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The boom you hear in the distance? That could that be 78 million new golfers

By Ron Garl, Special Contributer

Based in Lakeland, Fla., Ron Garl has won national and international awards, from Golf Digest, the Audubon Society, Golf Magazine, Links Magazine and Southern Living, among others. He was named "Golf Designer of the Year" by the International Network of Golf in 1996.

For the past few years, there has been a lot of talk throughout the golf industry about growing the game. Let's face it; golf is struggling to retain the players it has. There are many reasons why this is happening, but there's still time to change the course.

One of the key problems the game has is the overwhelming attention given to junior golf. While programs such as the First Tee definitely have merit, they're not going to grow the game in the manner that's needed. If youth programs translated into future players and/or fans, almost every kid in America who plays youth soccer would become big soccer fans and the games would be sold out.

However, that isn't the case. What's needed is income. Equipment manufacturers need it and golf course owners need it. Kids aren't consumers. While they may be the future of the game, they can do little for the present.

If something isn't done about the present, who will survive for the future? There are those who say that if the child takes an interest in the game, the parents will follow. That's leaving a lot to chance and it's also putting the cart before the horse.

The biggest potential growth area for the golf industry is the baby boomer. Currently, there are 78 million baby boomers and every seven seconds someone in the United States turns 50. Moreover, and this is important, these 78 million baby boomers have 10 percent of the money in the world.

Now, whom does it make sense to target if you want to grow the game of golf? Kids or baby boomers?

Not to be overlooked is the fact that since this has been the most financially successful generation in history; they're not working as long. Rather than retire to a sedentary life, they're looking to remain active. At their age, they're in better physical condition than their parents were at a comparable age and actuarial tables tell them they're going to live longer than any generation before them.

To date, the golf industry has one program that applies to this segment of society. It's called Link Up 2 Golf. It's a program that came out of Golf 20/20, an annual industry-wide meeting with a mission to grow the game.

While Link Up 2 Golf has enormous potential, it's still in the embryonic stage and has little more than pilot program status. It's administered by the PGA of America and, after three years, has yet to become a national program. To be honest, there isn't time to wait for this program to grow wings. It's time for a call to action throughout the golf industry now.

How does the golf industry entice the baby boomer into the game? There are many ways, but first, we have to realize that golf is the most difficult game to play in the world. So many athletes, who are stars in their game, throw up their hands in amazement because they can't master putting that little white ball in a hole.

We also have to realize that the golf course can be an intimidating environment. It's not just a place where you can walk out the door onto the course and know what's expected of you.

Golfers take the rules of etiquette for granted. To non-golfers they're akin to the rules of engagement. The National Golf Course Owners' Association has a great Web site geared toward making golf beginner friendly. It can be found at getlinkedplaygolf.com. It can help build a real comfort zone for the beginning golfer.

A major player in the introduction of the baby boomer to the game of golf should be the practice range operators and golf course owners. Before the baby boomer ventures out on the course where there is a structure of success versus failure, it makes sense to first gain some semblance of confidence. The range and short game practice area is the perfect site for confidence building.

Regularly scheduled clinics teaching the very basics of the golf swing for newcomers is a must. Make these clinics for non-golfers only, so everyone starts on the same level. This eliminates any intimidation by a more experienced golfer. It also builds unity and unity builds confidence.

By making use of practice ranges, the new golfer won't feel like he or she has to make a tremendous time commitment. Time management will eliminate an excuse to not attend - an important factor in the early development of a baby boomer golfer.

Part of any curriculum in the development of the baby boomer golfer should be ego training. The baby boomer golfer shouldn't feel that they have to go to the back tees to prove their manhood when their game merits playing from all sets of tees.

By all means, selection of the proper tees should be stressed continually. Trying to prove something by going back a set of tees can only cause problems. Chances are, the experience will be negative and it won't take too many frustrating experiences to make the baby boomer a former golfer.

The people in my field, golf course architecture, should be part of the solution and not part of the problem. There are already enough golf courses that are unplayable for 95 percent of the golfers in the world.

Anyone can build a tough golf course. What's needed is the creativity and imagination to design a course that is challenging for the better players while being playable and engaging for the less experienced.

Moreover, we have to realize who is going to be playing these courses and take them into consideration during the design process. If there's another person turning 50 every seven seconds, then there's a good chance that a high number of the golfers are going to be over the age of 50.

Several years ago, I participated in a series of articles with Senior Golfer Magazine. In the articles, I discussed design philosophy as it concerned the senior golfer. At the end of the articles there was a survey and the questions dealt with such things as: How far does your average tee shot fly in the air? How far do you hit each iron? Do you hit the ball from left to right or right to left? Would you rather hit the ball over water or sand?

There were more than 15,000 responses. The information we gathered was extremely interesting and I used the data concerning shot making and design preferences in designing the senior tees at Eaglebrooke Golf Club in Lakeland, Fla. (We have continued the use of this research ever since and it has proved to be very successful.)

The first thing we learned was that golfers who are age 50 and older are more concerned about the game than the younger golfers. This is yet another indicator as to why the baby boomers should be the principle growth area today. If we can get them into the game, they're more likely to stay in the game.

The second thing we learned is that the seniors are more active than we anticipated. This bodes well for the game. Not only are the baby boomers more likely to stay in the game, they'll play more than younger golfers. This translates into more equipment sales and rounds played. Everything across the board is a positive.

To their credit, the equipment industry has responded positively when considering the baby boomer. They've designed golf balls that fly farther. The advent of the senior flex shaft has helped keep people in the game because they can still get the ball in the air. The various materials used in the club head construction has contributed to the positive experience baby boomers can have.

While golf will most likely always be the most difficult game to play and will never be mastered, it can be made more manageable by these advances and thus more enticing to the aging newcomer.

The time has come and the opportunity has never been better to grow the game, but the greatest growth should come from the baby boomers to have the necessary positive effect on the industry.

This is definitely not a cry to eliminate any junior programs. The First Tee is not only destined to have effect on the game of golf, but on society as well. Any program that can provide those attributes is extremely worthwhile.

The time has come for the golf industry to adjust its focus. The non-golfing baby boomers missed an opportunity to be a part of the greatest game in the world earlier in life, let's not let this opportunity pass them by. Let's reach out and include them.

If we do, we'll preserve the game and the industry as we know them and we will find that the golden age of the game is yet to come.

Ron GarlRon Garl, Special Contributer

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