Growing the Game

Until Jordan Spieth came along, I felt young. Running around in my early 20s talking to professional golfers 20 years my elder was somehow referred to as “work” and it offered a sense of youth showered in responsibility that just felt cool. That was until Spieth crashed the party.

Maybe I’m still considered young, but 23 is nowhere near as cool as 21 (or at least I’d like to think so). For years I reveled in the fact that no golfer younger than me had won a major championship. Now that I don’t feel so young anymore, the former athlete in me ponders our differences in adolescence.

Somewhere along the line, Spieth chose golf. A long, long time ago he found his passion, worked incredibly hard on the dream-chasing path, and found a life he wouldn’t trade for another. One thing in that journey can’t be forgotten, though.

Due in part to various barriers to entry, golf is almost always passed on from one person to another. Not genetically, obviously, but as a hobby, a passion or lifestyle. Golf is not passed along like kickball is on the playground. The prior paragraph could start “Somewhere along the line, someone helped Spieth choose golf.” Whether that source was his father, his mother, his dad’s dad, a teacher, someone helped Spieth choose golf simply by taking him to a course, getting him some clubs, or just making an introduction. This is true for everyone in that echelon of the sport.

Spieth’s ascendance to challenge centuries-worth of golf history has been as entertaining as golf has been for nearly a decade, and though his young career rests on an international scale, it brings to light an issue that is locally significant: golf isn’t very popular among youth, especially in Door County.

The sport sits low on a long list of activities that are faster-paced, accessible and cheap. For many it’s an afterthought type of activity in the gorgeous play season of Door County, but that doesn’t mean it’s dead. Multiple local courses have either a junior golf program or junior discount rates simply begging for attention.

These programs have been around for decades, but I regrettably never took advantage of them when I was young (as other activities took precedence). There’s regret not because I never won a major championship like Spieth, but because, in hindsight, there was a future passion going untapped during some of my most impressionable years.

Golf isn’t always about million-dollar paychecks, exclusive, ritzy courses and an inescapable sense of aristocracy. Even the 21-year-old “Golden Child” from Dallas would say that connections are everywhere in the game. Connections are the reason he landed his caddie and great friend Michael Greller, who stands alongside Spieth in the weekly chase for those millions-dollar paychecks on Tour.

For many, golf can be a hobby just like pick-up hoops, where the same gang plays the same game once a week, every week. But, with the right introduction, it can be much, much more in an industry so expansive to include teachers, writers and inventors. To hear that participation in youth or junior golf in Door County is about as low as it has ever been in the last decade sounds like a lot of untapped connections.

Now, an article such as this, which generalizes golf’s struggle in transitioning between generations, is nothing new, but it can offer a small solution. An article such as this and the issue behind it is decades upon decades old, much like the people who love the game most. I’m talking about senior citizens and retired grandparents who still tee it up and adore the fairways, greens and bunkers.

It was one year ago this month that I drove down a winding cart path alongside Johnny Miller, a hall-of-fame golfer from the 1970s and 80s, who now doubles as a color commentator for NBC. Miller knows the game as well as anyone and when asked what he sees in its future, his quick response showed a few year’s worth of thought.

“It comes down to the grandparents,” Miller said. The exactness of the rest of our conversation is now lost from memory, but with hardworking parents unable to commit much time of their own busy schedules, grandparents can play a significant role in growing the game by simply getting children on a golf course and a club in their hands. (Forgive me if Door County has turned on its side in the past year, but there are many senior citizens golfing in Door County every single day.)

Behind the scenes of professional golf, future connections, hobbies, maybe even multi-million-dollar careers are stagnant, waiting. Sometimes all it takes is that introduction. Yes, even in Door County.