SBJ/Aug. 10-16, 2015/In Depth

Golf programs see surge as industry counters staid image

Golf’s governing bodies are working together as never before to grow the game, especially with kids. This collaboration, several new initiatives, and new marketing strategies have raised the profile of youth golf.

The best-known effort is The First Tee, a program started by the PGA Tour and the U.S. Golf Association in 1997.
 
A total of 4.1 million kids participated in The First Tee in 2014, the most in the program’s history. Overall, the program has given 10.5 million children across the country and across social strata access to the game on golf courses, at schools or in youth centers.

Young golfers play a round in The First Tee program.
Photo by: The First Tee
Getting a more diverse demographic to play golf has been a point of emphasis given the game’s perception problems, both real and stereotypical — golf is still widely seen as a staid, elitist sport.

But the sport’s leaders are quick to point out that nine out of 10 golfers play public courses where the median greens fee in the U.S. is $26.

“That is why we have made such a strong commitment to fostering diversity and inclusion within the industry, to instill that golf is welcoming to everyone,” said Derek Sprague, PGA of America president.

Sprague notes that many youth programs offer free loaner clubs and many municipal systems offer free junior clinics and charge less than $10 for youth green fees.

The nascent PGA Junior League Golf has been a hit, exploding from just 1,500 participants during its inaugural season in 2012 to 30,000 boys and girls playing on 2,500 teams nationwide last year. Kids 13 and under play on co-ed teams, alternate shots in a scramble golf format, wear numbered jerseys and have PGA and LPGA professionals as captains and instructors.

The 2-year old Drive, Chip & Putt (golf’s version of football’s Punt, Pass & Kick) grabbed headlines in 2014 for crowning the first female champion at Augusta National Golf Club, where the event’s finals are played a week before the PGA pros tee off there. This year the competition attracted more than 25,000 competitors playing in all 50 states trying to make the cut for the finals in Augusta. The Masters, PGA of America and USGA jointly sponsor the competition.

Likewise the LPGA and USGA Girls Golf program has grown exponentially from 4,000 participants during its first year in 2010 to 40,000 last year.

“These new programs to introduce young people to golf are going well,” said Steve Mona, CEO of the World Golf Foundation. “You have to believe the numbers going up, on steep ascents, will manifest itself into more young people playing the game. I don’t see how you can draw any other conclusion.”

Economics and optics aside, one of the biggest challenges for golf may virtually be itself — a golf video game or
some other entertainment.

“Young people are spending increasing amounts of time in front of screens and with devices, and less time in sports and activities. That is a real issue,” said Joe Barrow, CEO of The First Tee, who also laments fewer school physical education classes.

The USGA and other organizations have also increased messaging to juniors, using them in broadcast ads, and sharing their marketing socially.

“Social media is an important component of the PGA’s communication strategy, as it helps connect the dots between all of our digital channels,” Sprague said. “Juniors are at the essence of the game, and it’s critically important to see them take up the game and fall in love with it.”

Robert D. Gray is a writer in Los Angeles.


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