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Jay Busbee

Believe it or not, we need more kids on golf courses

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You know how golf is all about enjoying the verdant cathedrals that are our finest courses, how every move you make is soundtracked by tinkling piano music and bird calls, how you can reconnect with your family while walking quasi-mythical fairways, how every swing makes you part of an historic lineage that stretches back to Scotland?

Yeah, as wonderful as all that stuff is, it really bores the snot out of anybody under the age of 25. And that's a huge problem for golf.

Monday's Wall Street Journal focuses on the precipitous drop in youth participation in golf. For instance, the article notes, the National Golf Foundation has indicated that the number of golfers ages 6 to 17 dropped 24 percent, from 3.8 million to 2.9 million, from 2005 to 2008.

Strangely, the First Tee program, which catches kids at a very young age, has taken off over that same time period. So what's happened to let kids drift away from golf as they grow older?

The Journal has a good angle on why, pointing to tennis as an example of what to do right with kids. (Yes, tennis did something right. I know, I can't believe it either.) Tennis doesn't start kids on a full-sized court; it offers a "QuickStart" setup that lets kids play on a court one-fourth the size of a regulation court. Certainly, that's not feasible in every situation with golf, but is there more that golf could do to get away from its long-held assumptions about the way a round should be played?

One of golf's greatest benefits -- the ability to get away from one's day-to-day life (i.e. spouse, kids, work, to-do list) -- is also becoming one of its greatest drawbacks. Families often don't have time to spend six hours with their kids at a local public course. Joshua Jacobs, CEO of Total Golf Adventures, an afterschool golf program, has an astute quote in the Journal:

"The future of golf not only for kids but for families has got to beshort-course facilities, like the nine-hole executive course that wrapsaround the range, or the pitch-and-putt next to the larger course," hesaid. "People aren't spending money on the lessons or on privatecourses with $75 green fees. You have to make golf affordable andaccessible and I'm not sure the game is equipped for that yet."

Others argue that golf pros need to start their teaching on the putting green and work backward to the tee, giving kids time to build up to a longer swing, and thus enjoy earlier success along the way.

Regardless of what happens, golf will always be with us. But if golf is serious about making itself more than just a game of the privileged, it needs to let go of some old assumptions about teaching and accessibility.

Might it be time to wriggle out of the hammerlock that golf's history has on its present? Times are changing, and the longer that golf hangs on to rules and expectations that verge on antiquated in the 21st century, the closer the game comes to being a niche sport.

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