As participation rates in golf have declined, there's been no end of discussion about "growing the game." It's become perhaps the game's most widely-used phrase. But is it possible in today's fast-moving culture? Attention spans seem to diminish daily, for one thing. One important issue, meanwhile, is how to get youngsters into the game. Are they even interested?
I sat down recently at a north Toronto café with Conor O'Shea, a thoughtful young professional who works with kids all the time at the Piper's Heath Golf Club in Milton, Ont. O'Shea, 30, worked closely with swing coach Sean Foley at Piper's Heath. Foley helped him develop some of his thinking about the swing and about working with students—always an art as much or more as a science. Conor is fully engaged in social media, of course, and has posted imaginative, five-minute lessons at @whygolftv, his Twitter handle.
Conor, who is 30, wrote a splendid, illustrated kids' book that was published in 2008 and is called Marcus' Golfing Adventures. He's also done a read-along DVD called Marcus' Golfing Adventures: Marcus' First Tournament. The short book has text in stanzas on the left side of each page, and Brentton Barkman's entertaining illustrations on the facing page.
Marcus starts to play on his own, but soon Kevin, a teaching professional, comes to his assistance. They work on the range, and then play together. At one point, Kevin says, "Golf's a game that you master/first, in your head. Picture it happening/You've the power to do it. The game becomes easier/when you put your mind to it."
The book takes about 10 minutes to read and I'd be surprised if it didn't put a smile on every reader's face. As Foley writes on the back cover, "This book will help kids understand that life and golf should not be judged, but rather experience and enjoyed."
As we chatted, it was apparent to me that Conor is deeply involved in the matter of getting kids interested in golf, and helping them maintain their interest. This is why he posts the short lessons to YouTube. He and other young instructors such as Shawn Clement and Jason Helman. know they have to be fully conversant with social media in their work, and to come up with innovative teaching methods.
Clement gave Conor some very good advice a while ago.
"His main message was to put it out there and it will come back to you 10-fold," Conor said. He mentioned a kid from Michigan who found him online and drove to Piper's Heath to spend three days with him.
"Golf needs to be more open," Conor told me. "It can't have any more secrets like [Ben] Hogan." He was referring to the so-called "Hogan secret, of which many articles and books have been written.
Secrets certainly wouldn't appeal to youngsters used to posting personal material to Facebook and to informing others via Foursquare about where they are at any moment. Conor refers to this cohort as the "Google generation."
"They ask, 'Why isn't it easy?' Why can't I download it? The biggest challenge for kids is to realize golf is hard, and that they have to stick to it. But that doesn't mirror what's going on in our culture," Conor said, based on his experiences teaching young golfers.
He went on, and said that the most fun he has—after all, he's connected virtually all the time as well—is when he plays a tournament and has four hours away from his phone. He can play, too, although he's so busy teaching that he doesn't have much time to practice. He played in the recent PGA Championship of Canada at the Magna Golf Club in Aurora, Ont.
Conor was two-under-par in his opening match but lost 2&1 to Ron Kenesky, an assistant pro at the Twenty Valley club in Vineland, Ont. He then tried regional qualifying on July 2nd at the Greystone Golf Club in Milton, Ont. Conor shot 74 and missed advancing by three shots. He believes it's important to compete and keep his game in shape so that he can better identify with tournament golfers.
Still, there's the challenge of keeping a youngster's interest, and this can be true even when he's working at what he calls his "very boutique" golf school at Piper's Heath. It's run like a college program. Participants practice 10 months a year, at Piper's Heath during golf season and indoors during the off-season. Most of the kids in this program are 13-18 years old. Their endgame, Conor said, is college golf.
"The next wave of golfers," he continued, "is so reliant on technology. I find this interesting. Their instincts for the game are thwarted by technology."
He pointed out that a shot of 75 yards according to a rangefinder is not necessarily 75 yards.
"You might have to land the ball on a slope," he said. But, and I agree with him, "Imagination is neglected" when a golfer relies solely on yardage. Players in next week's Open Championship at the Muirfield Golf Club in Gullane, Scotland will need to trust their instincts on what is shaping up to be a dry and firm links.
This will also be true for the remarkable Inbee Park when she tries to win her fourth major in a row at the Ricoh Women's British Open Aug. 1-4 at the Old Course in St. Andrews. Park is going for her fourth straight tournament win in this week's Manulife Financial LPGA Classic at the Grey Silo Golf Course in Waterloo, Ont. Here's my Globe colleague Robert MacLeod's look at Park after she spoke to the media this week.
Conor, for his part, knows that the Google generation of golfers isn't going to abandon technology, nor does he advocate that. It's about balance, he said.
The most relevant question when he first sees a student, Conor believes, is this: "Tell me about your game." As he pointed out to me, "There's so much content now, but not enough context. You have to speak to people, to hear them. It's not my experience, it's theirs."
The experience for many young golfers can be very good, if instructors can find ways to keep them engaged. Conor is in the vanguard of teachers as he opens his mind to innovative ways of coaching. After chatting with him for an hour, I felt that it's possible to interest the Google generation in golf. He and his colleagues believe that, obviously. They're not backing down from the challenge.
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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association's first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada's Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round's on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf's Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein