April 26, 2009

The Grass Roots Have Blue Collars

As quickly as many are to paint golf as an elitist pastime, they forget the game's popularity arose from the middle class

Arnold Palmer wasn't the first great golfer to emerge from humble beginnings, but he was the first who succeeded in bringing the game to the masses.

Arnold Palmer wasn't the first great golfer to emerge from humble beginnings, but he was the first who succeeded in bringing the game to the masses.

Back then, more than 50 years ago, the airport in New Castle was little more than two streaks of concrete that crossed in an X, a windsock serving as the most advanced aviation device. The day, as I remember it, was a suffocating summer scorcher, the Western Pennsylvania air so thick with humidity and steel-mill belches, it was barely breathable. As the small plane approached, its wings wavering slightly, it appeared as if it had to fight its way to the ground through a resistant sky.

Among the things my father liked to do when he was not working in the mill, working on his car, working in the yard or playing golf was marvel at transportation. We would drive to a railroad roundhouse and watch coal-burning steam locomotives. Sometimes we would drive to the Air Force base near Youngstown, Ohio, park outside, and watch fighter jets land. Sometimes we watched the small, single-engine planes touch down at New Castle airport. This particular aircraft on this particularly hot day when I was eight years old combined two of the father's passions: It was a plane landing, and it was bringing Arnold Palmer, who was to play an exhibition at a local course.

That was 1958 and Palmer had won the Masters earlier in the year, the first of his seven professional major championships. But what really made Arnie special in our area was that he was from Latrobe, about 90 miles away, and that he was the son of a golf course superintendent. In other words, he was one of us, and in this immigrant-populated area of the underpaid we often felt like outsiders when we watched the Ward and June Cleaver world on TV. Who were those men in suits and women who cooked dinner in pearls and heels?

Let's flash forward now to late 1996. I was living in New York City -- about as far culturally from New Castle as you can get -- and was the golf writer for The Associated Press. Tiger Woods had won twice in his first eight PGA Tour events after turning pro. My boss asked me to write a story on how "Tiger is going to democratize golf, bring the game to the masses." The problem with the idea, I offered, was Arnold Palmer had already done that 40 years earlier.

This flashback to my childhood memory and to my later tussle with an editor as an adult was prompted by recent efforts by some to make golf a symbol of the greed and excess apparently behind our economic struggles. Yes, some rich people play golf, of that there is no doubt. But the vast majority of those who play the game in the United States do so on public course and not at pricey country clubs. And those who do play at private clubs are not all Bernie Madoff -- far from it.

According to the 2008 participation study by the National Golf Foundation, of the 15,970 facilities in the United States, 11,555 are open to the public. Of those 15,970 golf courses, only 4,415 are private clubs while 2,450 are municipal-owned facilities. Certainly, some of the 9,105 daily-fee courses are of the high-end variety, but many are not. And the fact that NGF numbers show that only 21 percent of the 29.5 million Americans ages 6 and above who play the game have handicaps (pretty much a private-club requirement) indicates the vast majority play the game at public courses.

And since 1990, according to the NGF, the number of daily fee courses has increased 2.5 percent and the number of municipal facilities has gone up 1.2 percent. During that same period, the number of private clubs has declined 0.5 percent, a trend that is likely to continue in this economy.

Let's get back to Palmer, but before we do that let's dip a little further back into history. Even before Arnie expanded the demographic of golf, the greats of professional golf had anything but elite backgrounds. Gene Sarazen (who was born Eugenio Saraceni), Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead -- who have a combined 237 PGA Tour victories, including 28 majors -- all were from humble backgrounds and came into the game through the caddie ranks.

What Palmer did was become part of a perfect storm of events that made golf firmly, and unalterably, a mass sport, shedding its country club image once and for all -- except in the minds of those whose thinking is 50 years out of date. What Palmer brought to the table was his background -- decidedly blue collar -- and his style of play – decidedly exciting with his hard, unorthodox swing and go-for-broke mindset.

And then there was the timing of events, one of those being that in 1955, when Palmer made the Canadian Open his first professional victory, television was just discovering sports. On Oct. 8, 1956, a nation watched as Don Larsen pitched a perfect game in the World Series. The Dec. 28, 1958 telecast of the overtime championship game between the New York Giants and Baltimore Colts boosted the popularity of the NFL enormously.

By June 18, 1960, when Palmer stormed from seven strokes behind in one of his classic charges to add the U.S. Open at Cherry Hills to the Masters he won earlier that year, millions watching on TV had fallen in love with the cigarette-smoking gambler with movie star good looks. Palmer was the perfect made-for-TV golfer. Many of those who didn't play golf and watched Arnie on TV soon did.

Two other things helped the Palmer-inspired growth of the game. Working people had something in post-World War II America they never had before -- leisure time. Golf was one of the things they used to fill it. And in Dwight Eisenhower they had a war-hero President who validated the game by being an active participant.

My father started playing golf in 1955 when he was 35, in part because a deteriorating war injury to his ankle that prevented him from running forced him from fast-pitch softball. Palmer taught him there was this other game he could play that was fun, challenging, provided competition and didn't require running -- just walking along pulling his handcart. Arnie was the first to make golf a cool game to play.

The initial job I had in golf was filling the soda-pop cooler in the clubhouse at Castle Hills when I was 10, for which I earned a dollar an hour and free playing privileges. Later, I added putting the electric carts on battery chargers to my duties. One of my fondest memories was seeing my father arrive from the factory at 4 on a Tuesday afternoon, still in his grimy green work clothes, which he would change out of at the tin locker that came with his $90-a-year membership. Oh, how happy that made him.

That was part of the impact Palmer had on Western Pennsylvania. Every steel mill, every foundry, every machine shop had a weekly nine-hole league. Every single one. And the guys who played on a weekday evening didn't want to let their teammates down so they would play on a weekend morning as well to get better. They fell in love with the game. They practiced at driving ranges. They read instruction. They watched on TV.

It was the greatest grow-the-game program in the history of golf. And it was based in the masses. While many in the public -- and some in government -- may have visions of swank country-club parties when they think of golf, that is only part of the game, and it is the smallest part.

The soul of golf in America is in the heart of its regular folks, and for me that spirit arrived when a small plane brought Arnold Palmer to New Castle in 1958. Golf in America has many faces, and it does the game a great disservice to stereotype it as an image any less diverse than the melting pot from which it came.