WE ARE GOLF — Standing Up for the Game

Greg Kunkel, Caddie Master at Sunset Ridge GC in Northfield, Illinois, is one of the golf people whose stories are told on the WE ARE GOLF Web site

Where would we be without us?

Imagine that your alarm goes off tomorrow morning and poof – there’s no golf.  No threadbare municipal courses where guys in Chuck Taylors sneak coolers onto their carts.  No exclusive clubs with baby-faced valet parkers curtsying at your car door.  No warehouse-sized golf retail stores where the huddled masses can shop for munitions or eye their next super-sized secret weapon.  Not even a game of putt-putt.  How would you react?  Would you care?  Would you cry?  Would you grab your favorite golfing buddy, get down on your knees and belt out a heartfelt ‘Praise the Lord!’ in two-part harmony?  Would it make any difference to anyone but us golf nuts?

Take it a step farther.  Imagine what the world would be like if there had never been any golf?  Would you miss seeing the same show five times in 24 hours on The Golf Channel?  Would you trust an Ohioan named Nicklaus to advise you on the latest in term life products?  Could you get through a hot summer day without a can of Arnold Palmer Iced Tea?  And what on earth would you do with all your free time?  Write sonnets?

It’s blasphemy to even suggest such things, of course.  The history of golf isn’t about to be erased in our lifetimes or anybody else’s.  The proud traditions of the royal and ancient game have endured for hundreds of years in one form or another and they’re not about to disappear in a puff of silica.  But the game’s not what it used to be, either.  Participation by any measure is flat at best in most places.  Private clubs are going public with alarming frequency.  Semi-private courses are being turned into housing developments, albeit ones that aren’t selling many houses.

Golf has issues.  And the fact of the matter is, that’s a bad thing not just for golfers but for the thousands and thousands of people who may or may not play the game but either make a living from it or benefit from the huge charity dollars the game throws off.  The recession has played a role, for sure, but golf’s problems started well before Wall Street served up the sub-prime mortgage crisis.  And its issues are exacerbated by the way the game is perceived, particularly amongst lawmakers who, while they may be closet John Daly fans, don’t have the courage to raise their hands in support of a game still considered too white and too elitist to earn them votes.

What’s being done

The good news is that the golf industry hasn’t stood idly by while the popularity of the game has slipped.  The Golf 20/20 group was assembled many majors ago to study the issue, and convocate and rally the troops.  Then the PGA of America launched their Play Golf America initiative to encourage neophytes and aficionados alike to get their tushes to the tee.  And now there’s WE ARE GOLF, a coalition of golf organizations and regular Joes who are taking the fight not to the streets, but to the nation’s capital buildings, where they hope that a little education will go a long way toward giving golf the shot in the arm it needs.

The WE ARE GOLF initiative was introduced at this year’s PGA Merchandise Show and is being led by the Club Managers Association of America, the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, the National Golf Course Owners Association and the PGA of America.  By telling the true story of golf’s impact and by showcasing golf’s diverse businesses and their employees, the tax revenues created through golf, the tourism business it generates, the charity dollars it helps raise, and the health and environmental benefits the game provides, WE ARE GOLF is aiming to bolster the thousands of small businesses that make up the industry and depend on the game for their solvency.  By the organization’s estimates, more than two million Americans have jobs tied to the golf industry.  Chances are you know more than a few of them.

Songemo "Songs" Sonamzi

And that’s why this is not just an industry story.  It’s a people story – and if you go to WE ARE GOLF’s Web site (www.wearegolf.org), you can see the faces and hear the stories of some of the people that depend on golf not just for a livelihood but for their lives.  And we’re not talking tour pros, either.  (We hear enough about them.)  Instead, they’re people like Sean Ryan, an electrician whose company provides power services to golf events.  And Rock Lucas, whose father turned the family farm into a golf course, which in turn spawned the creation of twelve LLCs, six commercial developments and four real estate communities employing countless people.  And then there’s Songezo Sonamzi, a South African man who’s the eldest of eight children and lost his father to cancer when he was 18.  “Songs” as he is called is in a PGA Professional Golf Management program now and hopes to become the kind of golf pro who shares his love of the game with juniors, women and seniors from all kinds of socio-economic backgrounds.  The list goes on: Chef Nico Sanchez, an El Salvadoran who appreciates more than anything the charity dollars his work in the kitchen helps raise.  And Kristen Franco, a recent college grad with a fondness for the hospitality industry who’s in a Florida private club’s Manager in Training program.

