Jonathan De Armond, 25, at Pico Rivera Golf Club, is in his third year of golf with a best score of 97 for 18.
"My dad couldn't afford to pay $1 a bucket. They said, 'You pick up a bucket, you can hit a bucket.' I just wish there were more opportunities like that."
—Hall of Famer Nancy Lopez
For some, it amounts to altruism: Deliver the values and tradition of a wonderful game to an untapped community. For others, it's the opposite: Bring the benefits of diversity to a sport that can use a new vibe. Make it "look more like America." You hear that a lot, too.
But the appeal of the Latino golf market, ultimately, is also about numbers. It's about economics. And, not to put too fine a point on it, it's about survival.
If golf does not significantly increase its penetration among Latinos, now about 3.2 million of some 26 million golfers, it will find itself on the losing end of a math equation fifth-graders can grasp, one the Republican Party got a crash course in during November 2012. It's why Walmart, NASCAR, the NBA, MLB and Procter & Gamble have spent so much time speaking Spanish for the past decade, why the NFL has Hispanic Heritage games and ESPN has Hispanic Heritage Month, why Kathie Lee and Hoda hosted a morning special called "Girls Gone Latina," and why a singer named Ariana Grande appeared on the "Today" show because she has the No. 1 album in the country.
Latinos are growing and prospering as fast as any ethnic group in this country and will continue to do so for the next half century. But will they play golf? One hopes so, because:
• One in four children in America are Latino.
• Twenty-one percent of young Generation Y millennials—key to most marketing efforts and of special concern to the golf industry because their participation rates are down—are Latino.
• By 2050, Latinos will become 30 percent of the U.S. population (up from 17 percent today). Whites, now almost 70 percent of the population, will account for less than half of it by 2050.
• In 2010, Latino buying power was $1 trillion, and it is expected to grow by 50 percent by 2015—against a national average of about half that.
• The U.S. Latino market economy makes it the 16th-largest in the world—ahead of Australia and Turkey.
If you're Steve Mona, charged as CEO of the World Golf Foundation with "growing" the game, the numbers say this: "White males have perhaps the slowest population-growth rate and the highest golf-participation rate. Latinos have the highest population-growth rate and among the lowest participation rates in golf. It's of deep concern to us." Mona is one of those who argue that to grow, golf must look like America. "But candidly," he says, "we are counter-current to that right now."
"It's more about what we have not done," says Octavio Jacobo, a Mexican-American marketing consultant, longtime advocate for more industry outreach and a passionate golfer. "We have meetings. We talk, we say we have to look at it. But I still don't see much happening."
Here's where we are:
Latino golfers account for more than half of "minority" golfers, more than African-American and Asian-American golfers combined. The Latino golf participation rate is just shy of 8 percent, against a national average of about 9. The rate for African-Americans is 3.9 percent, Asian-Americans 8.9 percent. Whites are at about 12 percent, though retirees and millennials are playing at lower rates than previous generations.
Median income for Latinos, though growing, is still just shy of $40,000, but households of $125,000 play at a 13-percent rate (versus 19 percent among whites in that category). "That's big," says Joe Beditz, president and CEO of the National Golf Foundation. "And you have to figure that in the $75,000-to-$125,000 group the participation rate is probably 9 to 10 percent already."
Beditz says NGF research reveals 5.8 million "interested nongolfers" among Latinos, also "huge." Golf Channel's Latino viewership has increased 23 percent over the past five years, to 4 percent.
Why then, given these numbers, hasn't golf moved more resoundingly toward what one marketing panel called "The Next Gold Rush"?
It's not sure what to do, that's why.
Given that Latino participation rates rise as affluence does, and confronted with the challenge of a fragmented market—Mexican-Americans are almost 65 percent of the Latino population in the United States, Puerto Ricans just shy of 10—can golf pull off a dedicated outreach program? Won't including them in grass-roots programs such as The First Tee and Get Golf Ready, or the Executive Women's Golf League, work just as well as launching new programs specific to them? Keep the doors open. Be fair. Build it, and they will come.
"What does Apple do?" asks Beditz, who says that more liberal access for everyone is the key. "Does an iPad work differently because it's being held by a Hispanic? Does a golf club know who's making the bogey? I doubt that affluent Hispanics feel unwelcome. It's not that they have been excluded. It's more that they have not been proactively included. We'd do better welcoming all—not just Hispanics."
Or, as one leading manufacturer said in reply to our question about the market: "We don't have anything to add to your story. Our target market remains unchanged: serious golfers." No special approach.
'THERE'S NO SHAME IN REACHING OUT'
Talk to most Latino-market specialists, though, and you get a starkly different view. They've watched other industries—even other sports—break through to this market. But not without a customized plan.
"You've got to get out there and let Hispanics know you welcome them," says Chiqui Cartagena, vice president of corporate marketing for Univision Communications and author of Latino Boom II, a kind of how-to guide to this multifaceted market. "There's no shame in reaching out. [But] I don't see the golf industry making an effort."
Can you promote a whole sport the way you can a car? "Absolutely you can sell a sport!" Cartagena says. "It's very similar to selling a product. The key is to find the right cultural message."
Delivering that message is complicated by which Latino markets you're talking about—there are eight major concentrations, according to Cartagena's book. And U.S. Census figures show their growth-rate forecasts differ. It's not simple.
