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Discussing golf's impact: A conversation with Steve Mona

By Brendan Mohler

At the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando last month, we met up with Steve Mona, CEO of the World Golf Foundation, to discuss golf's impact and the role of the WGF in growing the game. Previously the CEO of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, Mona took over at the World Golf Foundation in 2008. The facts and figures he cites, particularly regarding charitable giving and the game's economic impact, speak to his belief that golf contributes more to society than many people realize.

steve-mona-300.jpg"Golf is often perceived as a cottage industry, a little recreational pursuit for a small number of people. However, almost 10% of Americans play golf - which is certainly not an insignificant amount -- but the perception is that the game is a niche industry," Mona said. "Our objective is to change that perception and show people that the golf industry is considerably sized and makes a substantial contribution to our country's economy."

One of the main efforts of the World Golf Foundation is to promote golf as a vehicle to raise money for charity. How effective has the game been in that regard?

On an annual basis, golf generates about $3.9 billion for charity. Professional events generate only about $150 million of the $3.9 billion, with the rest coming from events held at everyday golf facilities. A small amount of that money stays in the game and benefits The First Tee or local high school golf teams, for example, but the overwhelming majority of money raised through golf benefits causes outside the game.

There are about 15,000 golf facilities in the country and about 12,000 of them conduct charity events every year. There are about 150,000 charity events that take place and about 12 million people participate annually. The average event generates $26,000 for charity. Typically the golf course operators make their course available for either no charge or a reduced charge so that more money can be raised.

How does golf's charitable impact compare to that of other sports?

Of the four major team sports in the United States (hockey, football, baseball and basketball), golf generates more than all of them combined. However, the perception is that those are huge sports generating a huge amount of money for charity, and they do, but golf's charitable giving eclipses all four of those combined.

Growing the game is a top priority for golf's biggest organizations, including the World Golf Foundation, which has played a major role in the creation and development of The First Tee. How has that program evolved since its creation?

The First Tee, originally announced in Central Park in 1997, was designed to bring young people to the game who otherwise wouldn't have a chance to play. As more young people started playing, they outgrew the small, inner-city golf courses, so we created a lot of public-private partnerships to bring golf to those areas.

The First Tee now uses golf as a platform to teach life skills. As of the end of 2011, we had reached almost 5 million kids. Our goal by 2017 is to reach 10 million, and we're confident we can achieve that because of the rate at which the First Tee has expanded. We currently have 205 chapters in local areas around the country and also a few abroad.

The core values of The First Tee are things that, once learned through golf, you carry throughout the rest of your life. We're really creating the next generation of leaders in our country through golf, and using the game as a catalyst for kids to learn life and leadership skills. It's not just about swinging a club, or learning to chip and putt.

In what ways can The First Tee continue to grow and reach more young people?

The biggest area for growth is with The First Tee's national schools program, which promotes golf as part of the physical education curriculum in elementary schools. There are about 500 elementary schools now offering golf as part of their PE curriculum.

Traditionally, golf has never been a sport that elementary school students are exposed to because of equipment, time constraints and other issues. But with SNAG (link) (Starting New At Golf), equipment and the efforts of The First Tee, golf is now being offered at grade schools around the country and kids are getting exposure to the game. Snag equipment really helps kids replicate the swing and learn to make contact with the ball, so when they make the transition to normal equipment, they've already learned how to swing the club properly.
Our view is, with respect to both The First Tee and it's grade school program, not all those kids are going to end up being lifelong golfers. But hopefully they will all have a good impression of golf because they were exposed to it and understand it.

Golf's charitable impact is certainly one of the game's strengths, but do you have any goals set to increase the amount of charitable dollars the game raises?

Golf has been proven to be a good vehicle for charitable fundraising, so I think that over the next five years charities will continue to use the game to raise money. Also, I think the facilities will continue to make themselves available to host these events and that individuals will be willing to pay to play 18 holes of golf, especially knowing that their money is going to charity. In 2005, charitable giving through the golf industry was $3.5 billion, so in a span of 6 years, that number has gone up by $400 million. By 2015 I expect that number to be north of $4 billion.

Golf's impact on the economy in 2011 was $68.8 billion, and that was when we were still coming out of the recession and certain components of the golf industry were really depressed. So we're actually looking for that number to grow. But still, the impact is close to $70 billion, and almost 2 million Americans are employed in the golf industry. For those people, golf is more than a game; it's their livelihood.
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