First Links: A blueprint for golf 'bunny slopes'
Editors Note: This story originally appeared in the May 25th issue of Golfweek
Placing the uninitiated golfer on the first tee of a course stretching 7,000 yards or more makes as much sense as letting a newly licensed driver on a German autobahn.
But that’s exactly how our sport welcomes beginners who still are trying to get their swings in gear.
As if it weren’t difficult enough to sort countless swing thoughts or avoid ball-sucking hazards, new golfers often clog open fairways, unleashing the wrath of frustrated players waiting behind them.
It’s little wonder the game isn’t growing.
But the American Society of Golf Course Architects and the PGA of America have proposed a fix for the problem, a plan to create what is obviously missing: Bunny slopes – or golf’s version of them.
Raising awareness in the golf industry of the need for beginner facilities – staples at virtually every ski resort – is the mission of First Links, a new grant program designed to help existing course owners add such amenities to their properties.
“What we really need is something in between going to a driving range and stepping up to a championship golf course,” said John LaFay, president of the ASGCA Foundation.
Hoping to join an industry-wide effort to reverse sagging participation, the ASGCA paired with the PGA to launch the initiative. Underwritten with a $50,000 gift from the PGA, the society plans to award $2,000 grants to select course owners seeking to build additions that help beginners get comfortable with their games.
The grant will pay for an ASGCA member to visit the applicant’s facility and make recommendations for beginner facilities, such as short-game practice areas and par-3 holes. The funding, however, does not cover construction costs. Approximately 20-25 recipients will be chosen in phases during 2012.
“We know this is just a drop in the bucket, but we’re hoping to build demonstration projects that can show the imaginative things that can be done – hopefully without a terrible amount of expense,” LaFay said.
For the PGA, First Links underscores one of the critical elements of Golf 2.0, the association’s national push to grow the game: Make the industry re-examine customer service, and more importantly, truly deliver it.
“Going to a golf course is thrilling and exciting for beginners, but for many, there can be an intimidation factor,” said Bob Baldassari, who is overseeing the PGA’s involvement in the program. “We have to create a more welcoming environment and give them a golf-course setting where they can learn at their own pace.”
To practice what it has been preaching, the PGA is experimenting with its own beginner area at PGA Village in Port St. Lucie, Fla. Since the club opened, it has included a three-hole practice facility, but it mainly was used for instruction. In the past month, however, the club has renamed it the Discover Course, incorporated it into beginner programs and promoted it as a fun loop for families and novices.
“We’re treating it as an incubator for new golfers,” Baldassari said of the holes that vary in length from approximately 90 to 225 yards. The PGA plans to share its successes and failures with the Discover Course, hoping it might serve as a template for First Links recipients, architects and other course operators.
Such collaboration between architects and the PGA for the betterment of the game isn’t unprecedented. In the 1930s, the association retained legendary designer A.W. Tillinghast and dispatched him to golf clubs around the country, with the goal of making them more playable and easier to maintain.
This time, Baldassari hopes working together will lead to revolutionary thought.
“A hundred years ago, they didn’t build driving ranges at golf courses. That’s when you had shag boys,” he said. “Now, we say, ‘How can you build a facility and not have a driving range?’ Maybe 50 years from now, a First Links or something like it will just be part of the course. That would be neat.”