The point is, the people who either work in golf or in some related industry are all around us.  But we seldom think about them – or the myriad ways that golf improves the lives of people like them.  From the teenage caddies who do weekend loops to earn Xbox money to the general managers at our nation’s resorts who oversee multi-million-dollar businesses, golf matters.  And not just as a way to amuse ourselves on weekend mornings.

Joe Steranka speaking for golf's importance on CNN

Golf – a $76 billion business

WE ARE GOLF reports that the game injected $76 billion into the U.S. economy in 2005, $61 billion of which were wages paid to people whose livelihoods intersect with golf.  That’s more than the motion picture industry, more than the performing arts, more than spectator sports.  We’re talking serious money.  Stop and think now what the nation would look like if you DID wake up tomorrow and there was no golf.  Instantly, there would be two million people out of work.  Maybe your neighbors.  Maybe even you.

On April 13th, WE ARE GOLF descended on Capitol Hill in Washington to stage 2011’s National Golf Day and make its case for the game.  Golf’s assembled power brokers and the “faces of golf” that came with them were in D.C. to urge lawmakers to think twice before enacting legislation that harms not just an Industry with a capital I, but the couple million people who work in it and around it.  It’s all fine and good to think that tax deductions for boards of directors junkets to Kiawah or Pebble should be eliminated.  But the point WE ARE GOLF was there to make is that by passing such laws, the government’s really hurting the little guy.  And not just one little guy, but millions of them.

During the day-long event, the group met with key Members of Congress to share stories and provide eye-opening data that illustrates the true impact of the game on the U.S. economy.  The exhibit they put together in the rotunda of the Rayburn House Office Building’s foyer was impressive – and included a hitting net, putting green, and other things cleverly designed to make learning look like fun for the Congressmen and women who attended.  The stories the lawmakers heard – heartfelt tales from ordinary people – were hard-hitting ones.

“WE ARE GOLF is leveling the playing field for the thousands of small businesses that make up our industry,” said Steve Mona, CEO of the World Golf Foundation.  “National Golf Day and our meetings with key Members of Congress today are a big part of that process, allowing lawmakers to hear some fascinating and diverse stories about golf’s impact on individuals, families and businesses around the country.”

WE ARE GOLF has statistics to back up its claims

Golf needs a seat at the table

PGA of America CEO Joe Steranka outlined the group’s agenda bluntly.  “We’re not asking for special treatment,” Steranka told the Congressfolk.  “We’re asking for fair and equitable treatment.  Our industry employs nearly two million Americans who want to help lawmakers do the difficult job they were elected to do.  We want to be a resource, and we want a seat at the table.”

Which table is Steranka talking about?  The one where legislative ideas are bandied about, the one that would have been situated in some smoke-filled room if smoking were still allowed anywhere.  What’s on that table are ideas like the one that excluded golf courses from disaster relief funding, as they were after Hurricane Katrina (along with casinos and massage parlors).  During the day, legislators heard from two people who didn’t think much of that exclusion, Jay Goughner and Dan Clark, both owners of golf courses in Iowa that were devastated by flooding in 2008.  Goughner and Clark told lawmakers about their efforts to rebuild and the impact the flooding had had on the lives of their employees.

“I don’t seek pity,” Goughner said.  “We’re hearty people.  We will overcome what Mother Nature has dealt us.  What I do ask is that golf be given the same status as other small businesses.  We deserve the same access to aid and recovery programs that other small businesses have received.”  Sadly, when the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was passed in 2009, golf – and those who benefit from it – were once again placed on the “do not help” list.

