PGA of America faces scrutiny on growing the game

By Dave Berner, Senior Contributor

CHICAGO -- The PGA of America just doesn't get it. Yes, it's a strong, rich organization with a healthy, historic past and there are many good, dedicated people who are among its membership. But the organization's intrinsic nature to be little more than an association that perpetuates its own internal policies and membership, and not necessarily the heart and soul of the game, is beginning to be a detriment to golf in the Midwest.

For years I have had close relationships with members and executives from the PGA sections in the Midwest, mainly in the Illinois section. And for years I have been debating with these members and executives this question: What is the real purpose of the PGA of America?

The answer is nearly always this: The purpose is to grow the game for America's golfers. OK, makes sense. Sort of. What does that really mean? When I ask the question, those same members say something about teaching and getting kids involved. But in reality most of what these PGA sections do is run dozens of tournaments for their own members and work on ways to get green grass pro shops to make a profit. Something a lot of them do not do. Is this really growing the game?

If you ask the average golfer if the pro at his local club, public or private, is a PGA member they would likely say "yes," but to that golfer being a PGA member means being on the Tour and nothing could be further from the truth. The PGA of America is not the PGA Tour. They are two different entities thanks to some infighting back in the 1960s.

Simply put, Tour players are not the same as the club professionals who run the golf shops or teach the fundamentals to those of us who choose to take a lesson from a serious golf educator. In short, Tour players make a living playing golf, PGA of America members make a living at golf.

But the Saturday player doesn't know the difference. Why is this a problem? Simple. If golfers believe the club pro is a member of the Tour, then how are they ever going to believe that guy or girl has time for them, the 30 handicapper? And couple this with the sorry fact that there are plenty of PGA of America professionals who have an aloof, sometimes arrogant attitude about their profession. This further distances these professionals from average players and from "growing the game," whatever that really means.

Here's a for instance on how PGA sections are misguided with their efforts. In Illinois there is a Golf Hall of Fame. It's a beautiful museum and is housed in the same building as the offices of the Illinois section of the PGA. It also happens to be the clubhouse for one of Illinois' premier courses, The Glen Club in the Chicago suburb of Glenview. It's a great setting and the museum is wonderfully done, but the hall has never clearly or properly been marketed to the masses. Instead of a place to revere the game and celebrate its history in Illinois, the Illinois Golf Hall of Fame comes off as a shrine for PGA members to enjoy. Where's the connection to the average player?

Here's another example. I have been working with the Illinois section for years on a project that would give the section a radio show, a weekly feature to promote their teaching professionals and their authentic connections to the golfers of the state. To the executive board's credit, the members expressed excitement about the idea and seemed to want to try to put this together. Many of the members told me they believed the PGA of America had been an "inward looking" organization too long and needed to look "outward" to the 15, 25 and 30 handicap players.

For years they agreed with me, but for years they could never get the backing for the show. They clearly had little problem finding sponsors for their members' tournaments, but couldn't find one sponsor for promoting the club and teaching professionals who could truly be "growing the game" at the grass roots level.

The PGA sections might argue they do special incentives for the average golfer every season, such as free lesson days to promote game improvement. But again, these are poorly marketed or promoted. Most average players never know of the incentives. Plus, there are far too many members who don't buy into the programs, don't like to do them, and hide when it's time to put the word out.

The PGA sections are missing an enormous opportunity to promote the game and to boost the association's status in the eyes of everyone who truly wants to see golf remain a healthy sport and pastime in America. I am not out to indict the members of the PGA of America, or the members of its sections in the Midwest, many of which I respect and admire. But the association as a whole is currently misguided and continually misses opportunities to make strong, viable connections with the weekend hacker, the person who truly is the heart and soul of the game.

Dave BernerDave Berner, Senior Contributor

Dave Berner is a long-time journalist for CBS radio in Chicago and has freelanced for CNN, National Public Radio, and ABC news. He created and produced the popular radio feature "The Golf Minute" for CBS-owned radio station WMAQ in Chicago along with writing a regular column for Golf Chicago Magazine. He is also author of "Any Road Will Take You There: A journey of fathers and sons" and "Accidental Lessons: A Memoir of a Rookie Teacher and a Life Renewed." Follow Berner on Twitter @DavidWBerner

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