Steve Mona leads the World Golf Foundation initiatives to grow the game of golf. In recent years, the group has focused on five key initiatives to grow the game – Get Golf Ready, The First Tee, LPGA-USGA Girls Golf, PGA Junior League Golf and Drive, Putt and Chip Championship. We talked a few years ago about golf player development efforts, and I asked Steve to update us in this interview.
- How are you feeling about the progress of your development initiatives?
I am feeling very good for two main reasons. First, our five growth initiatives had record participation levels in 2015. This followed a comprehensive 2014 review and evaluation and the decision to focus on those five initiatives. Progress in 2016 was dramatic too as four of the five initiatives had record participation levels. One of them, Get Golf Ready (GGR), was flat but still has more participants than all but one of the others. We are working to build GGR participation with the PGA of America’s regional player development team to enlist more facilities. Access to facilities offering GGR drives its participation. The First Tee reached 5.3 million young people in 2016, a 13% increase from 2015 and it was offered as part of the physical education curriculum at 9,000 elementary schools in 1,400 school districts. Some 39% of all The First Tee participants are girls, and 49% of participants are ethnically diverse. But it is The First Tee’s and nine healthy habits that distinguish it as a youth development organization that uses golf as a platform to teach life skills. Second, I am thrilled to see the golf industry come together as 150 different national entities are engaged and supporting our initiatives. This includes manufacturers, media companies, golf course management companies and various governing bodies. I expect this year to see just as much progress as we refine and streamline our efforts to make them more usable for these entities. Most entities are getting involved and actively promoting our efforts for 25 to 30 weeks of events and programs. I am so grateful and impressed by the extent and creativity of their efforts to support golf’s growth.
- What has impressed you the most about implementing these initiatives?
As I said, the universal and comprehensive commitment of the golf industry has been terrific. Frankly, I didn’t know what to expect until we launched our efforts. I am impressed that participation growth has been so meteoric. For example, the LPGA-USGA Girls Golf program grew from 4,500 girls in 2010 to 60,000 in 2016. The PGA Junior League Golf effort grew by 300% in the past three years. In 2013, there were 9,000 kids and 740 teams participating. In 2016, there were 2,900 teams with 36,000 kids engaged. The Drive, Putt and Chip Championship’s participation numbers are unavailable but there are more than 330 regional and local qualifying sites for this event.
- What has surprised you?
I was pleasantly surprised at the positive attitude and supportive behavior of the groups who lost our support when we decided it was most beneficial for growth of the game efforts to focus on these five initiatives. They were disappointed, but have rallied to our support. I think this is because they are quality and practical people, who can appreciate the rising tide of our initiative lifts all boats and can benefit their development and related efforts. Honestly, all our efforts help raise awareness of golf participation and that assists everyone in the short and long term.
- If you could wave a magic wand, what result would you like to achieve and why?
From the big picture standpoint, I would like golf to look like America reflecting those of all genders, ethnicity, ages, sexual orientation and even those people affected by disabilities. If that happens, we would achieve our potential as a sport. While I know that golf participation doesn’t have an unlimited ceiling, I know we’re not there yet. This is an aspirational goal, but I am confident that we can accomplish it.
- How should a golf business or organization feel good about being in golf?
There are number of reasons. First, I would hope that they appreciate the game itself. I have been very fortunate to work in this business for 37 years. I’ve met thousands of people and I could probably count on one hand, and not all my fingers, the number of golf people who I would not care to spend time with. I would defy any other sport to be able to say the same. Second, the values of golf that are implicit in the game mean that you are always learning and improving. Third, the way the game presents itself, especially through those who play the game professionally, is very positive. The men and women who represent the sport at the highest level rarely embarrass us and generally impress us with their character, respect for the game and fan engagement. Day by day, these most visible people present golf in a very positive light, so I can confidently tell people that they are in good company with the game of golf.
- What are you most excited about for the short-term and long-term future of golf?
In the short term, I am excited that the most people tried to play golf in the history of the game in 2016. This surpassed the number from the year 2000. About 2.5 million people tried the game last year versus 2.4 million in 2000. I think the reasons are several, particularly those focused on our junior initiatives which are very visible and are great for entry-level players. The PGA Junior League is a golf team equivalent of Pop Warner football, Little League baseball or AAU basketball. It allows kids to participate on a team in a three-hole event on a short course. The kids compete in a format that is manageable for them, and kids really get to experience the game of golf. On a long-term basis, junior golf participation is up 25% while most junior sports participation is declining. I am excited that the face of golf is changing as 5% of junior golfers were girls in 1995 and 33% of junior golfers are girls today. The diversity of golf has changed as 27% of junior golfers are from an ethnic group versus 6% in 1995. So, clearly the face of golf is changing. Women’s participation in golf is growing too. I would suggest that as women gain prominence in business, golf is encouraged as a tool for business development. Golf is more accessible than ever to women. We know that 75% of our facilities are open to the public and 80% of those who play the game do so at public courses. Those situations will benefit women and produce growth of women golfers.
This is some exciting news about the solid pipeline for golf’s future growth. Steve, keep up the good work and look forward to hearing about more success in the future. Thanks to all those initiatives and the people making them happen. FYI, I see the PGA Junior League at my course The Glen Club and at The Village Links and it is exciting to see the kids, girls and boys, competing and having fun.
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