The same thing may be true of modern golf. Whatever gains golf makes in becoming a game of the masses may not be enjoyed until the next generation. The reason: Elitism.
Those of us who work in the game cannot deny the lingering effects of American golf's exclusive past. Despite the participation of at least 50 million people worldwide (half of those in the U.S.), even with the development of programs such as the First Tee, golf still suffers from the vestiges of its elitist reputation.
Stop ten people on the street and you'll probably find two golfers. The remainder will have heard of Tiger Woods. But a few more questions of the remaining eight will reveal in at least half of them the notion that golf is 'a rich man's sport,' 'for country club people' - choose your catchphrase.
In popular culture, advertisements and magazine articles aimed at the early-20s set often paint golf as the bastion of those who favor plaid pants and afternoon naps. If you see an ad with a kid in baggy khaki shorts and unwashed hair playing golf, rest assured it was generated by a golf company desperate to get such youngsters to pick up a club - and not put it down.
We have no one to blame but our American selves. Or at least our ancestors. In this country, golf ignored its egalitarian Scottish roots and became the province of private clubs. (Not that there weren't private clubs in Scotland. But the rise of town links in the Auld Sod was as natural as crocuses in the spring, and access to the game for all has been a cherished tradition there since the first shepherd cut a 3-crook into a tight green.)
But here, by the 1950s each major city had (and some still have) its Catholic club, its Episcopalian club, its Jewish club, its men's club - the sad list goes on and on, a litany of criteria whose very existence flouts the goodness of golf's ideal: We shake hands on the first tee and compete, person to person, on the basis of merit and merit alone.
The effects of such behavior take a long time to slough off. Meanwhile, some golfers are made to feel unworthy of others' clubs, or to feel unworthy of any private club. And potential golfers may well feel that the game in general just isn't for anyone but the highfalutin and un-humble.
What worries me is that I see the effects of such attitudes on other sports. Tennis enjoyed a massive jump in popularity in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Seemed like everyone was hitting balls and having a fine time. But then tennis dropped off the national radar, largely because of access problems, the development of the power game, and the white-clothes-only, stay-away-from-my-private-club attitude of some players. And no amount of Agassi has helped.
Fly-fishing has a similar problem. Here is an admittedly expensive sport that doesn't seem to want more participants. I fish, and an ad in a magazine I used to receive regularly lamented the recent surge of greenhorns, saying, 'Don't worry. Soon they'll make a movie about some other sport.' The copy refers to A River Runs Through It, the 1992 Robert Redford movie that attracted many to fly-fishing's bucolic benefits. Funny way to treat potential customers.
Kudos to the First Tee and any program that extols the virtues of golf while keeping things light and welcoming. Can you imagine a world where more people played golf than didn't? Would the world be more mature? Would fewer people cut each other off on I-95? Would fair play increase noticeably?
I'd sure like to find out.