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National Golf Day a success on Capitol Hill

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WASHINGTON – In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Congress took legislative action to provide desperately needed relief to the Gulf Coast. Excluded from the relief bill, was golf and the facilities damaged by a 100-year storm. Golf facilities were ineligible for aid from the bill, lumped together with businesses like massage parlors and casinos.

It was that slight – repeated since in other legislative exclusions – to a game perceived as a niche for well-to-do Caucasian men that coalesced the industry to convince Washington of the widespread positive impact the game has on the economy. Four years later, a golf industry group called We Are Golf convened for the fifth National Golf Day in Washington.

'We don't want to be given special treatment compared to other industries. We just want to play from the same set of tees,' PGA of America CEO Joe Steranka said Wednesday.

The idea behind the day remains the same as the first in 2008: designate a different kind of demo day for Congressional representatives and their staff to share golf as more than an activity for leisure or campaign fundraising.

The day is organized around a two-pronged strategy of work and play.

In the foyer of the Rayburn House Office Building, the coalition built the golf equivalent of a McDonald's Play Place – a golf simulator, brief lessons from Michael Breed of 'The Golf Fix' and a putting contest pitting the two parties against each other. Though California Democrat Joe Baca was among the first to wield the flat stick, the Republicans won the day.

Meanwhile, the game's envoys met behind closed doors to lobby for industry-friendly bills, such as tax cuts supported by representative Eric Cantor (R-VA) and a proposal by Ron Kind (D-WI) and Spencer Bachus (R-AL) to remove the golf exclusion from future disaster relief legislation.

Steranka was one of the ambassadors, making one last, windy trip under, around and throughout Congressional office buildings to praise the golf industry before he steps aside from his post at year's end. He recalled a particular eureka moment emblematic of the broader change the day aims to produce.

'I was telling Congressman Baca earlier that when we first got here (when he was chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus), he was an avid fan of the game, but more the sport. He liked the PGA Tour, watching on TV,' Steranka explained. 'When we dove into the economic impact studies – including the state-by-state numbers – in the state of California, the sport of golf provides some 160,000 jobs. That changed the tone of conversation from golf being a part of the entertainment sector to being a conversation about jobs.'

Stephen Mona, CEO of the World Golf Foundation which organizes National Golf Day, believes the message is sticking.

'I think there's been a sea change here. We came from having no profile here collectively to today, in a number of meetings we're having, the congressmen can almost recite our impact back to us,' he said. 'We feel very good about our ability over the last five years to get out our message and change the dialogue about golf.'

The talking points are recited rote, but bear repeating amid the saturnine tone from many in the game concerning participation.

The industry claims $76 billion of economic impact, leading to billions in philanthropy. The game's green spaces can be environmental sanctuaries.

The average round of golf is $25 with margins stretched almost invisible by the Great Recession – a difficult reality for entrepreneurs running small businesses that employ 40-50 people, summing almost 2 million jobs. 

The downturn no doubt also affected some of the 23 million golfing Americans. That collective is closer to 10 percent of the population than the reviled One Percent. Only one in 10 golfers belong to a private club with more than 85 percent of rounds played at daily fee courses.

Though the mantra appears to have done some good, some representatives can testify to the game's virtue without coaching.

Dan Burton, a Republican representative from Indiana and former chairman of the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform, became the power broker he is today because of his exposure to the game.

'Golf had more to do with changing my life than almost anything. We had very difficult problems when I was a kid and one of my buddies told me that I ought to go caddie. I said, 'What's a caddie?' The first day I caddied, I decided I wanted to learn that game,' he said.

'It's made a big difference. As a matter of fact, it might sound hard to believe, but I don't think I would have become a businessman or a congressman if I hadn't started playing golf when I was a kid because my stepfather wanted me to go into the foundry business. But I didn't want to because I wanted to be like the guys I caddied for.'

For every Burton, there are other representatives not so smitten with the game and its economic footprint, or are frankly focused elsewhere. The work to reach those representatives continues on Capitol Hill as powerful lobbying firm Podesta Group will continue on behalf of We Are Golf until the golf rodeo comes into town again next year.

While the day was deemed a success, like Earth Day, every day is Golf Day.