The next generation of golf
EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado – The golf industry hopes to reach 40 million golfers by 2020 – a nearly 50 percent increase from today’s numbers.With the never-ending temptations of video games, high-adrenaline action sports and team sports such as football and baseball competing for kids’ time, golf is trying to get its fair share of youth attention, but the numbers just aren’t adding up.Golf takes hours to play, and it’s expensive – two possible deterrents to younger generations who seem to be choosing other recreational activities during their free time.It’s not that golf isn’t fun anymore; it’s just that there are so many more choices these days for how to spend your free time, said Harry Frampton, chairman of East West Partners, the developer of the Eagle Ranch Golf Club. Frampton is also partner at Slifer Smith & Frampton real estate and is a member at both Country Club of the Rockies and Eagle Springs.It doesn’t help that many golf courses practically have a sign on the front door that says “beginners, young people and women are not welcome,” Frampton said. “It’s almost like you have to be a good golfer to play, but you can’t be a good golfer until you play as a bad golfer,” Frampton said. Another problem is that golf clubs, generally speaking, haven’t done a whole lot over the years to attract younger players or beginners. The sport has become somewhat of an elitist, middle-aged white man’s sport, Frampton said, “and that’s not a good thing.”Golf is hard. It takes tons of practice and years to become good. Some people play for a lifetime and never reach the level of play they desire.And the attitude that often exists at golf courses that tends to shun the beginners and intermediates isn’t helping, Frampton said. “I think courses need to get smarter about that,” Frampton said, adding that he thinks courses around the Vail Valley have, in fact, smartened up in the past year or so.”Golf courses have gotten better at what they do,” Frampton said. “They’ve adjusted their business plans to recognize that golf has been struggling. … Each one of them is working harder and smarter, and they’re coming up with new programs for marketing. They’re trying to get more kids there, more young people, more women – everybody’s done a better job, and I think that’s really positive.”
Golf 20/20, a collaborative effort by the golf industry that operates under a mission to ensure the future vitality of the game, is managed by the World Golf Foundation, which also oversees the First Tee program. The First Tee program in Eagle County, in its seventh year, has had success, but there’s always room for growth in terms of attracting younger players. Maggie Jackson heads up the First Tee in Eagle County. She said the goal is to get kids hooked on golf at an early age – 6 or 7 years old – so they can continue to progress and remain engaged in the sport. While most kids enter the First Tee program because their parents want them to, the goal is for the kids to tell their parents they want to go back to First Tee summer after summer, she said.Until recently, the First Tee would offer other activities, such as martial arts and soccer, within the program. Jackson said organizers decided the program really needed to be about golf and golf only.”We try to keep innovating new ways to make our program stand out,” she said.And while the program is about golf, it also teaches other “core values” that kids can take away and use in their daily lives. The campers must keep their own scores, for example, which teaches honesty. They have to show courtesy for the other players, which teaches respect. “There’s so much that goes along with golf that’s not golf,” Jackson said. “Learning values, life skills that you use not only on the course and off. You can teach golf without teaching golf. You can make golf fun.”Johannes Faessler, owner of the Sonnenalp Resort of Vail and the Sonnenalp Golf Club, said his golf club is very much a family place. He said many younger generations at the Sonnenalp are playing with their families and getting into the game. He recognizes that this is not the nationwide trend, however.”I think, generally, there is some of a decline of younger people entering the sport,” Faessler said. Younger people taking up the game of golf, and skiing, too, is important to the vitality of the entire resort community, Faessler said. If younger people aren’t joining, the future of the Vail community could look grim.Faessler said golf resorts need to try different tactics to make golf more relevant, whether that’s more tournaments or cheaper rounds or shorter courses – it has to be something.That’s exactly what the golf industry is doing. In July, PGA of America and the United States Golf Association partnered to support “Tee it Forward,” an initiative that encouraged golfers to play courses from distances more aligned with their abilities. The idea was to move tees up to provide greater playability and enjoyment.”We believe that by moving up to another set of tees, golfers will experience an exciting, new approach to the game that will produce more enjoyment and elevate their desire to come back and play even more golf,” said PGA of America President Allen Wronowski.PGA of America, in cooperation with the United States Golf Association and other golf organizations, kicked off another initiative in 2012 called Golf 2.0, designed to reverse national declines in golf participation. It has the support of golf greats such as Jack Nicklaus, who said earlier this year that the golf industry has to think out of the box in order to broaden the game.Then there’s the Get Golf Ready program, also the brainchild of PGA of America, which is designed to teach everything needed to play golf in just a few lessons.Research shows that junior golf programs are highly successful in terms of generating adult players. Only 30 percent of young people who are introduced to the game outside of a structured program continue playing in adulthood, according to Golf 20/20, but 60 percent of participants in a structured program will become active adult players.
Nicklaus, who has designed several local courses, put on an event in Ohio last year that hosted two 12-hole tournaments where golfers played one tee up from where they normally play. Golfers also were penalized for slow play, and the hole was doubled in size.Nicklaus said he’s not trying to change the game and calls himself a traditionalist. He does think traditionalists need to be tolerant, however, while the industry tries new strategies – things such as six-, nine- or 12-hole games instead of 18 or an occasionally expanded hole to make shots easier. “With so many sports and activities fighting for the time and attention of families, we need to think of ways to make our game more attractive and, thus, more inviting, especially to children and young adults,” Nicklaus said. Greg Nathan, senior vice president of membership at the National Golf Foundation, said those committed to the game of golf seem to make time for it, regardless of their age. “The recreation trends of young people are certainly changing, and mobile technology is a major factor,” Nathan said in an email to the Vail Daily. “Junior golfer numbers (ages 6 to 17) have been dropping the last seven to eight years due to lifestyle and recessionary factors. Very hard to nail down (why) without deep study.”Professional golfer and TV commentator Gary McCord, who lives in Edwards part time, agrees with some changes, such as bringing an 18-hole game down to 12 holes so people can play and get back to work. McCord said the main formula that golf courses seem to be following to get younger people involved encourages their parents to play with them.But that’s a hard sell right now because of the economy. With more and more parents out of work and watching their pennies, other tactics have to be explored, he said.”The game has got to get younger,” McCord said, adding that young professionals on the tour do help draw attention to the sport from younger generations.The national programs are at golf clubs across the country, including right here in the valley. Jeff Boyer, the director of golf at Eagle Ranch, has brought the PGA of America curriculum into local schools and to Eagle Ranch.”We definitely want to try to attract new people to the game that we don’t reach through our traditional channels,” Boyer said. Eagle Ranch has had the First Tee program in place since 2006, and before that, it had a strong junior golf program. Boyer said he’s never seen any sign of the youth interest dropping. Of his four different First Tee programs this year, all four filled up.”It’s not a problem for us,” Boyer said, adding that Eagle is a hub for young, active families.Boyer has about 220 children involved in the youth programs at Eagle Ranch, but he does notice that the kids tend to drop off from the programs as they get older and involved with other sports.He tries to teach the lesson that golf is a game you can play your entire life.”I’ve known a couple kids, years ago who were in junior golf programs, then in high school they played football, then in college they wanted to play golf again,” Boyer said. Eagle Ranch, like many local courses, also offers women’s golf clinics. June was Women’s Golf Month, which is another PGA of America-sponsored program.Eagle Ranch also is trying to promote nine-hole play or evening play – strategies that try to squash the idea that golf takes too long.”And golf is a great family sport – that’s something we really need to get across,” Boyer said. “It’s a place where you can come spend time with your family.” Assistant Managing Editor Lauren Glendenning can be reached at 970-748-2983 or email@example.com.