It’s not all about jobs, though.  It’s also about the social impact of the game.  Golf has a long history of giving back to society.  More than any other sport, golf throws off cash to people and organizations that really need it –  groups that in turn do some pretty good things with that dough themselves.  The national charitable impact of golf in 2005 was $3.5 billion, or about $17 for every man, woman and child in the country.  Chances are you know someone who has been helped either directly or indirectly by a golf-assisted charity.  But still, golf’s image gets in its way.

“Right now, it’s considered politically risky to raise your hand in Washington and say that you support the golf industry,” Steranka said at the PGA Show kickoff event.  “That shouldn’t be.”

Golf’s full-court press

To help it makes its case, WE ARE GOLF has hired The Podesta Group, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying firm.  “Golf needs a seat at the table when legislation that affects it is considered,” David Marin, a principal at Podesta told The Wall Street Journal.  “But for the time being we’re playing defense.  Perceptions that are this deeply rooted won’t change overnight, or in a month, or even a year.”

In the meantime, a lot of people will be looking on with interest.  Like the guy who drives the truck that brings the Bud Light to your grill room.  The young woman who brings that cold bottle of Bud Light to your table.  The people who launder the tablecloths or make the coasters that your Bud Light is served to you on.  The maintenance guys who cut the green you were putting on just before you ordered your Bud Light – and the workers at the plant where those greens mowers are made.  Not to mention the engineer who designed the mower (and is working on the 2.0 version now).  Or the battered women’s shelter to which the engineer’s firm annually donates proceeds from its charity golf outing.

The bottom line is, you don’t have to work in golf – or even like golf – to be affected by the ups and downs of the golf economy.  Its impact is a lot more far-reaching than many people, including our lawmakers, know.  WE ARE GOLF aims to change that, and if there’s any justice in the world, they’ll be successful. Because at the end of the day, as much as we all have moments when we hate the game we love, none of us wants to wake up to a world without golf.

Can the Jobs Act Help?

“If you’ve got a dream and you’re willing to work hard, you can succeed.”  Thus spake President Obama as he signed the Small Business Jobs Act last September.  The Act includes a series of provisions that small businesses can benefit from: better access to credit, targeted tax cuts, capital investment provisions, changes in depreciation schedules, carrybacks on business credits, etc.  For businesses involved in golf, or even suppliers to businesses involved in golf, these provisions could make the difference between staying in business and turning the back nine into a strip mall.  The Act doubles the maximum size of loans offered through the SBA (Small Business Administration).  So a golf course built in the ‘70s that needs to make capital improvements to its course or clubhouse to stay competitive with the new upscale-daily-fee operation up the street should have a better chance of finding the dollars it needs.  A new deduction for health insurance costs for the self-employed was also written into the Act; it will allow millions of self-employed people and their families to get a deduction for the cost of health insurance when they calculate their self-employment taxes.  If you’re a teaching pro who gets paid in wrinkled twenties, or a small paving company that specializes in cart paths, this deduction could be real good for your small business’s health.

Helping Startups Get Smarter

What if you’re an entrepreneur with a bright idea for a golf-related product (solar-powered carts anyone?)  The Startup America Partnership might be a good place to look for assistance.  Headed up by Steve Case, the firebrand who led AOL to its dizzying heights of success, this independent, private-sector coalition of major corporations, advisors, funders, service providers and mentors is all about helping entrepreneurs at every stage of their business’s development – “from Idea to Startup to Rampup to Speedup.”  Its mission is to assist entrepreneurs and their small businesses in finding the expertise and resources they need to succeed.  Partners include IBM, Cisco, HP, Facebook, StartupHire.com and others.  What the Partnership is trying to do is create an ecosystem where entrepreneurship can thrive, and to generally increase the numbers of entrepreneurs who are actively out there innovating.  With access to the expertise of these successful companies and introductions to other advisors and venture capital resources, your great idea for a golf product or service could be on its way to market right now and you don’t even know it.  Hey, maybe there’s hope for all those little biodegradable tee companies after all.  (www.startupamericapartnership.org)

One Response to “WE ARE GOLF — Standing Up for the Game”

  1. John Strawn

    This is a fabulous piece telling a story our business desperately needs to tell. I have sent a link to a number of my colleagues and hope they will read it. Great job!


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