My Year in Golf: Gene Yasuda

Captain Andy Nisbet (center) and coach Tony Guerrero rally the California team.

Editor's note: For our entire "My Year in Golf" series, click here.

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Looking back on 2012, a single number jumps out at me: 7.4.

That figure represents the percentage increase in rounds played in the U.S. through September, according to the latest industry report.

Viewed simply as an empirical measure, it's something, perhaps, that only a statistical geek would love. But for me, it symbolizes much more: It's a reminder of just how resilient golf is, and more importantly, how much healthier it can be.

For more than a decade, I've written about the game's stagnation and attended countless conferences promoting solutions to attract more players to the sport. Generally speaking, those gatherings exhibited an interest in addressing golf's woes, but hardly an unwavering commitment to solve them. The latter finally surfaced in 2012 when Joe Steranka – in his last major initiative as chief executive of the PGA of America – put his association's resources behind Golf 2.0, the industry's first master plan to retain existing players and to target a spectrum of consumer groups to recruit newcomers.

It's still too early to grade Golf 2.0's performance, and it's unrealistic to think it contributed significantly to the 7.4 percent gain in rounds played. But if industry members truly support Golf 2.0, there's tremendous opportunity to build upon the growth that we witnessed.

This year's windfall mostly was delivered by Mother Nature. Better weather simply allowed more play. That conclusion is supported by PGA PerformanceTrak, which measures industry vitals at courses operated by PGA professionals: Through September, rounds played increased 8.3 percent, which is nearly identical to the 8.4 percent increase in the number of "days open" at golf facilities. Jon Colclasure, who oversees PGA PerformanceTrak, makes a point that shouldn't be dismissed: "There's no question that good weather created opportunity, but it created opportunity to pursue a lot of different activities, and people chose to play golf."

Indeed, for all the problems golf may have – it's too expensive, it's too time consuming, it's too difficult – its enduring appeal sent droves of existing players to tee it up more than they have in quite some time. Even if play remains flat for the balance of the year, the rounds-played total is projected to hit 492 million. By comparison, 463 million rounds were recorded in 2011. That means that in a single year, the industry recouped more than half of the 55 million rounds lost since the high-water mark of 518.4 million in 2000.

Actively recruiting new players in non-traditional ways is one of the hallmarks of Golf 2.0 and allied efforts. Nothing illustrated that better this year than when the PGA unveiled PGA Junior League Golf. It promotes and offers junior golf in an entirely new format: team play – with uniforms and player substitutions – to rival baseball, soccer and lacrosse leagues. When parents seek activities that foster shared success and a sense of belonging for their children, individual sports such as golf historically had little to offer. Not any more.

Just as important, it was good to see the continued expansion of private initiatives such as TGA Premier Junior Golf, a franchise business that essentially has operators serve as golf ambassadors, teaching innovative golf curricula to youth in schools and community-based organizations. Increasingly, TGA and PGA pros are working together to help children take their classroom golf skills onto real golf courses.

Equally promising were developments in courting women – not as some homogenous group, but as consumers with distinct lifestyles and interests, ranging from seniors to moms to corporate executives. To target the latter, for example, Golf 2.0 is persuading corporate America to encourage women, through workplace initiatives, to use golf as a business and networking tool. With such efforts under way, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina financier Darla Moore – who became Augusta National's first female members this past summer – may not have to wait long to have company at the club.

The push to make Get Golf Ready the national template for beginner golf instruction highlighted both the success of grow-the-game initiatives – and the challenges to implement them effectively.

Few recent programs have yielded results as impressively as Get Golf Ready, which not only teaches fundamental golf skills but helps beginners feel comfortable and confident in a golf environment. The program, which offers instructions in affordable, group lessons, keeps beginners involved in the game and is resonating with golf's underrepresented audiences. Through September, Get Golf Ready reported 12,094 online student registrations – up 35 percent from 8,962 for all of 2011. Among the registered: 81 percent were new or former golfers; 57 percent were women; and 27 percent were minorities.

Today, there are now more than 3,000 "approved" Get Golf Ready facilities. But within such growth lies a cautionary note – not just about Get Golf Ready but any industry-led initiative. It's evident that many of golf's leaders are committed to making the sport healthier, but whether the people "in the trenches" are willing to make necessary changes remains to be seen. The scope and intensity of their effort ultimately will determine if golf fulfills its growth potential. Thus far, some facilities still are going through the motions when it comes to fully supporting grow-the-game efforts.

During the summer, officials of Get Golf Ready conducted a series of "secret shopper calls" at 400 random facilities. The intent was to gauge facilities' engagement level in the program and their ability to articulate details about Get Golf Ready to consumers. The findings were underwhelming:

• 55 percent stated they offered group lessons for beginners

• 15 percent used "Get Golf Ready" by name

• 17 percent were able to give an overview of the program

• 17 percent quoted the exact price

• 13 percent provided details such as five group lessons per session

As a Disney executive once told me long ago, "Vision without execution equals hallucination." It's time for everyone in the golf business to embrace the endeavor of growing the game. And hopefully, in a year from now, we'll all be able to pat ourselves on the back rather than just give credit to Mother Nature for our gains.

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