According to Golf Digest, a 2016 study of golf participation by the National Golf Foundation, found that the number of beginning golfers had grown to 2.5 million, a record. Nearly a third of the 2.9 million junior golfers last year were girls, nearly twice the number 20 years ago. And more than a quarter of all junior golfers are non-Caucasian, a fourfold increase from 1995.
As the Tour Championship gets underway Thursday without three headlining players, what better time to recognize that rumors of the sport’s demise are premature? The game appears healthier than the 14-time major champion Tiger Woods, who was limited to one official tour start this season because of a chronic back injury, his misery compounded by a mismanagement of medications. It is healthier than Rory McIlroy, the defending FedEx Cup champion, who never rebounded from an early-season rib injury and who failed to advance to the Tour Championship’s 30-man field at East Lake Golf Club. It is hale enough to survive the absence this week of Phil Mickelson, the perennial fan favorite whose closing surge could not make up for his midseason dip in form.
A new generation, led by the P.G.A. Championship winner Justin Thomas, who collected five titles this season, and the United States Open champion Brooks Koepka, ably filled the power vacuum. Yes, they were playing to a smaller audience. The final round of the P.G.A. Championship last month had its second-lowest ratings in the past 20 years, surpassing only 2008, when the tournament aired opposite the Beijing Olympics. The 3.6 overnight number — which came two months after the U.S. Open recorded the second-lowest overnight Nielsen ratings for its final round — launched dozens of misguided tweets about the ailing state of the game.
“TV ratings are really not a measure of whether golf is popular,” said Geoff Ogilvy, the 2006 U.S. Open champion.
His view is widely held by the pros, who see ratings as a flawed indicator of golf’s reach. Television is the pretty packaging. The substance of golf is the indelible — and wholly organic — image from the end of the P.G.A. Championship, when Jordan Spieth and a handful of other players stuck around long after they were finished so they could be among the first people to congratulate Thomas.
The show of sportsmanship highlighted golf’s capacity for competition and friendship. It made golf look cool and fun, the Tour veteran Charley Hoffman said, adding, “I think it can’t do anything but help the game.”
One of the players waiting for Thomas behind Quail Hollow’s 18th green was Rickie Fowler, whose 1.57 million Twitter followers attest to his success in attracting attention to the game. At this year’s U.S. Open, Fowler was criticized in a Golf Digest column after he opted not to sit in the interview room for a formal news conference when he held the first-round lead.
The column implied that, because the interview room is more conducive to probing questions and thoughtful responses, Fowler had squandered a chance to grow the game by choosing to stand and answer questions in an informal setting outside.
Anecdotal evidence abounds that Fowler lavishes attention on the people who really matter: the children who represent the game’s future. In 2012, he headlined a corporate event at Long Island’s Huntington Crescent Golf Club. He was scheduled to conduct a 15-minute clinic and answer a few questions. He stayed for nearly an hour and a half and spent at least five minutes with each child there, according to John Schob, the head golf professional at the club. Fowler stuck their tees into the ground for them and offered swing tips. The encounter inspired a few of the children to pursue golf, Schob said.
How better to grow the game than to hook participants when they are young? The concept is not cutting edge. It took root centuries ago in Scotland, where there is a nine-hole, par-3 course in North Berwick that is primarily for children (and that spawned Catriona Matthew, winner of the 2009 Women’s British Open).
“There’s a sign there that says adults can only play when accompanied by a child,” Ogilvy said. “In one sign, you fix golf.”
Conway Farms was subdivided into corporate suites, which seemed like a sign that the PGA Tour’s approach continues to be growing the wealth to grow the game — golf as an “aspirational” pursuit.
“You grow the game from the ground up, not from TV down,” said Brian Harman, who wasn’t sure the corporate suites were worthwhile. “The people in there are not watching golf,” he added. “They’re not young kids out here getting access and watching golf.”
The tour players Scott Brown and Kevin Kisner are committed to growing the game at the grass-roots level in Aiken, S.C., where they live.
The University of South Carolina Aiken, which Brown attended, has set aside 60 acres for development of a golf practice facility, replete with nine holes, short-game areas, meeting rooms, locker rooms and classrooms. The facility will house the men’s team and perhaps pave the way for the addition of a women’s team.
It will also be a new home to a local First Tee program, a junior golf enterprise focused on bringing the game to economically disadvantaged areas. The program currently operates out of a nearby private club, to which it pays rent. At the new location, the members will have access to student tutors and mentors from the college. For some children, it might be their first exposure to a college campus, and the experience could be the seed that produces the fruit of higher education.
“It will change their whole outlook growing up,” Kisner said.
Kisner and Brown are helping raise funds for the project, which will cost roughly $3 million. Obtaining the seed money has proved a challenge, but the players are determined to see the project through.
“For us, it’s like, how has this never been done before?” Brown said.
Topgolf, a booming entertainment franchise with roughly three dozen locations around the country and several more to open soon, is an entryway to golf for adults. It offers a more relaxed approach and easy access to the game.
Do the barefoot man and the woman in stilettos count as golfers? Paul Casey believes so.
“They are still golf fans, they are still absorbing, or taking in — consuming — the game,” he said, adding, “I don’t think the game has any issues whatsoever. I just think it’s changing and it’s organic. I think it’s cool.”
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