Pro golf's ongoing battle overshadows 1 huge positive

Another email arrives from the National Golf Foundation. They’re biased in favor of this game, of course, but the numbers are numbers. They don’t lie.

“New Heights for Golf Tourism?” was the subject line. It didn’t need the question mark. The info: More people are traveling for golf than ever before. 

You click through to NGF.org and find an endless stream of reports. Rounds played in March were up 21% this year. Good weather, of course. But rounds in 2023 were up 4% from 2022. And rounds in 2022 were up 16% from before the global pandemic. People have taken to this sport for the competition, the tranquility, its traditions, its difficulty and its social scene — but have they taken to enjoying the professional circuits? It’s a complicated topic right now.

There’s LIV, there’s the PGA Tour, there’s the DPWT — all promised to come to some sort of Kumbaya … 12 months ago. A saga that continues to carve its way into headlines and press conferences and governance decisions and — not too long ago — court cases. 

So yes, there’s quite the imbalance between the sport’s amateur ranks and its professional auteurs, and Mike Whan, CEO of the United States Golf Association — whose job is to be acutely aware of these differences — would like to get the word out. He’ll have plenty of chances to do so this summer, when the USGA hosts its men’s and women’s U.S. Opens. But until then, he’s got GOLF Originals.

For the uninitiated, GOLF Originals is a video series where GOLF senior writer Michael Bamberger spends time with people in the game he believes to be original. One of ones. David Feherty. Tom Doak. Now Mike Whan, who rose up the ranks from what he calls “bunker boy” to the head honcho of one of the game’s most important governing bodies. His opinions on the sport matter — on rules, on equipment, on distance — if only because he can help shape the game’s direction. That is, in some way, why Bamberger wanted to tee it up with Whan, on a tiny little course with an $18 greens fee. To pick the brain of one of the men in charge about a truly fascinating dichotomy. 

“In my 50 years in the game, there’s never been a moment where the public game is so strong and the professional game is so screwed up,” Bamberger said, tossing an alley-oop into the air. “That’s the gentlest way I can word it.”

Whan caught the oop and dunked it, as the smooth-talking leader of the USGA ought to be able to do.  

“I’ve said this many times — it’s so unfortunate,” Whan said, slipping back into sneakers after their round. “Obviously it’s unfortunate for the game and the guys playing it — that they’re going through that. But if we weren’t talking about that 24/7, we’d have to be talking about what’s going on in golf. And what’s going on in golf sort of gets lost in the mix of PIF and money — like you can watch 400 hours of telecasts and we won’t talk about more women, more African-Americans, more juniors — I mean, the game is exploding. 

“We would have to be talking about the game if we weren’t talking about this. So unfortunately, it’s just kind of sucking the oxygen out of the room. It’s too bad. The good news is, it’s not getting in the way of what’s going on in the rest of the game.”

The man is right. And this golf website has certainly played a role in elevating the talking points of the sport. There’s a cloud hanging over the tiny corner that is the men’s professional arena, and that’s unfortunate. The timeline for that cloud moving out of the neighborhood isn’t clear, and Whan isn’t in charge of it, so he’d rather we talk about some other demographics instead.

The line: “More women”

The info: Female participation is up 85% since 2014. 

The line: “More African-Americans”

The info: People of color playing some version of golf has doubled in the last decade.

The line: “More juniors”

The info: Modest, by comparison, but 44% gains nonetheless. 

The National Golf Foundation has all these numbers. They’ve got numbers for everything. Like the fact that the amount of people playing traditional golf right now compares more closely to the time period of 1997-1999, when the Tiger Woods Boom began. Participation peaked a few years after that, in 2003, and then began a bit of a decline during the 2008 recession, bottoming out in 2016 and 2017. It’s been pretty rosy, year-over-year, since then, and incredibly profitable to have non-traditional golf thriving away from the 18-hole courses of the world. Add up both sectors and more than 45 million people are swinging golf clubs, in one way or another. Mike Whan loves it, and he wants you to know it. You should know it, as a golfer. Perhaps more than we are aware of political machinations driving the pro game. Whan said it well, but Max Homa potentially said it best, last week at the PGA Championship:

“I hope at some point soon we can just get back to entertaining people and playing golf and seeing who shoots the lowest score and not talking about what our Player Advisory Council is going to do. The fans of golf should not know who is on the board.”

For the entire episode of GOLF Originals, check it out below. 

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