My year in golf: Gene Yasuda

Reflecting on another year that has come and gone, my mind gravitates to an unsettling thought: Why did I play so little golf in 2011?

Borrowing runners' jargon, I didn't set a "PR" – or personal record – for rounds played. In fact, I guess you could call it a "PW," or personal worst.

At first blush, the story of my absence from neighborhood courses could lead any local newscast depicting the economy's impact on consumer spending. Frugal might as well be my middle name for a variety of reasons: Spiraling college costs (one kid in school, another getting ready to go next year). Unexpected health-care bills. My plummeting home value. All of these factors make me want to stuff my savings under my mattress and sit on it – a symbolic, and likely futile, protest to preserve what I have.

My love of the game, however, certainly hasn't diminished. So, I'm convinced if course operators had given me greater encouragement and incentives to play I would have overcome my economic handicap. But for the most part, they didn't. Which leads me to golf's biggest issue in 2011 and one that's sure to top the agenda again in 2012: Growing the game.

For nearly 15 years, I've attended more than my share of industry conferences and summits dedicated to reversing declining participation. And the lack of progress not only is discouraging, but alarming. The number of rounds played will fall for the fifth consecutive year in 2011, and since 2005, the U.S. golfer population has declined from 30 million to 26.1 million in 2010. In that year alone, the game lost roughly 1 million participants.

Next year, the PGA of America will lead yet another industry initiative, called "Golf 2.0," to get more people to play. But its plan or any other has little chance of success unless the people who really matter commit to solving the problem: Individual course operators and their staff.

There are many profound challenges affecting the game, including a stalled economy and societal changes that have greatly changed how consumers spend their discretionary income (and often less on golf). But there's no hope of tackling such bigger issues if key personnel in the trenches don't realize – or are unwilling to acknowledge – that "business as usual" no longer is acceptable.

With apologies to those who are striving to improve their facilities, how is it possible in this day and age that so many golf courses still regard customer service as an alien concept?

As someone who picked up the game later in life, I'm often amazed that I've persisted playing. Because my allegiance to golf occurred, frankly, despite lack of help from course operators. It's difficult to think of a less-welcoming environment than the one our sport offers: After a handful of lessons on the range, new golfers often get little help, if any, transitioning to the actual course, where people still insist playing the tips or close to it regardless of their ability. Then grumpy marshals and veteran golfers routinely gripe about beginners' slow play when such novices never were instructed on playing quickly and likely are struggling to process a few dozen swing thoughts.

To make matters worse, after experiencing all this "fun," golfers rarely receive any appreciation for their patronage. Though it's now commonplace for just about any business, from car washes to airlines to pizzerias, to reward their regulars with affinity programs such as frequent-flier miles, golf courses rarely make the effort to say, "You're a valuable customer, and we hope you'll visit again." (In fact, most U.S. golf courses aren't equipped with point-of-sale systems that can identify a returning customer or show that individual's purchase history. But I'll save that criticism for another story.)

Golf remains an incredible game, and it doesn't require radical alterations to make it popular again. What needs changing is how it's sold and experienced.

Just imagine if golf truly became a welcoming sport. Then, I'm pretty sure I'd have a new PR.

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