• Alistair Tait

Who are we growing golf for?

It’s a question that’s been spinning around my head a lot recently, but especially over the last two days after writing about the pending closure of municipal courses in Scotland.

Many people got in touch to agree that the loss of public facilities cuts off an important avenue into the game. As Stephen Smith, specialist sport psychologist and a business psychologist, pointed out:

“The loss of municipal tracks can only make access to golf psychologically more difficult and people will find other/easier paths to explore.”

Steve Scott, the Dundee Courier’s excellent golf and rugby correspondent, wrote a marvellous piece last year lamenting the pending closure of Camperdown in Dundee, where he learned to play the game. He paints a bleak picture for the future of public golf when he states:

“Whatever theory you have for this happening and if you find it regrettable, one sympathises, but it’s still reality and we’re not going back.”

Three years ago, golf professional Roger Yates wrote a similar piece to my blog yesterday. He brings up a very good point

“Were these various courses to have been managed more effectively by those with responsibility for their fiscal performance, and perhaps with more support from golf's governing bodies, then perhaps there would not have been the need for such radical innovation now.”

Did the game miss a trick for so many years by not investing in public golf courses to make sure they would, indeed, provide a secure pathway into the game, especially for children from poorer backgrounds? If muni courses continue to disappear then will golf revert to its popular image as a pastime for the well off?

Smith brings up the question of diversity and inclusion.

“Many leading financial organisations are now taking diversity and inclusion very seriously.”

Is golf? Not from where I sit.

I was at Augusta National in 1997 when Tiger Woods ran away with the Masters. That victory was supposed to herald a new age for the game that would see historical barriers breached and a diverse range of new players from all sections of society. I don’t see any evidence of that. Neither does Smith. He sent me an excellent paper he wrote for the Stephen Lawrence Trust called The Botched Hunt for the Tiger Effect – how golf missed the greatest growth opportunity in sport. He writes:

“With the coming of Tiger there would be an upsurge in demand for participation from sections of society whose only hope for involvement in golf was as a caddy or cleaning bags and shoes. With this opening to the masses the future of golf was bright and very secure. Over 20 years later it has become clear that the masses never came, the growth never happened – leaving the game in a perilous position with an ageing white population of participants that is not being replaced.”

Indeed, rather than new golfers from diverse backgrounds taking up the game in the United States, the number of golfers has actually fallen since Tiger was in his pomp. Golf club membership in the British Isles is down in that time too.

R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers is sure to repeat his “grow the game” mantra when he’s grilled by journalists in his office above the first tee at St Andrews next week. Slumbers is to be commended for making growth one of his priorities, but predecessor Peter Dawson focussed on that too.

So, if there are going to be fewer entry points into the game in future, and if there’s a lack of diversity, then just who are we trying to grow golf for?

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