. "Is it not big enough already?" actually seems a legitimate question.

In some respects, it very well could be. Due to the constant desire for distance, many courses have expanded beyond their original boundaries, and the cost of purchasing, irrigating and maintaining this extra land is passed down to the golfer; as if green fees weren't high enough already. So in that sense, it would be fair to say golf has indeed reached, perhaps exceeded, its optimum size.

But by becoming so vast - the golf industry's economic impact is twice that of Hollywood and several times bigger than the NFL's (when indirect and induced economic activity driven by the golf sector is taken into consideration, a total impact of $176.8 billion was generated in 2011) - the governing bodies and organizations charged with safeguarding the game's future have a big responsibility to help protect people's careers and sustain the business of golf.

As Mona says: "The well-being of the game has a direct bearing on jobs, commerce, economic development and tax revenues for U.S. communities and industries."

Duncan Weir in Scotland paints an even clearer picture. "Growing the game is an economic necessity," he says. "And it is part of the R&A's mandate."

Golf's economic strength is also of vital importance to a great many charities around the country - and indeed the world - that profit from the game's generosity. In America alone, an incredible $3.9 billion is raised every year for people in need by people playing golf - be it the world's best players on the PGA Tour, or the 12 million or so amateur/casual/beginner/once-a-year players who tee it up in one of the 143,000 charity golf days held every year at one of 12,000 participating golf facilities.

"The PGA Tour generates roughly $150 million a year for over 3,000 charities," says Mona. "And each of the amateur events raises an average of over $26,000. No other sport comes close."

The list of golf's benefits - to society and the individuals that play it - doesn't end there, of course. Joe Louis Barrow will tell you its greatest assets are the lessons that playing the game can teach young people. Barrow is the CEO of the First Tee, which was established by the World Golf Foundation in 1997 with two key goals: giving youngsters the opportunity to play a game they might otherwise have never had; and exposing them to valuable life lessons they might otherwise have never learnt.

"As we introduce the game and the character education components of our Life Skills Experience, we continue to have a very positive impact on the lives of our participants," says Barrow. "Young people are making positive decisions with confidence they may not have had prior to their involvement in the First Tee. This is all done through golf, of course, where children and teenagers learn important values such as respect, confidence, honestly and perseverance."

Mona goes a step further. "The First Tee not only helps instill characteristics kids need for life, it also teaches leadership and how to be a husband, father and business leader."

Weir, meanwhile, says golf provides a healthier alternative to today's obsession with social media and video games. "We want to help kids stay away from computer screens," he says. "We want to find the next generation of golfers and give them something they can be passionate about from the cradle to the grave."

"Golf," Weir adds, "can help bridge generations and cultural divides." And it's good for your physical health, notes Mona. "It's a great form of exercise. If a person walks all 18 holes, he can burn upwards of 2,000 calories."

What else? The environment? Golf has endured a long-running battle with environmentalists going back to the 1980s when superintendents, instructed by course owners and greens committee members to produce playing surfaces comparable to those at verdant Augusta National, would consume fertilizer and water so excessively the conservationists had good reason to be concerned.

Nowadays, in a world that strives to be more conscious of its surroundings and more aware of the damage it is doing to them, golfers are getting the message that a little restraint should be exercised when maintaining courses, and that golf is actually more fun when played on drier surfaces where the ball can run along the turf rather than sink into it.

"Provided courses are maintained sensibly, they can absolutely enhance the environment," says Mona. "Because of its former preoccupation with lush, green turf, golf still has something of a bad image. But courses have reduced their water and fertilizer usage considerably, and most now provide suitable habitats for wildlife.

"Many are seeking Audubon-certification. People who are anti-golf because of what they think it does to the environment should consider what the land might have been used for were the golf course not there. Golf is a lot better than parking lots and strip malls."

The USGA, which spends $95 million a year for the good of the game, also weighs in on the subject of the environment. "Through our Green Section's Turf Advisory Service, we visited more than 1,500 golf courses last year," says Senior Managing Director-Public Services, Rand Jerris. "We disseminated best practices not simply for growing healthier turf, but for doing so in ways that are economically sustainable."

Jerris, and the USGA, believe strongly that one of the greatest challenges facing the game is the issue of water - the availability of it, access to it and the cost of using it.

"Simply put, if we don't find ways to control responsibly golf's use of water, it may well become irrelevant how successful the golf industry is in growing and retaining large numbers of players," says Jerris. "We are working to build awareness about golf's dependency on water, and to identify ways of reducing our collective use of this critical resource."

Last November, demonstrating how important it regards the issue, the USGA gathered 20 experts from golf, academia, the environmental community and the regulatory community in Grapevine, Texas, for a summit called, "Golf's Use of Water: Solutions for a More Sustainable Game."

Jerris stresses the summit on water use is an example of the USGA's commitment to ensuring the future health of the game which, he adds, is actually something quite different from growth. "When we speak of health, we consider such issues as the cost of the game; the time it takes to play it; if the Rules and the handicap system are properly constructed to allow for a fair and enjoyable game between players of different abilities; if the skills required to play the game are in proper balance with equipment, so as to preserve the fundamental challenge of the game that golfers value so much; and if the game is in healthy balance with the environment and the natural resources that are available to us."

Jerris adds that if the USGA does its job well and the game remains healthy, the industry surrounding golf should be successful in growing it.

The obstacles are numerous, though. "Golf is too expensive for many people and costs are continuing to rise," says Jerris. "The game takes too long to play, and there is still a perception that golf is elitist or exclusionary, and thus unwelcoming to too many players."

To combat these problems the USGA recently announced a comprehensive initiative to target slow play, which includes the development of the first-ever mathematical model of pace of play based on real data. "With the knowledge gained from this ongoing project, we will be developing programs to educate golf facilities on reducing the pace of play, as well as educating golfers on how they can work to promote quicker rounds for all," says Jerris, who adds the USGA is working to promote alternates to the traditional 18-hole, four-ball round, recognizing that other forms of play, such as match play, alternate-shot and two-ball allow for faster golf. "We will also be promoting the nine-hole round as a fun and complete golf experience."

To help make the game more welcoming, the USGA will be introducing a Rules education initiative, designed to make the game less intimidating to new golfers. "We want women and juniors to feel more welcome on the golf course," says Jerris. "We are investing in programs like LPGA-USGA Girls Golf, as well as our partnership with the PGA of America and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, to help bring the game to young people who might otherwise never have exposure to golf."

The USGA will measure its success not by how many more people are playing the game necessarily, but rather by how much it costs to play, how long it takes, and what percentage of the number of people playing golf are women, juniors and minorities. "Only when our efforts to reduce the cost and the amount of time it takes to get round the golf course, and when we can see golf becoming more welcoming, will we know we have been successful," says Jerris.

The governing bodies might not govern all of the game as all of the golfers would like them to all of the time (anchor ban on putting, overly-complex Rules book, failure to check the distance explosion, etc.), but you have to say current efforts to grow the game seem well-intentioned, and make an awful lot of sense.

Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it extremely difficult for him to focus on Politics, his chosen major. After leaving Liverpool, he worked as a golf instructor at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a 'player.' He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. He is a multi-award winning journalist, and edits his own website at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.