Golf Is Cool
Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) was seated between Jay Haas and his son Bill at The First Tee Congressional Breakfast on National Golf Day in April. U.S. Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) drew the short straw and had me at his table. Both congressmen spoke to about 100 assembled golf-industry leaders who were in Washington to lobby -- a bad word, I know -- for the game, but it was nice to hear the leadership of both parties agreeing on something.
Clyburn said he was introduced to the sport by his father, an avid baseball player who inexplicably gave him a golf club for Christmas one year. "I grew up playing golf and baseball," he said. In 1971, when he went to work for South Carolina Gov. John West, he found himself at a staff retreat where the governor wanted to play golf and Clyburn was the only golfer on the staff. Their rounds together over the years built such a close relationship that West's widow, Lois, sent him his desk when Clyburn was elected majority whip. "All that grew out of golf," he said.
Clyburn's other great golf experience came through his grandson, A.C. Reid, now 17, who was born prematurely and had three operations before he was 10 pounds. He grew up to love football but was physically better suited to golf. "I took him with me to the course, and he became a very good golfer," Clyburn said proudly. "He's got a 360-degree swing. One of my happiest days was spent playing in a pro-am with him and Davis Love III."
It's at this point that Clyburn turned spokesman for The First Tee. "Golf to me," he said, "learned properly and practiced appropriately, teaches more about life than any other sport. It teaches honesty, integrity, discipline. You can't blame anyone else -- it's all about you against the elements."
The First Tee is sometimes criticized by golf wonks for not sufficiently "growing the game." The First Tee isn't just about increasing participation, but it annually gives golf lessons to 2 million young people -- 40 percent of whom are minorities -- at more than 700 courses, 4,700 elementary schools and 120 military bases. In a 2012 drive to reach 10 million kids, $72.8 million had been raised by mid-year toward a $100 million goal. That kind of funding wouldn't happen for "merely" a junior or minority golf initiative -- the genius of The First Tee is that it promotes the life skills Rep. Clyburn recognizes as unique about golf.
The First Tee was only part of the message the golf industry brought to Washington:
• Golf contributes $76 billion and 2 million jobs to the American economy, which makes it a bigger job creator than the motion-picture, publishing and telecommunications industries.
• We fight this image of the game as an elitist and exclusionary sport, but nine out of 10 golfers don't belong to a private club, 85 percent of golf is played at public courses, and the average round costs just $25.
• Golf raises more money for charity than all other sports combined. The PGA Tour efforts contribute about $120 million, but that represents only 3 percent of the annual $3.5 billion of golf fundraising for good causes.
• Golf courses are great stewards of the environment, acting as leaders in their community for practicing water conservation, limiting chemical use and providing wildlife habitats. My favorite statistic I heard that day: Golf courses are 10 degrees lower in temperature than surrounding urban environments. What do you know -- golf is cool.
Our efforts to get equitable treatment continue in Congress. Ever since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the small businesses of golf have been excluded from disaster relief as legislation lumped us in with massage parlors and casinos as not being worthy of federal funding. "We don't want to be given special treatment compared to other industries; we just want to play from the same set of tees," PGA of America CEO Joe Steranka said.
If you're a golfer, blue or red, we need you to help spread this message. And maybe the best way you can do it -- like Jim Clyburn -- is to pass the game along and introduce a friend or family member to the life skills of golf.