For a Prosperous Future Golf Should Look Forward (a commentary)

One of the more disturbing trends I’ve observed of late is both daily-fee courses and private clubs rejecting the efforts of high school and college golf teams to play and practice on their golf courses.

We all know that the golf business has challenges and that in many cases every bit of revenue is critical, however, golf participation is shrinking.  According to the National Golf Foundation, in 2015 there were more than 1.6 million fewer golfers in the US than just 4 years earlier, with participation down to 8.2% from 9%.  Participation among minorities (non-caucasians) has dipped from 5.4 million to 4.7 million.  Not long ago, we learned that after years of golf’s largest player segment comprising of the 45-55 age group, it shifted to those aged 55-65. That’s a bad sign because it means we’re not doing a good job of attracting the next generation.

In many cases, especially where parents aren’t golfers, high school golf teams represent the best and only opportunity for kids to not only be exposed to golf, but to learn how to play and experience the many additional lessons golf has to offer.  More importantly for the clubs, it expands the golfer population of the future, who will become patrons and members.  In those areas where caddies were once prominent and now extinct, young people just don’t get the same chance to learn the game.  Conversely, where caddying is still alive and well, many young people benefit from not only exposure to golf and the players they carry for, but they also typically get to play and often become hooked on the game.  A natural extension of this is going out for their high school golf team.

When I played high school golf, we didn’t have to pay a dime to play.  We just needed equipment, shoes and a willingness to play.  My son’s golf team charged a fee for tryouts because they had to pay a green fee for qualifying rounds, which weren’t permitted on the team’s home course, a private club that allowed matches to be played but no qualifying or practice rounds.  Further, the kids were prohibited from using the practice range.  I even hear of clubs that for little or no reason, despite having plenty of capacity are discontinuing relationships with school and college golf teams or considering terminating their access.

There aren’t a lot of problems associated with golf team play for the clubs.  They don’t lose any money and most importantly high school and college golf represents the best bet for the future of the game and future patrons and members.  Yes, there is the risk of some mischievous kids doing things kids do, having to teach them how to take care of the golf course or observe some of the “rules of the road” but isn’t that what bringing people into the game is all about?  Yes, there may be a few times when the golf team has a match or practice that interferes with some play, but the investment in the future is worth a little inconvenience.  And for good measure, if your course has a practice area, you can go work on your game and improve.

One of my biggest concerns for golf is that the game isn’t embracing the future.  Not only are we losing players, but we’re discouraging millenials, minorities and women simply by holding on to traditions, which in some cases are counter-productive.  Society, whether we like it or not, has changed.  People don’t dress, communicate or even work the same way they used to.  Our game needs to reconsider how important it is to ban cell phones when it may be the cell phone that allows some of us to break away from the office to play golf.  Many of our games traditions are great and should be preserved.  Spirit of the game, Care for the course, pace of play and consideration for other players are just a few of golf’s unique traditions that should be preserved, and are listed in the Rules of Golf. Playing without a referee is also another great tradition.  We call penalties on ourselves.  There’s nothing in the USGA Rules about how one should dress or whether they should use a cell phone.

I’m not suggesting an elimination of all rules, but golf is shrinking.  Some say it’s dying.  Our game uses too much land, inefficiently, takes too much time and costs too much money.  If we don’t embrace new markets, like TopGolf is doing successfully, we’ll continue to see declines in participation, more golf courses will close and golf will truly be an elitist’s game.  I disagree with President Trump’s assertion that golf should be “aspirational”.  There may be ways, as suggested by a recent article in Golfweek that President Trump is good for the game, but our game needs growth, along with the diversity that brings that growth.