Tait: Let kids play for free, watch the game grow

Children gather at Anthony Ciabattoni's golf facility near Bucaramanga, Colombia.

Want a radical solution to grow the game? Let children play for free.

It’s time to own up to an unpleasant truth – golf is not growing in the western world. It’s shrinking. That’s why we should set the kids free.

There’s never been a better time to join a golf club in the British Isles. There was a time, say, 15 years ago when clubs in my area to the north of London had long waiting lists. No more. Those same clubs are openly advertising for membership. Many have dispensed with joining fees. Yet many are struggling to attract new members.

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Kids watch the action during the annual Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill.

Some clubs are even going to the wall. Lamerwood in Hertfordshire was a lovely course when it opened in 1996. I had the pleasure of playing there with Retief Goosen. Those were heady days, when clubs like Lamerwood had marketing money to spend on a future U.S. Open champion.

Drive past Lamerwood now and sheep graze on what used to be fairways. Only the discerning eye can pick out what were formerly tees, greens and bunkers. Lamerwood was one of many courses in this part of Hertfordshire looking for business that has long since dried up.

Even clubs in Scotland are struggling. Letham Grange and The Machrie are just two high profile Scottish courses that ran into financial difficulties last year. Members stepped in and saved Letham Grange, while new owners have taken over The Machrie. What the long-term future holds for both, and other Scottish clubs on the fringes, is hard to tell. The number of rounds played in Scotland fell by 1.6 percent last year.

The situation is even more dire in the United States, as my colleague Gene Yasuda recently pointed out. The number of rounds played in the U.S. fell in 2011 for the fifth year in a row. The golf population declined from 30 million in 2005 to 26.1 million in 2010. Approximately 1 million golfers quit U.S. fairways in 2010 alone.

If we want to reverse this trend, we need to make the game more attractive to children, who, after all, are the game’s future.

On my side of the pond, I blame a long, shameful history of appalling attitudes to youngsters by many British clubs. Generations of children were turned off this great game by clubs that treated them with contempt.

If I had my way I’d elevate the position of children in clubs. I’d ensure they got free lessons – on etiquette and the rules as well as technique – and make sure they got ample playing time. I’d also let them play for free until age 18, although there would obviously have to be limits on annual intake.

As for dress rules, I’d let them wear whatever they liked. Oh, and by all means bring your mobile phones into the clubhouse, too. And feel free to use any area of the clubhouse you wish.

Radical? Yes. However, if clubs don’t cater to today’s youth, they might struggle even more to get members tomorrow.

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