Standing here on the first tee of the most famous course in the world, all seems at one with golf.
Grass green, sky blue, sun warm and air still. Brown thrashers – the state bird – are in full choir. All 18 holes of Augusta National and the par-three course off to the side are covered with players, exceptional players, enjoying themselves almost as much as the 40,000-or-more ecstatic fans coming to the final day of practice before the Masters begins and the world tunes in to celebrate what for so many is the first day of spring.
But all is not really as well as it might seem.
In the United States alone, the number of golfers has fallen from more than 30 million a decade ago to barely 25 million today. The number of “core” golfers – those who play eight to 24 rounds in a season – has fallen from nearly 20 million to fewer than 15 million. Yet the population grows, as do the number of courses trying to figure out how to get more people playing. Public courses have been closing.
No one is exactly sure why. Too expensive? Too difficult? Too long?
Too long to play is certainly one problem. Those covering the 2014 Masters are grateful Korean professional Kevin Na is not here, though he is a fine golfer and apparently a nice man. By the time Na finishes his practice swings and takes a shot, others have been known to climb Kilimanjaro, sail the Atlantic and read War and Peace.
It is one of the great ironies – and perhaps even great charms – of Augusta National, private club of the super-rich and super-connected, that it undertook an initiative two years ago to try and get more children interested in the game.
The diminishing-numbers situation, club chairman Billy Payne said at the time, was a “critical” issue for the future of the game.
“What ideas,” he asked in his southern drawl, “might attract kids and other groups of potential golfers to the game?
“… We must try. Golf is too precious, too wonderful, to sit on the sidelines and watch decreasing participation.”
On Sunday, Payne’s intriguing idea – he denies it was his, but no one believes him – was unveiled at Augusta. Before the professionals began their practice rounds, 88 young golfers ages seven to 15 competed in the inaugural Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals. They were selected from more than 17,000 kids who signed up to enter the competition that was held in 110 qualifiers around the country.
It was an event at times as compelling as many PGA tournaments. It was televised live on the Golf Channel. There was heartbreak – kids missing putts, long drives that bounced just out of bounds – and in the end eight champions, four boys and four girls, were named in the various age categories.
As the pros began arriving, several of them joined in, 2012 Masters champion Bubba Watson shaking hands with the participants and others, like Darren Clark and Fred Couples, stopping their own practice just to watch. Best was when defending champion Adam Scott happened to come along during one of the trophy ceremonies and agreeing to do the honours – but not, of course, until someone had fetched his green jacket for the family photos.
Golf Digest called it “a rousing success.”
With registration for 2015 already under way, the 17,000 who registered a year ago has already been surpassed in less than a week – with a cap set at 50,000 and the possibility, not fully explored, of expanding the kids competition to other countries and continents in the years beyond.
Natalie Pietromonaco, the girls’ 2012-13 champion, described it as “a life-changing experience” that was hard to explain.
Jason Day, the No. 4 golfer in the world and a strong favourite to win his first Masters, tried for her. He said he would have “loved” such an opportunity to play Augusta as a youngster.
“I think a lot of kids are going to start playing golf because of what they saw on TV,” Day told reporters earlier this week. “I was close to tears watching some of these kids, just to see the excitement and joy on their faces.”
Wednesday morning Billy Payne held his annual news conference. It might be better described as his “State of the Union” address, with questioners referring to him as “Mr. Chairman” and his green-jacketed board sitting on a raised platform back of the media.
An emotional Payne called Sunday’s children’s day at Augusta “one of the most powerful moments in my life” and claimed he was merely carrying on the mandate of Augusta’s founders, Bobby Jones and Cliff Roberts, in that they felt a “duty and obligation to give back to the game.”
One can only imagine what the imperious, wildly conservative Roberts would have thought had a child ventured on to the sacred grounds, but that is another story and, besides, as Payne himself admitted with a sly grin, “I’m known to exaggerate a little bit.”
What is important, Payne argued, “is that hundreds of thousands of other kids saw how much fun they had, sat by their televisions repeatedly telling their moms and dads that they could hit that chip even better, visualized themselves right here at Augusta next year.
“And I think in doing so, they all began the process of falling in love with the game of golf.”
Perhaps so, and a tip of the golf cap to you for that, Mr. Chairman.
But could you now do something about the amount of time it takes to play?
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