When the 88 competitors in the inaugural Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals arrive at Augusta National Golf Club this morning, they will take a drive down Magnolia Lane.
When they compete, these boys and girls will use the same Tournament Practice Range facilities, clubhouse putting green and 18th hole used by Masters Tournament participants.
And when the winners are determined, their names will go up on the big green-and-white leaderboard that overlooks the 18th hole.
Golf leaders are hoping the event will capture the imagination of a key demographic group it needs to keep the sport vibrant.
“No doubt, we believe April 6, 2014, will be a very special day for these kids, one they will surely never forget, and that will be a very special day thanks to the Golf Channel for the millions of kids watching on TV, who may be deciding at that very moment to give golf a try,” Augusta National and Masters chairman Billy Payne said last year in announcing the competition.
For Augusta National and the Masters, the competition aimed at children ages 7 to 15 is just the latest move in a series of initiatives to “grow the game.”
It is a calculated move made in conjunction with golf’s other governing bodies to spark interest and invest in the future. Only time will tell if it pays off.
After peaking at 30 million players for a few years between 2003-2006, the number of golfers in the United States has gradually declined to about 25 million, according to statistics from the National Golf Foundation.
“Golf is definitely under some pressure as a business,” said Greg Nathan, senior vice president for the NGF. “The imbalance of supply and demand caused by the building boom from the mid-1980s through the mid 2000s continues to put pressure on courses, the engine of the golf economy. Owners and operators are competing harder than ever, especially for the 14 million core golfers who play more than 90 percent of the rounds.”
The NGF, established in 1936, serves golf-related businesses with “information, consulting and resources to help them succeed,” Nathan said.
While golf demand has stabilized at its current level, Nathan said the industry needs to figure out how to get more of the coveted 18-34 age group hooked on the game.
“Even though we have roughly 7 million golfers in that demographic, golf does not appear to be as relevant to them as in previous generations,” Nathan said. “Participation in that segment has dipped 30 percent in the past 20 years.”
Nathan said the NGF is studying golf’s relationship with the so-called millenials.
“Golf is not perceived as being fun for them,” he said. “They have so many choices on how to spend their recreation time and we have not innovated the golf experience to a great enough degree to make it more attractive. We need to make golf more welcoming, for example, by encouraging them to extend their connected lifestyle to the course. I believe the sport of golf says ‘no’ to them far too often. Millennials don’t have a lot of patience for ‘no.’”
Fear of missing out
When Tiger Woods won the first of his four Masters titles in 1997, interest in the game among non-golfers spiked. Television ratings always go up when Woods plays, and PGA Tour purses have increased substantially thanks to him.
But, according to data from the NGF, participation numbers in the decade following Woods’ first Masters win did not increase significantly. Nathan contends that “people play golf because it’s a great game, not because of any particular players, even Tiger. Pro golf and recreational golf are not as connected as you might think.”
While time, cost and difficulty are traditional reasons cited for golf’s stagnation, Nathan says golf isn’t growing because it’s perceived as boring by most non-golfers.
“I love the traditional game, there are clearly millions who love the traditional game, but a generation from now, the great majority of golf facilities are going to need to make the golf course environment more fun, dynamic, inviting, and certainly more welcoming to novices, women, minorities, kids and families, in order for golf to compete for recreation time.”
Nathan wrote on his blog called Mayor of Crazy Town that the concept of “FOMO” (fear of missing out) drives the behavior of the 18-34 crowd. He also suggested that golf needs to adapt and make its facilities and equipment more technology-friendly.
“If you need to make your course a 150 acre Wi-Fi zone, then so be it,” Nathan wrote. “If every car in your fleet needs to be a mobile Internet hot spot, then get on it. Full broadcast media in every buggy ... absolutely. Bluetooth-enabled speakers in the back of every car ... check!”
“Growing the game” is not a new phrase around Augusta National. Co-founders Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts always strived to give back, but in the formative years of the Masters it was all they could do to keep the club and tournament afloat.
That began to change in the 1950s when television entered the equation. Thanks to lucrative contracts, both in the U.S. and overseas, the Masters began to put itself on solid financial ground. Combined with revenue from ticket and merchandise sales, the tournament was able to maintain its high standards and not give in to crass commercialism.
Roberts and Jones sought to grow the game first by inviting top players from around the world, and later on they were able to support other golf organizations with financial gifts.
Since Payne took over as chairman in 2006, the Masters has been at the forefront with several “grow the game” initiatives:
• The junior Pass Program, which enables children ages 8-16 to attend Masters with an accredited patron.
• The Par-3 Contest, the family-friendly fun event before the Masters, is now televised on Wednesday afternoon.
• The creation of a video game that features Augusta National.
• The Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship, which helps give players from that part of the world a chance to earn a trip to the Masters.
• Under Payne’s tenure, Augusta National also added its first female members when Darla Moore and Condoleezza Rice were admitted in 2012.
“So we are committed to the sport of golf, to introducing golf to the next generation, and I suspect that we’ll stay on that track well into the future,” Payne said at last year’s Masters.
Most recently, Augusta National, the USGA and the R&A will start the Latin America Amateur Championship. The Asia-Pacific Amateur has already produced two success stories in Hideki Matsuyama and Tianlang Guan, and the governing bodies expect the same.
“I think what we propose to the bring to the table is opportunity and see where that opportunity, the way the kids react to it, see where that takes us, hoping for a result akin to what we have experienced in Asia,” Payne said in January.
With golf returning to the Olympics in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, the game will get considerable attention in Latin America.
“The return to golf to the Olympics in 2016 has already begun to spur expansion around the world and we have to believe this championship will do the same thing in the Latin America communities,” said Mike Davis, executive director of the USGA.
‘Game for a lifetime’
Augusta enjoys a unique place in golf with its famous connections, but it is not immune to some of its economic issues.
The city-owned Augusta Municipal Golf Course has struggled to turn a profit in recent years, and maintenance of the course became so sporadic that it is not an attractive option for many players. But after cleanup from February’s ice storm, it will be open as an 18-hole course for Masters Week.
Earlier this year, the privately owned Mount Vintage Plantation Golf Club near North Augusta closed because it couldn’t pay its bills. It filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January, and a court-appointed receiver is looking into reopening the course.
At the First Tee of Augusta, however, the picture is more encouraging. Opened in 2001, the nonprofit bills itself as a youth development program that teaches life skills and leadership through golf.
And while its programs are aimed at children, it is reaching out to attract more adults with a $30 per month membership that includes unlimited golf and driving range privileges and half price golf car fees.
“It’s now like going out to movies,” Jill Brown, executive director of the local chapter, said of the membership drive. “You’re not having to commit to hundreds of dollars of fees. We’ve gotten a really positive response. It’s kind of a neat thing to watch, having more people. It generates awareness of our facility, and exposes new people to our facility.”
More than 300 golfers came to the First Tee of Augusta for two local qualifiers for the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship, but no players from the Augusta area made it all the way to the finals.
“To see people drive from North Carolina and other neighboring states to be a part of this, I can say that it was a huge motivator for parents,” Brown said. “If it didn’t do anything but spark the interest to try, that was huge.”
She has no doubt that many of her First Tee participants will be tuned in today, and perhaps dreaming of a chance when they will reach the finals.
Nathan, the senior vice president of the National Golf Foundation, applauds the decision to use one of golf’s most famous courses for the final stage.
“If someone had any budding interest in golf, the opportunity to make the national finals at Augusta National would be the greatest motivation anyone would have,” Nathan said.
“If that carrot, that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, is what it takes to get them more involved in golf, clearly that is a more important result than wining a medal,” he said. “Golf is a game for a lifetime.”