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PGA of America CEO: Why golf isn't in the rough


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I caddied from the age of 10 through the summer of my first year of law school—13 summers. During that time, I came to realize that there are, essentially, two types of golfers: those who stand on the tee and think if I execute properly I can birdie this hole, and those who are convinced they will make a bogey even before taking back the club.

Perception matters.

The National Golf Foundation recently released its 2015 summary of golf participation in the United States. Despite what a few headline writers saw in the report, the NGF study was overwhelmingly positive. It reveals a vibrant sport that maintains a consistent and dedicated following and is continuing to expand its reach.

According to the NGF, 2.2 million people took up the game in 2015, a figure that approaches our record of 2.4 million set at the peak of Tiger Woods’ dominance. The number of rounds played increased for the first time since 2012, by roughly 2 percent. Two percent is not enough, but it is not “stagnant”—one of the descriptors we saw in the coverage of the study. It is rising. In an uncertain and changing economy, most industries would be thrilled to generate 2 percent growth.

The foundation also reported that there are 37 million people currently who are either very or somewhat interested in learning the game and that nearly one in three Americans age 6 or older play, watch or read about golf. If that is not enough, here is more: The NGF study also shows revenue, spectator numbers and television viewership are up.

Golf’s following among America’s youth is especially strong.

Overall, the number of junior golfers (ages 6-17) in the United States continues to climb, with a total of 3 million juniors playing golf in 2015. This is up from 2.5 million in 2010. Think about that: Today, 500,000 more children and teenagers are choosing to get up off the couch and tee it up than five years ago. That figure outpaces growth in all other major sports. I started playing the game at a young age and never left. The majority of these kids will stay with the game for their lifetimes.

The number of participants in PGA Junior League Golf jumped 233 percent from 2013 to 2015. There are now 30,000 girls and boys playing on 2,500 teams across all 41 PGA Sections and 48 states. This nascent program will continue to expand dramatically with ambassadors like Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler, Michelle Wie and Lexi Thompson lending their support.

Some headlines about the NGF study focused on a drop in golf participation from 24.7 million to 24.1 million. While this number is disappointing, it falls well within the statistical margin of error for the study, which was plus or minus 800,000 golfers, meaning it very well could be due to normal measurement variations.

At the PGA of America, our 28,000 dedicated members are not focused on statistical anomalies and potential margins of error. Our members are focused on changing lives and making lives better through the game they serve every day. The PGA of America, PGA Tour, the USGA, the LPGA and Augusta National are united in our efforts to bring the beauty of golf to individuals who have never experienced it. We believe in the effectiveness of PGA Junior League Golf, Drive Chip & Putt, Get Golf Ready, the First Tee and LPGA-USGA Girls Golf. These programs drive participation by making golf accessible to everyone—and they continue to work year after year. Get Golf Ready, a program for new players in its seventh year, served a record 107,000 graduates in 2015. Just as impressive, the program has a three-year retention rate of 73 percent, and 67 percent of its participants are women.

One reason we are attracting so many new players is the work of PGA Professionals, who are not only regarded as the best instructors in the game, but the most dedicated advocates for grassroots growth. These professionals love their work—and the communities in which they serve. Golf raises about $3.9 billion annually for charitable causes. Our pros are the driving force behind the 25,000 events golf puts on each year to help improve lives across our nation.

When it comes to the NGF report, the PGA of America is not being Pollyanna. We certainly know that our game faces challenges. However, based on the measurable strength of our player-development programs and the enduring passion and expertise of PGA professionals, I am confident we are headed in the right direction.