Scourge or Savior? Varying Perspectives on the "Social Golfer"

The message finally seems to be resonating throughout the golf business world: for this industry to be sustainable it's going to need to embrace some changes.

A decade of decline in participation, which ironically coincided with a period of overheated development, has left many who make their living in golf, in a precarious position.  A position that doesn't allow for an exclusionary image... or even the perception of one.

From the PGA of America's recently unveiled Golf 2.0 to the USGA's "Tee it Forward" initiative, to the ongoing efforts The First Tee there's a fresh emphasis on increased accessibility and openness ...on making the game less intimidating and more friendly, fun, affordable. The theory is that all those good things will make a wider swath of the population want to take up the game... and stick with it. Women, families and young people... under-represented among today's golf population... are being courted with particular zeal, as they clearly represent the best hope for growth.

However, while strategic plans reflect this change in direction, and industry stakeholders appear to have collectively embraced it,  I'm not sure everyone's being completely honest with themselves when it comes to welcoming a new... and different... attitude to the golf course.

This thought came to me while reading a recent article by inspiring LPGA player, Judy Rankin.  In Breaking With Tradition, the Hall of Fame golfer writes about the often subtle, country club "traditions" that continue to make the game less-than-welcoming, ...and suggests some smart, out-of-the-box actions to address the twin issues of time and difficulty, so often cited as barriers.

The 26 time LPGA Tour winner is clearly an advocate for upping the openness and accessibility of golf, none-the-less, towards the end of her article there were a couple of paragraphs that made me wonder if avid, competitive golfers are really ready to welcome the "social golfer".

What can women do to help promote change? For starters, we can approach golf more like a sport and less like a social event. A round of golf, although friendly, should not be a chat session. You wouldn't take a break from your serve in tennis to talk for a minute. Women are faster than the general perception, but some could still play faster.

Female golfers also need to step it up on the equipment side. Good equipment is crucial to better play for slower swing speeds. Women should get informed about what's new, and those who can afford it should experiment. Technology levels the playing field, and we need to invest in the game that now really wants to invest in us.

Now here's the thing, I know quite a few golfers (including times ...myself) who play purely for fun.  They rarely keep score and aren't particularly concerned with setting or achieving goals.  This may be due to lack of time or they may just not be competitive by nature.  These folks enjoy "the game", "the social event" and "the outdoor experience" in equal parts, and they generally play with used balls and equipment that's slightly, um, "retro",  but... they're as well-versed in golf etiquette as the most avid competitive golfers, thus pace-of-play is never a problem with them. In fact, they often find themselves slowed down by the more "competitive, goal-oriented types" who A. search endlessly for their expensive lost balls B. mark every single putt C. spend excessive time reading greens D. obsessively wash their balls and replace their club covers.

Don't get me wrong, I see where Judy Rankin is coming from and agree that players... male or female... who don't adhere fully to the rules of golf etiquette and pace-of-play are an anathema to the game.  What concerns me though, is that in the midst of this unprecedented industry-wide effort to grow the game and keep players in it, there may still be a substantial block of "avid golfers" who aren't quite ready to set out the welcome mat for anyone they consider a "social golfer".  In fact, there's already ample evidence of this on the golf message boards.

The fact is, "Social Golfers" will need to be a key part of any strategy that aspires to drive new players to the game and even more so when the goal involves re-engaging lapsed players.  What this makes clear to me is that the programs being put into place to grow the game must include new and innovative approaches to communicating, teaching and reinforcing golf etiquette.  More than anything else this may eventually lead to a warmer welcome for new players and a more positive  perspective on "Social Golfers".