Why the game is having such a difficult time gaining new golfers
You know the scenario. Golf is in a state of decline. More courses are closing than opening. Play is down. The rate of newcomers to the game has fallen off. You have heard the reasons — price and time being the supposed chief culprits.
You have heard the solutions. Make the cups bigger. Push for nine-hole rounds instead of 18. Lower the cost. In other words, make golf quicker, easier and cheaper.
Oh yeah, and start paying attention to historically ignored segments of the population – women and minorities.
Throughout this downturn, the golf industry has been myopic when looking for answers on ending the decline. The conversations seem to happen in an echo chamber and, not surprisingly, the same conclusions are reached.
The contraction of the game is viewed solely through lenses focused on golf, when a more expansive view is needed if the exodus is to be stopped. The fact is, golf is not the only game where participation is dwindling.
A perfect example of the narrow focus of the golf world came from The Golf Channel announcer Brandel Chamblee in a July 9 column on the channel’s website. Never mind that Chamblee’s piece is full of historical inaccuracies and suppositions; the worst part is that, according to Chamblee, his key to ending these dark days has been right in front of our faces and behind the counter all along. You ready for this? The panacea is none other than the club professionals.
Oh yeah, he’s serious. The men and women of the PGA of America can cure all of golf’s ills.
No surprise this is what Chamblee came up with. Bet you the clubhouse, the maintenance barn and the back nine that he has spent most of his life in golf.
To prove his point, Chamblee recounts a tale of growing up on an idyllic municipal golf course where the pro and his assistants were not holed up in their offices trying to come up with ways to grow the game – they were out there on the putting green, range and first tee talking to people.
“In my mind, the golf professional is the most important person in golf, the link between the golfer and the game,” Chamblee wrote. “Pay the golf professionals more money because they are worth every penny and will make people want to play this game.”
He doesn’t advocate paying golf course superintendents more. Raise your hand if this surprises you.
Chamblee, shockingly, doesn’t see the glaring flaw with his theory. Hey Brandel, those golf pros were talking to people who were already at the golf course. I think it can safely be assumed that a significant number – I’m guessing 99 percent – of people who find their way to a course already have an interest in the game.
The question that Chamblee does not address is how to get the non-golfers to golf. The answer is most decidedly not golf pros; their job is at the course.
Another example of how the echo chamber is producing incorrect information is the propagation of the myth that there was a golf boom tied to the career of Tiger Woods. There might have been a television ratings rise, but there was no increase in rounds played or participation. In a July 2014 article on GolfNewsNet Ryan Ballengee shot down that fallacy succinctly and convincingly.
As Ballengee shows, in 2008 and ’09 “Woods won four times, including the U.S. Open in 2008. In his comeback year, Woods won six times. Golf lost 1.5 million players” in that same period, he wrote. “Over the course of Woods’ professional run, the total number of golf rounds in the U.S. has been in steady decline, going from a peak of nearly 550 million rounds in a year in the late 1990s to around 460 million rounds a year.”
Ballengee offers a hypothesis on what was really happening at the time.
“The truth is – aside from demographic data – the best indicator of golf participation is the health of the economy. If people feel good about their financial position, they’re happy to play golf. If not, they won’t. And the impact felt by golf participation happens in a 12-18 month lag.”
So, since the Tiger Boom is a complete fabrication, golf would be better served to stop wasting its time trying to create its next supposed savior in the form of a PGA Tour player. He’s not coming.
Tom Farrey is the executive director of the Sports and Society Program at the Aspen Institute and author of “Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children.” He has theories on why golf participation is down. Farrey sees many of the same negatives that are common suppositions, specifically time and the amount of cash needed to play.
There are, though, other difficulties that must be addressed.
“It’s not a kid-sized game,” Farrey said of golf. “Little League shrinks its fields. Basketball teams lower their rims.”
Golf has not done the same until recently with the introduction of larger cups and the addition of forward tees, moves Farrey approves, but which are not widely accepted or implemented.
The fact is, though, golf has become more difficult over time, no matter what Chamblee asserts. Roughs are higher and thicker, fairways are tighter and greens are faster than when he learned the game. All those conditions make golf more demanding, especially for beginners.
If golf participation is to rise among children, Farrey said there are two questions that kids have and they offer a glimpse into a possible cure.
