It’s a phrase that difference makers in the game of golf love to toss out there: “Grow the Game.” I suppose all sports look at opportunities to expand their rosters, but I can attest that golf has been looking at this concept for as long as I can remember.
Older members of the golf community might remember that the local section of the PGA of America, the Gateway section, used to stage an annual event known as “Clubs for Kids.” It was one of the largest programs of its kind in the country, and then St. Louis resident Hale Irwin lent his name and time to the day. Literally hundreds of kids of all ages and backgrounds would show up at a public park converted to a driving range, and after a presentation by Irwin, the local pros would give each kid a golf club and a brief lesson.
At one of those days I challenged Irwin about one aspect of the concept. There was no question looking at the faces of the kids and their parents that they were excited at this brief introduction to the game. Everything about the morning was home run positive. The challenge I threw at Irwin was “What about tomorrow?”
At the time the three time US Open Champion was actively involved in the local golf business through the operation of Quail Creek. This was at a time when money was flowing freely into the game and rate structures were floating up. An added revenue concept was appearing more frequently, mandatory carts. So my question to Irwin was simple. “What about tomorrow?” The kids had just had the golf gene switched on for a day, but the next day they were facing greens fees beyond the reach of entry into the game and courses they couldn’t even play on their own because they were too young to even rent a cart.
Hale acknowledged the problem. He admitted that the business of golf and the apostleship of golf were not necessarily on the same page and had no real way to reconcile the difference.
Today we find the game in the downturn that I wrote about a week ago. The number of players on the down escalator leaving the game is greater than number going up. The game has ‘vacancy’ signs hanging everywhere. “Growing the game” is not as important as keeping the sod you’ve got.
I know little about agriculture or growing. The only place I can grow grass is between my patio blocks. By I can tell you that this is the Midwest and growing things is something we should be good at. To carry the fractured analogy even a little further, you might suggest that golf in this economy is in a kind of winter and we need to look at a good planting season for the spring of an economic upturn.
Allow me to suggest that the seeds needed are the same ones Irwin faced each year, you just need a better agronomy plan in place. I have been involved in coaching high school golf – both boys and girls – for more than forty years. I have spent a lot of time around golf’s ‘seeds.’ Early on I benefited from the genius of a local pro who knew exactly how to grow his business and the game. His name was Terry Clark, and he was the professional at then Paddock (now Old Florissant). Terry was not only the head professional, he was the golf godfather to countless school age kids who found being on the golf course in the summer months was like having an eighteen hole neighborhood to hang out in.
Clark created a low all day rate for kids at his course and made certain those kids who were out there learned not only how to play the game but how to learn the game. Terry’s kids weren’t angels but they were respectful of the course and respectful of each other. Clark knew that in June, July and August his midweek play was light because of the working week and the St. Louis heat. I assume Terry reasoned that light paying kids were better than no paying adults. Better to have the course occupied than vacant. And Clark knew that as those kids grew up on his course they might very well grow to be adult full fee regulars. And many of them did.
There was a time when the best “game” in town was at Paddock and that game was sprinkled with seedlings that Clark had been watering for years. The Paddock generation is still out there playing the game even though their course may now be different.
There are traces of the Clark philosophy showing up around this area. The CYC has run for several years a junior program at Eagle Springs in North County. I am told the program now exists out west as well. Forest Park for the last couple of years has hosted Family Sundays with dirt-cheap rates for families on Sunday evenings. There are programs for inner city kids like the First Tee. Of course there are the structured tournament programs from organizations like the Gateway Section. All are a step in the right direction but fall short of the Clark program in one key way.
Clark didn’t schedule competitions and block tee times. He just hung out the welcome sign. The kids at Paddock were exactly like the caddie yard kids who once populated the game and gave rise to most of the great players of early generations in this country. Basketball has used the model for years with playground pickup games being the birthplace of it future stars.
I don’t have a ledger sheet to balance like Irwin faced years ago when I phrased the question or like operators do today, so I can answer the question I phrased to Irwin in my impractical naive way. The answer to the question about “tomorrow” is not Clubs for Kids. It’s Courses for Kids. Then watch them ‘grow.’
Dan Reardon is Golf Editor at KMOX Radio in St. Louis. He can be heard throughout the week on America’s Sports Voice.