PerspectiveJanuary 26, 2010

Golf Prepares To State Its Case

The PGA of America's Joe Steranka is one of the leaders of golf's new campaign.

The PGA of America's Joe Steranka is one of the leaders of golf's new campaign.

Golf is much more than the pro tournaments we see on TV each week. It is an industry that provides millions of jobs and pours billions of dollars into the economy. It is a recreational activity that encourages a healthy lifestyle; a game that teaches positive values; an environmental initiative that, when done right, protects and preserves green space; and a vehicle that raises billions for charity, not just those associated with the pro tours. I have played in outings benefiting Special Olympics, ALS, the Muscular Dystrophy Association, breast and prostate cancer research, various scholarship funds and more. There is no sport that is as effective at fundraising as golf.

Still, the positive messages of the game are not reaching as many ears as they should, partly because the industry has not done a good job of explaining itself. To many, golf remains cloaked in offensive stereotypes. The recession, while abating, has created a new sense of urgency for the game to explain itself completely and immediately.

The dominoes that fell for golf in 2009 weren't devastating but they were damaging. "Northern Trust" became a catchphrase for wasteful spending, after Rep. Barney Frank attacked the PGA Tour stop in Los Angeles, and "boondoggle" emerged as the unofficial name of pro-am parties. These attacks gained traction because there was an information void. Those who didn't understand the game bought the bunk.

The cleanup work from these attacks provided a challenge for golf but also created an opportunity to not so much redefine the game but to better explain that definition to the public and lawmakers. While the PGA Tour did an effective behind-the-scenes job of putting out the Northern Trust fire on Capitol Hill, it became apparent there was a need to prevent such fires from ever starting. While Frank and others toned down their attacks, the initial vitriol triggered chatter that reduced golf to a punchline.

With that in mind, an influential group of industry executives met at last year's Masters to discuss how to launch a program to educate the public and inform lawmakers of the positive impact golf has on the economy, the environment, health and charity. On Jan. 25 an industry-supported initiative to create accurate perceptions of the golf industry was introduced. It is called the 2010 We Are Golf Campaign.

A follow-up press event was held at the PGA Show in Orlando three days later. The speakers included CEOs Joe Steranka, of the PGA of America; Jim Singerling, of the Club Managers Association of America; Mike Hughes, of the National Golf Course Owners Association; and Mark Woodward, of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America. The name, We Are Golf, was created by the Podesta Group, a Washington-based bipartisan government relations and public affairs firm that will develop strategies. A corollary effort focused only on public relations was presented the same day by the Golf 20/20 Communications Committee.

"I am proud of how far the industry has come in a very short period of time," says Steranka. "We are not ready to tackle everything, but at that Masters meeting we decided we need a plan to respond to the attacks on golf. There are a lot of misconceptions, notions that golf is too male, too old, too niche and not mainstream enough. We can show those notions to be incorrect with economic impact studies."

Although events such as National Golf Day and The First Tee Congressional Breakfast have had a positive effect, their impact has been limited. "We get members of Congress to support golf on that one day," says Steranka, "but there has been virtually no legislation in support of golf." In fact, in legislation such as the relief package approved after Hurricane Katrina, golf was deliberately excluded from receiving aid.

While not everyone working on the initiative to improve golf's image is in agreement on how to proceed -- some feel there is a risk of triggering additional criticism by hiring what amounts to a lobbyist, for example -- there is agreement golf has to be explained better. According to those involved in a series of meetings, there are a dozen or so legislative issues likely to come before Congress this year in which golf will have a stake. The plan is for the industry to prioritize those issues after which the Podesta Group will recommend strategies aimed at lawmakers and the media. The PGA will also prepare the paperwork for We Are Golf to become a 510(c)(6) non-profit organization.

If golf is to be faulted for anything it is that it has existed for too long in separate silos -- professional and amateur, public and private, spectator sport and participatory activity. All those stakeholders in the game must now move outside those silos and diligently work to explain all the positive ways in which golf contributes to our culture. It is a message that must be yelled loudly and immediately. The We Are Golf campaign is a good start.