Any golf course operator or professional in the U.S. would tell you that the Masters signals the advent of a new golf season. Just as spring itself heralds a renewal, the tournament, won Sunday by Sergio Garcia, brings optimism and hope for everyone associated with the game. No other organization in golf creates more excitement in the sport than Augusta (Ga.) National Golf Club.
Under club chairman Billy Payne’s direction, the membership at Augusta National has embraced its role to be more to golf than just the host of the Masters. With Payne’s foresight, the club has shed its long-standing reputation for exclusion and isolation. Payne could very well be the most progressive leader in American golf since the sport crossed the Atlantic in the late 19th century.
Payne has been a champion for junior golf. Youngsters accompanied by adult patrons have been granted free access to the Masters. Under his chairmanship, the Par 3 Contest is televised annually, with the hope of attracting more families to golf. The Masters even consented to a video game, which would allow youth to play the hallowed grounds well before their time.
And now there is Drive, Chip and Putt. The skills contest has been called golf’s version of football’s Punt, Pass and Kick. I was president of the PGA of America in 2013 when DCP was introduced by the Masters Tournament Foundation, the U.S. Golf Association and the PGA. We hoped that more than 100,000 kids would register for the initial competition that summer, leading up to the DCP final at the 2014 Masters. We anticipated needing a lottery to help decide which 17,600 boys and girls, ages 7-15, would be able to enter the 100 local qualifiers around the country. But, the numbers were never there.
Make no mistake that the presentation of DCP by Golf Channel on the Sunday before the Masters has been world-class. The support of the three founding organizations has been unwavering. Ask any of the participants who qualified for the final at Augusta and he or she will celebrate it as the experience of a lifetime. I remember how gratifying it was to be presiding over that first DCP final in 2014. Junior golf participation had declined by 30 percent when DCP was started in ’13, and we hoped to reverse that trend.
But, is DCP really growing the game?
As someone who has hosted local DCP qualifiers in each of the past three years, I would say it has evolved into a skills contest for elite junior players more than a grow-the-game tool. DCP can be a beat-down experience for beginning juniors who have to perform in front of strangers. Imagine whiffing a tee shot or topping a chip shot in front of a bunch of people whom you don’t know. It’s the type of failure that drives people away from golf.
Interestingly, the founding fathers of DCP will not release participation numbers. That is an indictment in itself, and it’s safe to say that they fell far short of the 100,000-participant goal in 2013.
Several PGA sections around the country were contacted about participation. Although organizers would not disclose numbers, they did acknowledge without attribution whether their programs had grown or declined. Those results were mixed. This doesn’t mean that DCP is failing, but it’s not growing junior golf by leaps and bounds. Most, if not all, of the 80 boys and girls who competed in the 2017 DCP final at Augusta last week would be playing golf today without DCP.
The PGA of America says 30,000 kids participate in its PGA Junior League program, golf’s version of Little League baseball. Many of those kids likely also are DCP participants. So, the real problem still lies with a relatively low number of junior golfers in America. And when you consider that their parents, many of them millennials (born in 1984-2002), are playing golf only about one-third as often as the generation before them, the ominous formulas start adding up.
“If we make golf fun, the kids will come,” Payne said in 2013. “It’s our collective hope and belief that this (DCP) will inspire kids all over the nation to take up our great game.”
Augusta National and its chairman are doing their part. It still may not be enough.
Ted Bishop, who owns and operates The Legends Golf Club in Franklin, Ind., and is the author of “Unfriended,” was president of the PGA of America in 2013-14. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @tedbishop38pga