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A One-on-One Approach to Growth

As 2004 begins, organizations all over golf ' the First Tee, the National Golf Course Owners Association, and many others ' will be putting their corporate weight behind efforts to grow the game, as they do every year. They do a fine job, and their intentions are always good.
But to jump-start golf growth, heres an idea: Instead of just using golf companies and organizations to attract golfers, use golfers.
Whos more passionate about golf than golfers? For the same reason that consumer products companies put people in their TV commercials, golf should make better use of its people to promote the game. Its a basic truth of human relations: People listen better to people they know, one on one, than to corporations. And unfortunately, there can occasionally be a tendency to mistrust conglomerations of people, especially when profit is involved, even if the group means well.
Heres the formula, then: Each one teach one. Well, more accurately, each one bring one to golf. The math goes something like this: If, of the nations 26 million adult golfers, 6 million (the generally accepted size of the avid-player segment) each introduced one person to the game, there would be 6 million new golfers by next New Years Day, right? OK, not everyone will do it, and not everyone who comes to the game will stay. But if even, say, 10 percent ' 600,000 new golfers ' stay with the game, thats overall annual growth of more than 2 percent.
The number of adult golfers grew 1.6 percent between 2001 and 2002 with the help of programs then in place. What could happen if we were to add a concerted grass-roots effort to those initiatives? And if each of those new golfers spend $300 their first yearyou get the idea.
The idea sounds so reasonable, as if it couldnt possibly fail. But before we start setting up the lemonade stand (the last time most of us felt that sure about a business plan), it should be admitted that its not a sure thing.
Its intuitive, thats for sure, says Joe Beditz, president and CEO of the National Golf Foundation. All our research over the last 20 years shows that 90 percent of people who come to the game have been introduced by a family member or friend. So in a sense, its already happening.
My problem with it is that there are still more former golfers than golfers. The attrition is too high.
And that may be because of a problem that plagues all grass-roots efforts: Lack of uniformity. After all, the way I introduce someone to this enticing but difficult game may differ from your method.
Taking someone to the driving range and giving them a bucket of balls and a driver isnt going to do it, Beditz says. Theyll try for awhile, then say, Thanks, but not my cup of tea.
Instead, take them for a walk around the course to show them how beautiful it is. Buy them a beer and a hot dog in the clubhouse. Then ask, Do you like this ambience? Would you like to look into it some more?.
Beditzs plan of attack, although a good one, may not be the same you or I would choose, but every successful plan will have this in common with others: Forethought.
If I would really take it seriously, finding out who would be right for the game ' lets say its my friend Bob, says Mark King, president and CEO of TaylorMade-adidas Golf. I have to ask myself: Does Bob have the time? The discretionary income? Is he competitive? If all these things line up, great; youve got something. But if you just ask your neighbor, Hey Al, lets play golf, well, youd probably get a return of less than 1 percent.
Spoken like a true businessman. Beditz, King and others in the industry agree that if a grass roots campaign were to succeed, it would require some sort of support and follow-up network, be it the cooperation of pros for lessons, regional repositories of used clubs for newcomers concerned about cost, or flighted tournaments to give newbies something to look forward to.
This is where the private sector can come in big. The kind of support necessary to make the grass roots sprout can usually be provided at relatively low cost. Some of the infrastructure is in place already: Nike, for example, has golf learning centers at 66 courses throughout the country.
But whatever is done by way of grass-roots encouragement has to be accomplished without too much brandishing of corporate logos. In this advertising-drenched age, its difficult for some consumers to fight the inclination to see profit motive behind even the most altruistic acts. Unfortunately, some people are suspicious of something for nothing, or something for little.
And although the private sectors game-growing efforts are beginning to gather momentum, thanks in large part to the energetic leadership of M.G. Orender, president of the PGA of America, the one thing those efforts lack is the one thing they need most: An already-known, friendly face to start the process. Even solid local programs that have been drawing players to the game, such as the LinkUp2Golf program first tested in 2001 at eight courses in Raleigh, N.C., cant compete with that initial contact. (However, the LinkUp program, also called Play Golf America, is expanding to seven markets, plus seven military bases, and happy newcomers have been recruiting friends.)
If you choose to start right away, even without organized follow-up in place, go right ahead. And let me know how it goes. It can be anyone, by the way. I found a perfectly good three-year-old at my house who was willing to oblige. A couple times each week, we hit balls at the range, pop a few on the putting green, and have a fine time.
So far, so good.
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