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Growing the game of golf: Retaining golfers almost as important as attracting new ones

Mike BaileyBy Mike Bailey,
Senior Staff Writer
We-Ko-Pa Golf Course - Practice Range
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Many golfers mistakenly believe the more they practice the better they will get. (Mike Bailey/WorldGolf.com)

I sometimes wonder why we play this game.

I've had my ups and downs and even had a stretch a few years ago when I consistently broke 80 and even broke par a couple of times. But lately it seems there are times when I walk off the golf course after hitting the ball poorly, thinking to myself, "If I didn't make a living in this industry, I think I'd find a better way to spend five hours."

Then I wonder about the players who have played for years and can't get their handicap under 25. Or those who have trouble getting the ball airborne. Or golfers who spend countless hours on the range, thinking the secret is in the dirt and never coming to the realization that all their practice only serves to perfect a doomed golf swing.

The truth is that many of those people actually do give up golf. I just happen to notice - and have a strange admiration for - the ones who stick with it.

You see, finding new players really isn't the problem with growing the game of golf - it's retaining them.

Why do people quit golf?

People leave the game for all sorts of reasons. Among them, according to studies commissioned by such groups such as Golf 20/20, is that golf is too expensive, takes too long to play and is too difficult.

I had this discussion with Charlie King, who writes a blog here at WorldGolf.com, and serves as director of instruction at Reynolds Golf Academy in Greensboro, Ga., the other day. He says expense is not the reason we lose players.

"People who hit the ball solidly will figure out a way to pay for it," King said.

Notice he said "hit it solidly," not straight, not even particularly long. People don't even have to score well to keep wanting to play.

There is no better feeling in golf than the butterly sensation of a solid shot, and unfortunately most players cannot achieve it with any degree of consistency. That's why golfers - even good players - are obsessed with distance. Distance and solid contact are synonymous.

When players hit the ball thin or fat - or, worst of all, shank - the game is beyond frustrating. Even if they're slicing it, that can be fixed with clubface position as long as it's being hit solidly, King said. But solid contact must come first.

The problem, he said, is the old way of teaching, which often focuses on swing models. King is more concerned with impact position and teaching players how to get the club there - not to look like Tiger Woods or Ernie Els. He says if instruction were more effective, people might enjoy the game more and stick with it.

Getting folks to the lesson tee isn't easy

Of course, getting people to see an instructor is a challenge in itself. Is it that people don't have confidence in instructors? Are they too cheap to take a lesson? Too intimidated? Too unwilling to make uncomfortable changes?

Or do they believe they can gain improvement through the latest equipment?

Amazingly, many of the same people who shell out $400 or $500 for a new driver have never taken a lesson. When I asked someone who falls into that category why, his response was that he wasn't serious enough about his game to take lessons.

Many people also believe - and probably rightly so - that one or two golf lessons will not do the trick. A series of lessons, of course, not only involves expense but commitment of time and practice as well. And most people believe there really are no guarantees of improvement no matter how many lessons you take.

Yet many who won't take lessons take up long-term residence on the practice range, practicing golf tips they read in a magazine or, worse yet, flawed techniques they learned from buddies or family members.

King's ideas about golf instruction are on the mark - read about them in his new free e-book - but there are some other factors that drive people away from the game. While expense may be overrated in terms of people quitting, the time factor isn't.

Somehow, there needs to be a paradigm shift in what constitutes the golf experience. We don't need to play "championship" golf courses all the time. Eighteen holes need not be the norm. We should be able to play nine or even six holes if we want - not forced to pay an 18-hole fee as it is at most courses - so it doesn't take all day. And match play or Stablefords - for pace of play - should be encouraged like they are in Europe.

But nine- or six-hole layouts need not be goat tracks, as short courses too often are. Why can't we have more golf courses like the 1,252-yard, par-27 Short Course at the Club at Cordillera in Colorado or even putting courses that are well maintained?

Why can't we build well-maintained courses that aren't riddled with bunkers, water hazards, thick rough and difficult greens?

Why can't we build new golf courses that are walkable - especially now that we're not winding as many courses through real estate developments?

Of course, for this to work, the golfing public has to buy into these ideas as well. And they probably won't at first. But it could be chicken and egg. If we build quality short courses and easier courses, they just might come.

Because I believe golf is more fun when you're not hunting for balls all the time. It's more fun when a round doesn't take 5 and a half hours. It's more fun when you have decent lies that make it easier to achieve solid contact.

And if golfers are having fun, they'll stay in the game.

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The Club at Cordillera - Short Course

Mike Bailey is a senior staff writer based in the Houston area. Focusing primarily on golf in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America, he contributes course reviews, travel stories and features as well as the occasional equipment review. An award-winning writer and past president of Texas Golf Writers Association, he has more than 20 years in the golf industry. Before accepting his current position in 2008, he was on staff at PGA Magazine, The Golfweek Group and AvidGolfer Magazine. Follow Mike on Twitter at @Accidentlgolfer.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • New Hybrid Golf Ball

    Pete wrote on: Jan 8, 2011

    Our executive courses were going downhill fast with fewer and fewer golfers playing.
    Read about this new Hybrid golf ball and how it instantly improves the golf experience and course. Skeptical, but ordered some. Bingo! Improves the design of the courses and the play. Works great, just like they said. First year, 20% more golfers, and all it cost us was the price of a golf ball.
    Go figure?


  • Lessons

    ray wrote on: Apr 4, 2010

    I agree with the suggestion that people take lessons. I have 3 per year, and practice what i learn in between. I have never bought a $400 or even $300 club, or set, yet have reduced my handicap from unreadable to less than 20. I continue to imporve, and thus enjoy the game more, and I love to walk.


      • RE: Lessons

        Larry wrote on: Jun 3, 2012

        Mike is correct, most golfers quit because of poor play that never gets better..Most instructors have no clue how to teach beginning golfers or high handicap golfers...I have taken lessons, and practiced for a solid year..did nothing for my improvement..As Mike said, when golfers are hitting lousy shots over and over, they lose interest and quit...I gave it up this weekend for the same reason...