So they say golf is in decline, a pastime of the privileged whose day has come, and there’s little we can do but wistfully watch as it rides off into the long slow sunset of obscurity. The signs are everywhere and the reasons plenty, from continually falling club membership to high costs, slow play, and the short attention spans of today’s youth. And the media’s almost eager portrayal of this has been so pervasive that even the casual observer can’t have missed at least a story or two by now detailing how the game is in its eleventh hour. Now trust me, I’m not one of those doom & gloom pundits, trying desperately to jump on the bandwagon of the latest sinking ship that I have little invested in. 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 spend more time than most singing the praises of the Royal and Ancient game while trying to insure it is accessible to everyone. In the past, I’ve written how the mainstream coverage of this decline has been lazy, opportunistic, and overblown, but I’m changing course now, and deciding at long last it’s time to take their conclusions at whole cloth. I say this not because I’ve become resigned to their inevitability. I say it because it’s a notion I refuse to idly accept, and because if they are correct, and the game really is in trouble, it’s high time we started a movement to save it. And because I think I know how we can do that… So I’m throwing down the gauntlet, so-to-speak, and challenging you all to be a part of the solution, and it starts with making one simple little New Year’s resolution. So if you’re a true golfer, and, like me, you want to see this game enter a new era of prosperity, lend me your ear 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 are, what you can do, and why you should.
I learned the game on military and public courses at a young age. I walked, carrying a faded canvas bag with one pocket and a hodge-podge of leather gripped clubs my grandfather had cut down in his garage that bore names like Hagen, Snead, and Littler. I played with Club Specials, Kro-Flites, and Pro-Staffs (many with smiles on them), and anything else I could fish out of the lake on the hole adjacent to his backyard or find in the weeds. I took one lesson from a grizzled old pro, allowing 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 retired guys, one of whom gave me a dollar for every par I made, and on an average day, I had enough money to buy lunch when we were done. It was a grand game (the best game, I thought), and likely the best 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.
Forty years later, I’m now the grizzled old pro, but those sacred playgrounds of my youth look sadly different. A base closure and over-development sealed their fates, and a drive by the abandoned sites stirs emotions in me unlike few places can. That three-par, a once novel Robert Trent Jones Sr. design (the only 18-hole executive course he ever built), is now little more than a playground for the occasional squirrel or fox, where moss-covered lakes, old hole signs, and the 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 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 and boarded windows 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, one that not only reminds me of lost youth, 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. At its height, shortly after a certain Mr. Woods arrived on the scene, there were close to 30 million players in the U.S., but in recent years that number has dropped to less than 25. In the past, I’ve argued 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 now been steeper 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 just pass it off as a temporary reaction to unfortunate economic realities. And almost 9 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 to a whole generation of potential new players too.
Not so long ago, in the heady after-math of golf’s “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 decade 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, we see the window of opportunity to introduce this game to a new generation closing 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 play, it is painful for me to watch. And I really can’t abide it, because it is still by no means inevitable, as long as I can get a few of you to join me in helping to make sure the game’s well chronicled struggles don’t end up being the harbinger of a tragically avoidable demise.
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 of us 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 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, we are the ones with the power to save golf! So if you’re a true golfer, and you cherish this game and want to pass it on to your children and grandchildren to enjoy in the same way that we have, then here is what I hope you will resolve 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 some extra time until they’re engaged, and if they’re a lapsed golfer it may be as simple as getting that trusty old 7-Iron back in their hands, but whether they are new 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 one in five 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 this past year; another unfortunate victim of golf’s shrinking customer base that has become all too commonplace. Not the closure of an insignificant mom & pops three-par, or a tired muni that had fallen out of favor with locals when a brighter shinier model opened nearby. This was a course once ranked in Golf Digest’s Top 100 you can play. Another sad event. And the solemn collection of golfers who lined its now abandoned fairways in the closing weeks was eerily reminiscent of a funeral procession, with long-time friends reuniting 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 journey will see a great many things come and go, but the game is more than just a game and won’t be one of those things as long as enough of us care to act. For more than 500 years and 50 generations Golf has endured. Each generation in turn has not only enjoyed it, and learned its many lessons, but also preserved it, insuring that it in turn would be passed along to the next generation like a precious gift. So let it not be said that when our time came our generation stood idly by as this Royal and Ancient game diminished because we were either too busy or the work was just too hard. Let it rather be said, as true golfers so often ardently preach, that we left it better than we found it… WE can save golf. So join me and please pass this message on to every true golfer you know who cares enough to join us in making this resolution too. And then go find that one person...