ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. -- One of the interesting oddities of the Tiger Woods era has been that while golf has grown as a spectator sport -- especially when Tiger is playing -- the number of people actually playing the game has remained flat. It's an issue that has had the industry scratching its collective head. Why aren't more people playing the sport that has the most-popular athlete in the world?
The most-often uttered response to that question contains the words "accessible and affordable." Simply put, we need more facilities -- not pricy resorts and private clubs -- where people can just walk up, pay a reasonable amount and play. And it would help enormously if it didn't take five hours -- or more -- to negotiate 18 holes.
Then there is also the fact that golf is a difficult game. For a variety of reasons -- and frustration is certainly right up there with time and money -- about the same number of people quit the game every year as take it up. As a result, the consumer base of golf has been sort of like a bucket with a hole in the bottom: New players are leaking out as fast as they are being poured in.
Many attempts have been made to address this issue, such as Link Up 2 Golf, Play Golf America and The First Tee, with varying degrees of success. But a new initiative announced Nov. 11 at the World Golf Foundation's Golf 20/20 conference at the World Golf Village offered several innovative ideas that provide reason to think this program could work in a big way.
According to Cindy Davis, chair of the Golf 20/20 player development committee and president of Nike Golf, Get Golf Ready, which will roll out in the spring, could add 700,000 new players to the game in the next five years. She says that could translate into more than 5.7 million additional rounds played and nearly $700 million in additional spending related to the game.
Certainly, those are numbers the industry can embrace, especially in the current economy. And speaking of the economy, doesn't the current crisis make this an inopportune time to roll out a project like this?
"Actually, it could have the exact opposite effect," says Steve Mona, CEO of the World Golf Foundation. "Facilities are extremely motivated right now to add to their consumer base, and facilities are the base of Get Golf Ready. This is a program that is grass-roots activated, organized through the facilities."
So how does this work? What exactly do we have? First off, Get Golf Ready is aimed at adults, and there are certainly millions of those who loves sports, are athletic and don't play golf. They will be offered a five-lesson package at a facility for $99 taught in small groups.
Perhaps most importantly, a significant part of the learning will take place on the golf course. This is key because studies have found that the earlier a person actually gets out into the golf course the more likely they are to stay involved in the game.
It is, after all, that one perfect shot we stumble upon in each round played that keeps us coming back. That's a thrilling sensation you simply cannot replicate on the practice range. It's the way many young people learned the game decades ago -- just get out onto the course and whack the ball around.
This will have a lot of that -- only organized. Another key component to the program that takes things beyond other grow-the-game efforts is that participants will be offered various ways to stay connected to the game after the five lessons, such as leagues, family programs or additional lessons.
The grass-roots nature of the initiative is key and perhaps offers the best reason for hope. Essentially, think of Get Golf Ready as a community organizer and the facilities as the churches through which instruction will be disseminated. As an incentive, each participating facilities will be eligible for a stipend of up to $1,000 from the world Golf Foundation.
The plan is to have several hundred Get Golf Ready sites up and running in the spring of 2009 and several thousand by the end of 2011. "The enthusiastic response we are receiving from all segments of the industry for this program is extremely gratifying," Mona says. "It's clear that golf's leaders are energized by the prospect of this new initiative helping to grow interest and participation in our game."
Indeed, nearly 250 people from all aspects of the golf industry attended the GOLF 20/20 forum, which returned after a one-year hiatus. Golf 20/20 was created in the year 2000 to add 20 million new players to the game by the year 2020. So far it is about 20 million short.
But Get Golf Ready has a feel to it that it just might work. And it appears to have the financial backing from a broad enough range of the golf industry to make it work
Get Golf Ready has been able to pick through the experiences of other initiatives and select the best of each while adding new components of its won. Perhaps most encouraging, along with the grass-roots nature of the organization of Get Golf Ready, is that the leaders have moved closer to an understanding of what makes golf special -- in both a good and a bad way.
"In most sports, the playing field is the practice field," says Mona. "But not so in golf. And even in avid players we see that disconnect between they way they hit the ball on the range and on the course. This program requires time on the course."
And it is on the course that we fall in love with the game. After decades of playing, some of my fondest memories are from when I was a teenager and a summer day ended in the fading light with me, Rick Plonka, Tim and Tom Birney having chipping or putting contests or, perhaps less advisedly, playing cross country from the 15th tee at Castle Hills Golf Course in New Castle, Pa. to the 10th green -- a feat that involved cross two roads.
In was in those moments, in times like that, a true love affair with the game developed. How do we make new players have those fall-in-love moments? While the key to the infatuation remains somewhat of a mystery -- as it always does with love -- Get Golf Ready at least offers the opportunity to begin a flirtation with the game. And truly love sometimes begins with a flirtation.