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What the USGA should do to grow golf

New President Tom O'Toole said he is committed to making the game more accessible. Here's how he can start

February 12, 2014

A few years ago during a Golf World planning meeting, an issue arose that we as a staff had been dealing with seemingly forever. We all knew the problem, but we couldn't fix it.

Expressing that frustration, one person lamented: "We've come 180 degrees on this." Another responded: "Actually, it's 540 degrees. We've been here before -- a couple of times."

I found myself feeling the same way as I listened last Saturday to the inaugural speech from newly elected USGA president Thomas J. O'Toole Jr., during the governing body's annual meeting in Pinehurst. O'Toole outlined the path he envisioned the association taking under his direction, emphasizing in part the need to make golf more accessible, sustainable, affordable and welcoming.

He said all the right things, and yet I couldn't help but wonder -- haven't we been here before? Several times.

The topic of growing the game has been hashed and rehashed for years. Just last month at the PGA Merchandise Show, with the launch of hackgolf.org, the issue again claimed headlines. It's safe to say we've identified the hell out of this problem.

The best part about hearing O'Toole return to the theme was the fact that when the president of the USGA says the game has "a significant legacy of exclusion and elitism" he is talking in no small part about the organization he leads. The blue blazer is the very symbol of the golf "in-crowd," a group that has protected its own status at times to a harmful and disappointing extreme. For O'Toole to explicitly state that the game needs to embrace women, minorities, juniors and those from modest incomes is, then, an important breakthrough.

But how do we fix the actual problem? Golf participation in the United States has been flat or dropping slightly for about 15 years. How do we reverse the trend?

Some will say golf will never be more than a niche sport, and that we should just accept that reality. I am not one of them. I am not in the "surrender" camp. I have twice seen significant spikes in interest in the game during my lifetime, first the Arnold Palmer surge and then the Tiger Woods boom. And since my father learned the game at 35 in a nine-hole league run by the steel mill where he worked, I am a believer that golf doesn't exist only for the country-club set. We've simply allowed the game to fall into bad habits.

What should O'Toole and the USGA do about golf's participation problem? I'm not sure they've asked, but here are my suggestions.

• The USGA needs to have public golf represented on its 15-person Executive Committee. Not only are all the current members affiliated with private clubs, they come from the most elite clubs in the country. Since the Executive Committee is composed of volunteers -- one told me he spent $60,000 out of his own pocket to attend championships and meetings -- the USGA would have to subsidize public-course representatives. Still, the USGA at its highest level needs to have a direct connection to what life is like at daily-fee and public courses. It would be money well spent.

• It should encourage every private club to grant four "scholarships" a year, giving juniors playing privileges and free lessons. Base the scholarships not on playing ability but community service or grades. The purpose is not to produce pros but rather players for life. Many likely would end up joining their host club.

• It should fund caddie programs. Grab a PGA Tour media guide from the mid-1970s and thumb through it. There are more than a dozen black faces. Today there is one: Tiger Woods. What has changed? The number of facilities that readily employ caddies. That talent-rich door through which many of modest means entered the game has virtually closed.

(And it's not just a race thing. Gene Sarazen, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson -- four the best ever -- were all poor kids who started as caddies.)

• It needs to deepen and broaden the pool from which it draws golfers. With the $93 million a year the USGA will get from the FOX TV deal starting in 2015, it can develop a campaign to reach new golfers. And part of that campaign may be to broaden the definition of what constitutes golf.

PGA of America president Ted Bishop attended the USGA Annual Meeting. During a breakfast I had with him, he talked about making the par-3 course at his facility in Indiana playable for "foot golf," which is a game played with a soccer ball to a 21-inch cup off to the side of the regular green. Yes, this will annoy the traditionalist, but remember it was a thing called snowboarding that reversed the economic downturn of skiing and exposed kids to the game.

O'Toole mentioned last week that the USGA was open to alternative forms of the game, but followed it by saying "We're not going to call them golf & ." Sure, maybe not in the traditional sense, but I caution O'Toole and the executive committee from being too rigid as to how they want to define the game -- or risk being perceived as still too close minded.

The first step toward getting people to play golf is to get them to the golf course. Foot golf could do that and, not insignificantly, it can increase revenue at stressed facilities.

The USGA was founded in 1894 by five exclusive clubs. The way I see it, it now needs to be inclusive. Let's hold Tom O'Toole to his words. Golf doesn't have to be a niche sport. Let's shed once and for all that legacy of exclusion and elitism.

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