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Growing the Game

By Brian Summerfield

3. Focus on Fun and Family

Altobello said the youth program he runs at his club has just three rules:

  1. Have fun
  2. Be safe
  3. Have fun

That's not a typo. "Have fun" is listed twice because it's that important. Essentially, this is the key to sustaining golf and growing it to its full potential in the future. The game needs to become fun again, and not just for people who already play it obsessively. Perhaps the quickest and easiest way to do this is by leaving the scorecards behind, Pioppi said. If clubs and their members and players can loosen up about keeping score, newcomers won't find the sport so intimidating.

"For people getting introduced to the game who are looking for something to do that's fun, we have to put the scorecard away," he said. "I don't think people should worry about finishing a hole, or the fact that they're hitting 9 on a par 3. Keeping score isn't always an integral part of the game. We should look at it as if we're going to a basketball court and just shooting around. We have to try to get people to just approach golf like that."

Pioppi has even used this approach to get his girlfriend into golf.

"She has a blast," he said. "But we play it this way: We don't take a scorecard, and if she takes so many shots that she gets frustrated, she just picks up. And when we get to the green or to my shot, she'll drop and take another shot. She'll putt or chip or something, and then we'll move on. I don't even really know what I shoot. I'm just out there having fun."

Another key for growing the game of golf is getting families back into it—not so much for the kids, but for their parents, today's Generation Xers and older Millennials.

"The world's a very different place than it was 25 or 30 years ago," Altobello said. "When people who got into it as kids reach college age or become young adults, it's much more difficult for them to participate in the game. There are the costs associated with it, though I'm not sure that's the biggest issue. It just becomes a time factor. People today are much busier with their kids and their jobs than they ever were in the past. Whether you can get them back in their thirties … well, that's an interesting question."

Fortunately, golf can indeed be a family activity. Recently, Pioppi has seen families of four riding around courses in golf carts, with parents playing the start of a hole and letting their children take over when they get on or near the green to take a putt or a chip shot. This not only qualifies as quality bonding time, it also gets the kids into the game by teaching it to them "backwards" — that is, from putting to driving, rather than the other way around.

"They have this feeling of accomplishment right away as they get adept at a legitimate portion of the game," he said. "And it's really fun to stand around and putt, even for me. I've done that with people who are just starting to learn the game: 'Let's just go putt for a little while.' And then we'll just go from there."

Though it might seem new, that family- and community-oriented approach represents a return to the roots of golf, which started out as a somewhat egalitarian and definitely social sport.

"The Old Course at St. Andrews can be played by anybody," Nuzzo said. "The young kid or the grandmother can go out and get started there, and enjoy it."