According to him, children want to know that, if they participate in a sport, one: Are they going to be with friends when they play, and two: Is it fun?
Beyond that, to draw participants, sports need to find out what kids are looking for.
“Are we giving kids what they want?” Farrey asked.
Greg Norman touched on the subject during a BBC interview during the week of The Open Championship.
“If a kid wants to get in a golf cart and play loud music, let him do it, absolutely,” he said.
Norman may be way overboard with the tunes blasting, but he grasps the concept of adapting the etiquette rules to attract a different clientele.
According to Farrey, what many kids want – but don’t get – is to play a competitive contest without having parents pressuring them about the outcome.
“They don’t want adults getting hung up on whether they won or lost,” he said. “The game does need to belong to the kids.”
A shocking conclusion in this hyper-competitive America.
Golf also needs to realize that a decline in participation among children is a problem almost across the board. According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, 40 percent of kids between the ages of 6 and 12 regularly played team sports in 2013, down from 44.5 percent in 2008. Almost every sport has seen a drop off, except one.
While sports such as football, baseball and basketball are in the midst of a decrease in youth participation, hockey has seen a rise from 299,000 kids to 434,000 in the years 2008 to 2013, according to SFIA.
A Bloomberg News story from this year on how the declining youth participation is worrying Major League Baseball talked with Ken Martel, technical director for development at USA Hockey, the sport’s governing body in this country.
Martel said hockey has made a concerted effort to become less formalized. One way that is done is by setting aside time during a team practice to allow kids to have pick-up games, as if they were out on a frozen pond and not in a rink.
“No coaching, just playing,” he said in the piece.
Young hockey players also are encouraged to participate in other sports.
What USA Hockey did, however, that was most shocking was to get rid of its under-12 national championship.
“It’s astonishing,” Farrey told me, putting the move in perspective. “That’s Little League getting rid of the Little League World Series.”
For a while now, golf has gone the opposite direction of hockey. In his book, which was published in 2008, Farrey recounts attending the Callaway Junior World Golf Championship and watching the 6-and-under division, the “Diaper Division,” as the organizers nicknamed it. Farrey told me each participant has a caddie and that person, usually the father, has to figure the yardage, select the club and, often, point his child in the correct direction of the next shot. All the kids do is swing.
That story made me think. I wonder if, in this age of helicopter parenting, golf doesn’t have appeal because it’s not a sport where hovering is allowed, accepted or easy to do? Many state and national junior golf associations forbid parents from caddying for their kids during tournaments.
Unlike virtually every other sport, when it comes to golf, a parent can’t always easily watch their kid play, especially in an informal setting, say, the way they do for a pickup basketball game. Perhaps the idea of dropping a kid off at a golf course and picking him/her up six hours later makes hands-on moms and dads tremble with anxiety.
“This is a change in the way society operates,” commented Rick Riccobono, senior director of development at USA Baseball, the governing body for the amateur game, in the Bloomberg piece. “Parents are much less likely to just let their kids run out the front door and go find a local sandlot and just start playing a game.”
Maybe this downturn is a normal occurrence for which there is no fix. People’s tastes transform when it comes to fashion and food, why not recreation? It has happened before. There was a time when roller rinks were wildly popular.
A municipality in Connecticut, not far from where I live, has for years run a junior golf program at its 18-hole layout. It lasts four days and participants are taught and overseen by the staff as well as a dedicated group of volunteers. The city is in tough financial straits and has been for years, the quintessential New England mill town that the factories abandoned.
The camp is a safe environment for the children who go there; the course located a short distance from the downtown. The cost is $125, which includes lunch each day, a photograph and hat or shirt. Daily instruction is at four teaching stations: putting, chipping, pitching and full swing. On the last day there is a family cookout and golf contests.
Ten years ago about 100 kids attended – this year there were 32. Part of the reason may be because advertisement isn’t as vigorous as it was, but that’s not the only reason for the decline. As a longtime member told me, “There aren’t as many kids hanging around the course as there used to be.”
So what’s this golf course to do? What’s golf to do to get young golfers to the course? Maybe hockey holds the answer, maybe not, but Brandel Chamblee and the rest of the group in the echo chamber surely don’t.
COVER PHOTO COURTESY OF IMAGINEGOLF/SIGNATURE/ISTOCK