If We Build an Image Participation May Come


This time of year, with baseball so near, puts me in mind of the mystic voice that promised Ray Kinsella that if he built it, they would come. So Ray leveled his cornfield and come they did, no matter who they were, in that long line of cars we saw at the end of Field of Dreams. For as James Earl Joness character put it, its money they have and peace they lack.
When you consider the variety of people who play golf in the United States, youd think the game would be some sort of great cultural leveler, offering peace and more, wealth notwithstanding. Of course, we know thats not so.
Theres a commercial lesson in that.
Ive always seen golf as the ultimate meritocracy. Strip away the caddies and/or carts, premium equipment or bargain-basement gear, silk pants or denim shorts and what you have is a contest based solely on a set of complex physical and mental abilities. You either beat your opponent (par or human), or you get beat. Completely objective, no French judges.
Class distinctions, based largely on who had wealth enough to get land for golf courses, have nothing to do with golf itself. In Scotland, the games birthplace, you were either rich (landed) or poor (paying rent). There was no middle class in the games early centuries. St. Andrews, with its legislatively protected public links, is the exception among top courses in the United Kingdom. Among those top courses, many are like Muirfield, site of this years Open Championship. Its private, and you either belong or you dont.
A species of this exclusivity came to American golf. The five clubs that began the U.S. Golf Association in 1894 ' Shinnecock Hills, St. Andrews of Yonkers, N.Y., Newport, Chicago and the The Country Club of Brookline, Mass. ' were (and still are) bastions of economic power. They attract the upper classes, and they like it that way.
Fine. People can assemble with whomever they like, and as long as there are no imbalances in benefits the law guarantees to all, they can refuse to associate with others.
But the fact remains that this game has an undeniable pull, a psychic hook that cares nothing for class distinctions.
So it is that in the space of 14 hours, I was able to discover an under-the-lights, bare-bones practice range in south Jacksonville, Fla., and a prestigious, pricey Jack Nicklaus golf course on Floridas east coast. In each place, I observed people thoroughly enjoying our favorite pastime. In each place, I overheard tales of prodigious drives and feathery short-game touch. In each place, I felt welcome as a devotee of the game.
For the equipment makers and facilities managers, the denim-clad group I found in Jacksonville and the premium-golf-shirt crew I saw at Palm Coast arent the same customer. The two groups generally buy equipment from different price tiers.
But what about selling the game to them?
Interest in golf ' playing it ' has been flat to down over recent years, as has the number of participants. It seems as many leave the game as come to it each year. The industry quandary as to what to do about that ' how to keep golf from becoming as lukewarm as tennis ' is only just now being addressed. Some people say its too late. Some see a leadership crisis in discrepancies in equipment rules.
In this climate, perhaps the best investment golfs public and private sectors could make is in a public relations campaign ' something along the lines of the USGAs really, really, really love golf theme. Let the message experts craft a campaign that takes advantage of the nations current need for unity by reminding Mr. Denim and Mrs. Lexus of the core reason they love the game, even if one likes Doritos and the other brie?
If we build that tee boxthey may come. And maybe stay.