'GET TO THE KIDS'
Still, other sports—the NFL and NASCAR among them—have acted. "Twelve years ago the NFL came to us," says Ronald Gordon, president of ZGS Communications. "I said, 'Hispanics just aren't that interested in football.' They said, 'That's the parents. But we're interested in getting into those homes so we can get to the kids.' "
Now the NFL broadcasts games in Spanish and has created Hispanic Heritage games recognizing players like Cincinnati Bengals Hall of Famer Anthony Muñoz. This year almost 10 million Latinos watched the Super Bowl. NASCAR just had its first Puerto Rican driver, and 20-year-old Sergio Pena of Virginia is one of its rising stars. In golf, the PGA Tour has established the NEC Series PGA Tour Latinoamérica "as a pipeline for the young, Latin stars of the future to reach higher levels of professional golf," but it has done little of such media promotion. "We anticipate more dynamic conversations with broadcasters" as the series grows, the tour says.
"Golf could develop a three-to-five-year plan to get Hispanics involved," Gordon says. "It doesn't have to be huge dollars. But it has to have multiple layers to it. One, grass roots. Two, reinforce markets where there is golf, and build on that. Three, communicate the joys, the beauty and the challenge of golf." (Gordon and Cartagena recommend working with an agency specializing in this market to develop a "right-size" plan.)
Parts 2 and 3 of that formula are missing. Though Mona points out that it would be "naïve" to think that no targeted programs are necessary, most so far are grass roots, often born locally.
"Hey, join the rest of corporate America in being late!" says Azucena Maldonado, a Southern California executive who discovered golf nine years ago and then founded a 1,000-strong women's group called the Latina Golfers Association. Her group's mission sounds exactly like one already covered by the Executive Women's Golf Association, but Maldonado's approach is targeted. "Golf hasn't figured out the Latino community," Maldonado says. "I don't come from the golf world. I'm an outsider looking in. Most people in the golf industry have been surrounded by golf their entire lives. They have no idea what it's like to be on the outside. But it's a community that's so ready!"
Deciphering this market, ready or not, begins by addressing stubborn perceptions that golf is (a) elitist; (b) too expensive; and (c) just not us. The politics of immigration—"All you have to do is watch CNN to see how Mexicans are regarded," comedian George Lopez told Golf Digest—make the job trickier.
"Hey, I'm watching Golf Channel right now, and I don't see anyone who looks like me," says former California congressman Joe Baca, a single-digit handicapper and one of the game's huge defenders as a legislator. "Latinos think it's just an elitist game." And not their kind of game, says Hall of Famer Chi Chi Rodriguez, who operates a golf course and an academy for at-risk children in Clearwater, Fla. "Spanish people are used to team stuff. It's pretty hard to break away from that."
Golf might seem more affordable these days, but not to most Latinos, including tour stars. A half-century after she picked up balls so that she could practice for free, Nancy Lopez found herself needing some. "I went into the pro shop to buy a dozen. They were like $70! I said, 'Are you kidding me?' "
Lopez, Rodriguez and Esteban Toledo, who has won twice on the Champions Tour this year, say role models are essential, and that tours could do a better job of building on Latinos' success. "Chi Chi, Trevino...to follow a role model like other kids did with Jack Nicklaus," Toledo says. "When you have a role model for any country, any part of the world, everybody wants to play that game. The tour has to get involved and take advantage of that."
Rodriguez, who recalls doing 100 free clinics for kids in a year, says all tour players could help more with that kind of volunteerism. "Small things make a difference to a kid," he says, but many tour players today "just can't be bothered."
Trevino laments the loss of caddie programs as an entry level to the game. "Not only for the black or the Hispanic, but for the white also—the poor kid," Trevino says. "The only way he could do it back in the '30s, '40s, '50s and even the beginning of the '60s was to be a caddie...Now that the carts have come along, that thing is completely gone."
Baca, working with Virginia executive Max Salas, has proposed to the World Golf Foundation a series of "Latino Golf and Learning Centers" in major markets, an approach, they say, that appeals to parents. But they believe, given that many Latinos don't know golf stars, celebrities should be part of any promotional effort. They also think leveraging the huge numbers of Latinos who work in the game could help. "Greenkeepers don't have the time," Salas says, "but if you give the opportunity to their children—what a difference that would make."
In some places, it's already happening. That's how Lizette Salas (no relation to Max) got started. The daughter of Mexican immigrants, Salas learned golf at the course where her father, Ramon, traded hours for Lizette's lessons. She starred at the University of Southern California, was the first in her family to earn a college degree, and in her rookie LPGA season, made the Solheim Cup team. "I think we still have a long way to go," says Salas, who adds that she stayed in school for four years because she believed she owed that to USC for giving her a scholarship. "Everybody can do their own little part in their community, but there needs to be efforts on a bigger stage [by the industry] to have a bigger impact."
A decade ago, 13 percent of First Tee kids were Latino. In 2012, that number had risen to only 14 percent, despite the fact that certain chapters, such as The First Tee of Monterey County in California, reach 86 percent. "We are more focused than ever on extending our programs to reach more diverse young people," says Joe Louis Barrow Jr., CEO of The First Tee. The PGA of America has made Latinos a focus of its Golf 2.0 program.
"This won't be a short-term investment," Jacobo says. "Golf sees Hispanics as low-hanging fruit. Hispanics are not low-hanging fruit...If you don't put golf in front of them, they won't play. Hispanics don't need golf. Golf needs Hispanics."
"The growth of golf, the future of the game, depends on our involvement. If we play, golf is going to thrive."