With Olympic golf coming in three short years and Fox Sports’ new deal to broadcast the U.S. Open, I’m hearing a lot of people talk about growing the game. Think about it: In 2016, we’ll have (in order) the Masters, the Players Championship, the U.S. Open, the British Open, the Olympics, the PGA Championship and the Ryder Cup. What a year to look forward to! Many people think the Olympics will help increase golf participation on a global scale (but particularly in Latin America and the Far East), while Fox Sports—which will start broadcasting our national championship in 2015—intends to broaden the appeal of golf to American sports fans who may be more inclined to watch NASCAR or Family Guy.
I’m for anything that increases the appeal of golf, but no matter how great Olympic golf is in Rio, or how many bells and whistles Fox Sports adds to its U.S. Open broadcast, golf simply cannot grow unless we increase access to the game.
Who cares how many people watch golf on television if there’s no place for them to play and no one to teach them? Even Tiger Woods, who has captivated a generation of sports fans and created millions of video-game golfers, has not had any demonstrable impact on golf participation in the United States. Growing golf via TV coverage is an illusion. Whether in Latin America, the Far East or here in the U.S., to increase participation in golf you have to create access to courses and lessons. We’re spending millions on First Tee programs that teach young people valuable skills but have little effect on bringing significant numbers of new players to golf.
What the governing bodies should do to grow the game is to reach out to every course, public and private, and ask those courses to set aside a specific number of tee times that can be used by kids and young adults for a minimal fee. Tee times go unused at private and public golf courses every day. So why not invite young people to play on a Wednesday afternoon, and recruit some volunteers to oversee the kids? And of course, “play” is the operative word. Kids don’t want to practice; they want to play. But don’t worry, if they play poorly, they’ll want to start practicing, too. This would benefit the country clubs, because the 14-year-old who learns to play at a course he otherwise wouldn’t have access to will grow up and perhaps return one day as a successful young professional looking for a membership.
Years ago, caddying was the main way that golf was passed on to the next generation. Young people received two important benefits from caddying: cash in their pocket and a chance to play the golf course at least once a week (usually on Mondays). Opening up some tee times for young people is a modern version of this deep-rooted tradition.
What makes golf special among professional sports is that you can play the same game that you watch the pros play every weekend. The Olympics and the USGA will get more people in front of the TV to watch golf, but the most important step is the one that gets kids off the couch and onto the course.