Golf's big problem: No kids

The scariest number for the golf business has nothing to do with how many days Tiger Woods will miss from the bulging disk in his neck or exactly how many mistresses he may or may not have taken up with.

It's this: According to the National Golf Foundation's most recent participation report, the number of golfers age 6-17 dropped 24 percent to 2.9 million from 3.8 million between 2005 and 2008.

Here's a reason: Want to make an eight-year-old cry? Tee up a ball for him on a 450-yard hole with a green surrounded by bunkers and tell him to hole out before the group waiting to tee off starts complaining to the course superintendent. All the testosterone-induced courses constructed over the past decade just make it worse. Kids need to start on family-friendly facilities where they can be provided with some good old-fashioned self-esteem.

What makes those golf statistics even more disturbing is that during this period of decline, The First Tee, the national program aimed at introducing younger players to the sport, has been exploding. There are now 200 First Tee Chapters in the U.S., which oversee the operation of clinics at 700 facilities and training programs for some 400,000 kids. Another 1.6 million will take up golf in elementary school gym classes The First Tee has developed. Its programs often present the game in combination with "life skills" such as being honest, polite and other virtuous attributes golf prides itself on.

Presented with these figures, golf officials are puzzled. "I don't know how to reconcile those numbers with what we're seeing in our program," said Joe Louis Barrow, Jr., chief executive of The First Tee, an initiative of the World Golf Foundation. He suggested that while The First Tee is very good at connecting with younger kids, keeping teenagers is more challenging. "Conceivably one segment is growing and another is declining."

Barrow isn't the only one who is confused. The United States Golf Association has awarded some $65 million in grants since 1997, including more than $1.8 million last year, all aimed at increasing access to golf, in many cases, specifically for young people. But USGA executives say the industry doesn't have hard data on exactly what makes a kid get hooked.

Sounds like a problem, right? "At the macro level that's a fair assessment," said Steve Czarnecki, assistant director of grants and fellowships for the USGA. "In our view it's the ability to participate and enjoy the sport components from the tee to the hole. We don't support programs that are just beating balls on a driving range."

Read more at the Wall Street journal .