2001: Our Opinion - Expand range of First Tee to boost game

The National Golf Foundation’s most recent statistics (see p22) on participation should serve as a catalyst for bold action. For the fourth year in a row, growth has been virtually nonexistent. That’s unacceptable.

For too long, industry leaders have applauded local grow-the-game initiatives from the sidelines. But practiced in isolation, these efforts will not achieve desired results. The industry needs to find, and collectively pay for, a national grow-the-game czar. That full-time chief needs to take the most successful local model and expand it into a national growth initiative or forge together several of the best ideas to create one unified program that can be marketed across the country.

As ambitious as this may seem, this need not be an overwhelmingly difficult endeavor. Golf leaders should explore expanding The First Tee – the existing national program that introduces children to the game – to all beginners, young and old. The First Tee already is a recognizable brand and is building hundreds of inexpensive short courses, thus eliminating the game’s biggest barrier: lack of affordable access.

Such a conversion makes even more sense because it gives the politically correct First Tee program a better chance to be fiscally fit. Though noble in its intent, The First Tee requires subsidized green fees and charitable contributions to operate effectively.

The inclusion of fee-paying adults would enable The First Tee to raise additional operating revenue while producing equipment-buying consumers. Most important, it would create entire families that play golf – the surest way to get children hooked on the game.

Rule changes a positive step

Thumbs-up to the U.S. Golf Association for its liberalization of the rules on amateur status. Beginning in January, golfers may test the professional waters at qualifying tournaments without jeopardizing their amateur status and accept free equipment without penalty.

Of course, concerns have been raised by those who believe their interests will be better served by the status quo, and by those who fear change. For them, we quote USGA executive director David Fay:

“People sometimes forget that the intent of the rules for amateur status is to define eligibility to play in particular competitions. There are ways to liberalize and still retain the distinction between amateur and professional. And the most prominent break point is whether you play for money or not.”

Now that they have the guilt-free opportunity to test themselves at professional qualifying tournaments, top amateurs can add a dose of reality to the decision-making process. The vast majority will learn they don’t have what it takes, and suffer no more than the entry fee and a deflated ego. If college coaches lose the occasional player and scholarship, that’s the rub of the green.

Only Chicken (The Sky is Falling) Little should be worried about free equipment tainting the amateur golf landscape. Top mid-ams typically are financially secure; if they want something, they can afford to buy it. Besides, they play in relative obscurity, with little marketing value to most equipment companies.

Collegians already have access to free stuff, so nothing is likely to change in that arena. The potential for exploitation of juniors is troublesome, which is where equipment makers must take some moral responsibility. As for pushy parents of junior Tigers-in-waiting, they’ll learn quickly that golf companies exist to make a profit.

And let’s not forget perhaps the most important impetus behind the equipment rules change: to help make the game accessible for all. Had the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews restricted access to equipment and coaching as the USGA traditionally has, then it’s not likely that squads from Latvia, Croatia, Estonia, Slovakia and Lebanon would have participated in the 2000 World Amateur Team Championship. By liberalizing its amateur status rules, the USGA has removed one more impediment to success for talented, but financially challenged, golfers in the United States and Mexico.

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