Growing the game: Club golf participation soars

Interest in club golf is growing thanks to the NCCGA.

For Jim Silva, college golf means tossing a duffel and a golf bag in the back of a big van with seven of his friends and driving to the nearest golf tournament. It’s something of a grassroots approach to the game, and a far cry from the traditional life of a collegiate golfer.

Silva, president of Northeastern University’s club golf team, is among a growing contingent of young players unable to find a place on a varsity college roster but unwilling to give up the game through their undergraduate years. Silva does everything from organizing team try-outs to scheduling practices to overseeing travel. The latter can sometimes pose the biggest challenge

“This year was the first year we had someone old enough and with a clean driving record to rent a van,” said Silva, further explaining that the appointed van driver must be at least 21 and have no traffic tickets on file.

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A van keeps the whole team together, rather than divided among two cars. And that, after all, is the point.

“Some of my best friends are from the team. It’s fun to be involved in something,” Silva said. “I wouldn’t just want to go play alone every weekend.”

Northeastern’s team is growing (48 players showed up to the team tryout this fall), and part of that growth is Silva’s influence. He’s worked to make the club more organized, and this semester began competing in the National Collegiate Club Golf Association, a governing body for club golf teams that provides regional and national competition. Silva describes NCCGA events as feeling more competitive than previous leagues in which Northeastern played.

Those are details reflective of the growth of club golf nationwide. A year ago, even the highest level of club golf revolved around word of mouth. Most teams were based in the Midwest or Southeast. The NCCGA supported about 50 colleges, but that number has since tripled thanks to expansion primarily east of the Mississippi River. There's exponential room to grow among the thousands of colleges and universities around the country.

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NCCGA play is based on regions – the idea is to help club teams conserve money by providing playing opportunities in a tight geographical area. There were 10 regions in the spring of 2013, but the NCCGA added eight more for the fall. That number could grow to 22 by next semester. In effect, club golf has become much more localized.

The NCCGA has traditionally been a student-run operation. Former president Matt Weinberger, who graduated from the University of Dayton last spring, has worked to add stability to that model. As an effect, Weinberger changed the face of the organization, opening the door for unprecedented growth.

After chartering Dayton’s club golf team as a freshman in 2009, Weinberger went on to become a regional coordinator. He took over as NCCGA president in the spring of 2011.

“The first thing I wanted to do was create a web site so we had a central place to collect scores, so we could publicize results, get news out to the general club golf population,” Weinberger said.

It worked. Weinberger caught the attention of Kris Hart and Mike Belkin, two twentysomething New Englanders who had been working to get their own college golf-based company off the ground. Hart and Belkin co-founded College Golf Pass, a Boston-based program that helps college golfers (not on athletic scholarships) find reduced green fees so they can continue to play through college. Students pay $20 each semester for the pass, and receive discounted rates at courses across the country who have signed on with the program.

Hart and Belkin admit progress was slow at first, in part because they had trouble framing the idea as they phoned potential course partners and asked them to buy in. Eventually, 15 courses in Massachusetts had signed on, which grew to 150 in New England. Nationwide, 540 golf courses now offer pass-holders discounted rates. The college rates have been especially helpful for club golfers searching for courses on which to practice with regularity. Pass-holders can play at any course in the country that has a deal with the program.

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College Golf Pass co-founders Mike Belkin and Kris Hart.

“Our mission was always to focus on students and how we help them, because frankly they can’t afford golf,” Hart said.

It was part of a larger desire to grow the game in a demographic Hart and Belkin say is often overlooked: 18-34 year-olds. Both men are former college golfers (Hart graduated from Bryant in 2008, Belkin from Amherst in 2011) who are able to connect with that age group. Hart describes College Golf Pass as a mission-driven company.

“We’re keeping students in the game and we’re getting new students involved in the game that otherwise wouldn’t have played,” he said.

At the 2012 NCCGA National Championship, played at Sea Island Golf Club’s Seaside Course in St. Simon’s Island, Ga.,, Hart and Belkin hit it off immediately with student organizers. College Golf Pass’ mission meshed with that of Weinberger and the NCCGA, and the two organizations joined forces.

Weinberger, a one handicapper, now works as an electrical engineer at Proctor & Gamble. He still moonlights with the NCCGA, helping specifically in tournament management and student leadership. In addition to having a web site, Weinberger’s original vision for the NCCGA, the organization now has team rankings and post scores on Golfstat. The fall national championship, to be played Nov. 16-17 at Barefoot Resort in Myrtle Beach, S.C., will feature 208 players representing 38 colleges. Twenty-four teams will compete for the team title.

In effect, Weinberger took the NCCGA from a small, word-of-mouth organization to a rapidly growing outlet for golfers who want to keep playing the game despite a traditionally tight college-student budget. Heads are turning in their direction.

“I went to Dayton not knowing there was a chance to play college golf,” Weinberger said. “I chose to exercise (the club golf) avenue rather than trying to walk on.”

NCCGA competitions can also offer a life after varsity golf for some collegians. When Duquesne University cut its golf team for budget reasons in 2010, the remaining players started a club golf team at the school. That program still is active even though all former varsity players have since graduated or moved on.

There are lots of passionate club golfers like Weinberger, and many have stayed on with NCCGA in some capacity. That only helps the program keep growing. Brandon Loughren, a recent North Carolina State graduate and now a project engineer for Georgia Pacific, will help with scoring, pace of play and rules at the upcoming national championship. It will also allow him to watch his former teammates compete.

Loughren played soccer in high school, and thus wasn’t looking for a golf scholarship when he went to N.C. State. Club golf, however, helped Loughren find students to play with and a competitive environment.

“It was always kind of a side sport for me but in college, it really became something that I loved doing,” Loughren said.

It’s Hart and Belkin’s dream realized.

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