News & Opinion

Who’s really growing the game? Hint: The guys in green

Golf has a problem when it comes to growing the game, a tedious phrase that has been tossed around for the past decade.

The problem is, whose job is it to grow the game? The game’s governing bodies, the U.S. Golf Association and the R&A? The PGA of America? The PGA Tour? Tiger Woods?

All right, it’s definitely not up to Woods. And it has been amusing to talk about growing the game when until recently, the sport’s participation numbers have been in sharp decline. “Stop the bleeding” would have been a more accurate rallying cry.

The answer is, it isn’t anyone’s job to grow the game. Yet there is one group that has taken on the problem more effectively in a short time and has done more to promote interest in golf globally than everyone else. 

Believe it or not, the champion grower of golf is Augusta National Golf Club, site of this week’s Masters Tournament.

Let’s start with its Drive, Chip and Putt competition. The Masters is annually the biggest draw in televised golf. Devising golf’s version of Punt, Pass and Kick, a long-standing football competition that is an American tradition, was a brilliant idea. While I’m not keen on the part of the event that seems a little exploitative – televised finals with cameras up close in the faces of 7-year-olds, and then awkward high-fives with older green-coated members – there is no denying the buzz created by this event.

The dream of the Masters is one that spans the globe, and offering golfers ages 7-15 a chance to compete at Augusta National on the eve of the Masters is a carrot like no other. The World Golf Foundation says the number of youth golfers is up 20 percent since 2010, to 3 million. Golf participation numbers are always difficult to verify, but no matter the exact numbers, you’ve got to give Augusta National a lot of the credit.

The LPGA-USGA Girls Golf program has grown quickly, from 5,000 players in 2010 to more than 50,000. The PGA of America’s Junior League has about 30,000 participants. And there’s The First Tee, whose mission has drifted from golf as its main priority toward life skills but claims it has reached more than 5 million youngsters. These programs have been successful but created only a fraction of the interest and generated only a fraction of the attention that Drive, Chip and Putt has at the Masters.

You can’t overstate the influence of this event. If you think that’s hype, check out the official website, www.drivechipandputt.com. The list of next year’s qualifying sites (in all 50 states and Puerto Rico, by the way) covers 25 pages.

Your friends at Augusta National also started two international amateur events, the Asia-Pacific Amateur and the Latin America Amateur.

The Asian-Pacific Am began in 2009 and introduced Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama after he won the event in 2010 and ’11 and went on to global stardom. Two winners, including Tianlang Guan in 2012, have come from China, where interest in golf has gained dramatically despite crackdowns by the political regime that views the game as too extravagant and not in keeping with Communist Party ideals.

Since its inception three years ago, the Latin America Amateur has sent three champions to the Masters, two of them from Chile. The lure of a Masters invite has made the Latin America Am a big, big deal for golf in South and Central America and the Caribbean.

Golf’s participation numbers have held steadily during the past few years, at 24.7 million, the same number as played in the early 1990s before the Tiger Woods era. 

If golf’s future hinges on today’s juniors, maybe there is hope that golf will grow again. If it does, you can thank Augusta National.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email:gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle