It was the final round of the 1998 BellSouth Classic in Duluth, Ga., and Tiger Woods was wearing his customary Sunday red. So was my 10-year-old daughter Kelly, who’d never been to a PGA Tour event before, but, like most youngsters in the crowd, knew Woods.
We were standing along the ropes on the second hole at TPC Sugarloaf, a par-3 fronted by a large pond that stretched from tee to green. The only way for players to reach the green after they had hit their tee shots was via the cart path next to where we stood.
The usual throng of fans followed Woods, the eventual winner, so our positioning was strategic. It gave Kelly her best chance to see him up close. I’d seen him play several times, but the electricity in the air never got old. Kelly felt it, too. His gallery was buzzing and filling in the space behind us. After Woods and his playing competitors struck their shots, I glanced at him from afar, but as he approached, my gaze shifted to Kelly. Her eyes were gleaming, and her grin was growing – so wide, I knew Woods was right behind me, and my daughter had been forever touched.
Kelly went on to play high school and college golf. As her interest in the game grew, we started attending LPGA and Futures tour events. We saw Paula Creamer and Michelle Wie play. We were in Atlanta in 2005 when Morgan Pressel won the U.S. Women’s Amateur. These young females became models for Kelly, but none of them produced the grin that Woods had. Seeing him up close wasn’t the prime motivator for Kelly choosing to play golf, but it surely didn’t hurt. Woods made golf cool. Even her peers who played more-traditional sports knew Tiger Woods.
Now Kelly is in her 20s. She says Woods is the best example of karma that she’s ever seen, but his “sins” don’t diminish the effect that he had on her as a 10-year-old and the golf career that she enjoyed in high school and college. So, who do young girls see now in professional or amateur golf that lights up their faces the way Woods had my daughter’s? Who makes golf cool for them? Why choose to play golf when the popular kids are playing soccer?
I love golf. I watch the European Tour, the LPGA, USGA events. I was at East Lake in Atlanta last fall to watch the final day of the East Lake Cup, an ingenious event alternating tee times between some of the best men’s and women’s college golfers, giving fans a chance to see how male and female players approach the same hole. But I’m avid. I was hooked a long time ago. What’s to hook young people today?
I have coached the junior-varsity golf team at my daughter’s high school for the past seven years, but that responsibility may end this season. We graduated seven seniors and might not get enough newcomers to fill the missing spots. A program that used to have close to 20 players each year is dwindling to seven or eight. Girls enrolling in our school aren’t gravitating toward golf, and it’s not just our program. Two other schools in our league (and our league has produced three state team champions) haven’t had JV teams for the past two years, and assorted other schools against whom we used to compete don’t field JV teams, either.
Golf needs another Tiger Woods. In the meantime, golf needs to better market itself, especially the LPGA. Our best varsity player, who qualified for the state tournament as an individual two years ago and with her team last year, didn’t even know about the penalty strokes assessed Lexi Thompson at the recent ANA Inspiration. She wasn’t watching. She couldn’t name five players on the LPGA tour. She plays golf because her big brothers play, she’s athletic and competitive.
I wish all of our players had her talent, drive and built-in family competition, but for now I’d be grateful just to have enough girls to field a team this fall. Every time I read articles about the increase in junior participation, I wonder why it isn’t happening here, and at this, a program which made it to the state tournament for the first time last fall. How to make golf cool again? How to truly grow the game?
(Gaughan, 63, of Fairfield, Ohio, recently retired after 34 years of teaching English. He coaches the junior-varsity girls team at McAuley High School in Cincinnati.)