ORLANDO, Fla. – Like mighty knights at the round table, they kicked around the programs, permutations and options, not without some lighter moments.
At one point, the august group of golf dignitaries seated around the room at the PGA Merchandise Show began discussing making the size of the golf hole bigger to make the sport more enjoyable to millions.
U.S. Golf Association executive director Mike Davis noted that it will never happen at the U.S. Open, which his organization runs.
Interjected Jack Nicklaus: “Why not?”
The room broke up in laughter. We think he was kidding, but maybe the joke’s over. AT this point, perhaps the joking should stop.
That seems to be the new message -- hold the giggles.
Hemorrhaging players of all ages, genders and financial strata, the roundtable discussion staged Thursday at the Orlando Convention Center was mostly a session used to unveil a new program called Golf 2.0, the latest in a series of undertakins to staunch the bleeding.
PGA of America organizers promised the possible solutions would be outside the box. At times, they were completely off the reservation, but crucially important to the future of the sport in the States, nonetheless. At this point, why dismiss anything?
“I've seen what's happened over the last few years,” said Nicklaus, one of the game’s true icons and a significant builder of courses in his second career. “We've lost 23 percent of the women in the game since 2006 and we have lost 36 percent of the kids in the game since 2006. That's not a good stat.”
Status quo won’t work.
Often a divisive fiefdom with competing financial interests, the Sport of Golf is big business beyond the professional tours, and its piece of the American pie is increasingly shrinking. Courses continue to close at a staggering clip versus new-venue openings, a five-year-old trend that shows no sign of reversing. Players are packing away their clubs. Kids don’t fill the back end of the pipeline as older players bail.
In a fast-twitch, immediate-gratification world, it's a recipe for extinction.
“It's not a PGA initiative, it's all our initiative,” Nicklaus said. “It's everybody.”
The far-flung fixes include just about everybody, too. Recent programs like Play it Forward and Play Golf America seemingly have helped, but have hardly stopped the most common laments that the game is too hard, way too pricey and takes too long to play. Those three complaints are like the chorus of "Hey Jude" -- repeated over and over until the fadeout.
To put it in military terms, conventional arms are not working. Guerrilla warfare and off-the-wall tactics are the only reasonable step to turning around the tide of red ink that’s swallowing the game in towns all over the country.
Nicklaus recently played in a husband-wife event at his home course in South Florida that lasted 12 holes and had an eight-inch cup. He said everybody loved it. That’s a notion that would have been greeted as heretical just five years ago, when things were sailing along pretty well in the golf biz.
No mas. The Golf 2.0 program is the latest bandage, and it this doesn't work, a tourniquet might be next.
“We learned when we did Play Golf America 10 years ago, that while it came out of the blocks as a great player-development initiative to engage occasional players, the rest of the industry, for various reasons just said, ‘Oh, we think the PGA has the growth-of-the-game ball and we'll let them run with it,’” said Joe Steranka, the chief executive at the PGA of America, an organization of teaching pros around the nation.
“We are saying in this reset of the economy and our lives, when time is just as much a precious commodity as household wages, no segment of the industry is immune from the change and no segment of the industry can stay on the sidelines or outside the ropes and not get involved in Golf 2.0.”
The goals remain the same, said Allen Wronowski, the president of the PGA of America.
“It comes in three pillars and that would be strengthening the core, those that play the game,” he said. “Trying to engage the lapse players -- we talked about the 60 million people who had been exposed to the game and showed some interest in trying to come back to the game. And of course, creating and building new players.”
The latter is where the roundtable gab was most interesting. The PGA of America has reached out to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and is planning to roll out junior golf leagues in various cities.
“These are shorter courses and they have some eight-inch cups,” Steranka said. “It's fun. The kids are going to wear jerseys with the uniforms on them.”
In a pitch that made at least a few eyeballs roll, the group proposed setting up golf holes in city parks and recreation areas, perhaps using artificial turf, so that parents could more inexpensively teach the game to their kids. Of course, most municipalities can barely afford to keep their courses open and in the green, much less take on the expense of erecting holes in general-use public places.
The PGA of America hired a consulting firm to study how to best get more cleats on the ground.
“Looking at alliances such as the Boys & Girls Club, with Top Golf, a high-tech driving range/sports bar concept in a few major markets, the work that we are already doing in junior golf, all of these are designed to lay the seeds for the next 10-20 years,” Steranka said. “To make sure that we get Gen Y and the Millennials that are going to make up customers for that facility.”
Evan McElroy, the national marketing chief for the Boys & Girls Clubs, said the organization has what the game sorely needs – an existing foothold all over the country, and the ear of kids and their parents.
“We are in every kind of community you can think of, cities, towns, Native American lands,” he said. “We are in every U.S. military installation here and abroad.”
Steranka said the perception is that the game is too expensive, yet that the average green fee in the country is $28, a number that will surely cause golfers in urbanized areas to laugh out loud.
As an aside, before greed nearly ruined the game in the States, more courses offered reasonable 9-hole rates, deep summertime discounts for kids under age 18, and allowed players to walk if they so desire. Implementing those bygone relics as options for parents and their aspiring golfing offspring might draw a few more customers as well.
But there’s plenty of blame for this financial mess to go around. Nicklaus even pointed a finger at himself.
"I'm known for [building] difficult golf courses,” he said. “I'm as much of a culprit as anyone."