By Ann Liguori
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Amongst the beauty of Augusta National and the passion of the galleries is a sobering reality.
Golf has been losing ground in numbers of recreational participants, and despite the popularity of watching the pros play, particularly here on the hallowed grounds of Augusta National, the buzzing attendance records at the major championships don’t correlate to the number of individuals picking up the game and staying with it. Yes, there’s a frenzied interest associated with acquiring a coveted Masters ticket, but despite passionate galleries who come to watch the Masters and other major championships, the number of recreational golfers has been stagnant for many years to say the least.
“The most disturbing demographic that’s out there,” adds Glen Nager, the President of the United States Golf Association (USGA), “is the approximately 30 percent decline in participation among juniors in the game in the United States.”
That concerning trend is the main reason a major initiative was organized by the three most influential entities in golf in America: Augusta National, the United States Golf Association (USGA) and the PGA of America. The initiative will be called the “Drive, Chip & Putt Championship,” a competition open to youngsters throughout the U.S. that will culminate with 88 finalists, boys and girls, between the ages of 7-15, having the opportunity to showcase their skills right here at Augusta National on Sunday, April 6, 2014.
The powers that be at Augusta National have been preaching the need to grow the game for many years now and have been in the forefront with major innovations in technology and other programs to do just that.
Having said that, Augusta National was slow in adding women to the all-male membership roster at the club and must have realized last year that “growing the game” and their initiatives to do so also means increasing the game’s popularity amongst over fifty percent of the population.
So last year, Augusta National finally invited two women to become members of the previously all-male club for the first time in the club’s 80-year history. Condoleezza Rice, the former Secretary of State, and South Carolina businesswoman Darla Moore accepted the invitations. The announcements were made in August 2012, putting an end to the all-male membership policy here, once and for all!
(Hopefully, more women will be invited for membership. But since officials and members never discuss membership issues, I doubt if there will be any more announcements if and when more women are invited to join. Rice played a practice round here on Sunday with Phil Mickelson and apparently drained a 40-foot putt on the 18th hole! Afterwards, Phil raved about how much he admires her and what an excellent putter she is.)
But in the club’s continual efforts to “grow the game,” the influential triumvirate of Billy Payne, Chairman of Augusta National, Glen Nager, President of the United States Golf Association, and Ted Bishop, the President of the PGA of America, announced the creation of the new nationwide junior skills competition.
After local and regional qualifiers take place this summer, finalists in each of the four age groups (7-9, 10-11, 12-13, 14-15), in both boys and girls categories, will come to Augusta National to compete in the championship finals.
“Imagine, if you will, the incredible excitement these 88 finalists will experience as they come to the site of the Masters to compete in the driving and chipping on our beautiful tournament practice range and as they conclude their competition, putting to win as all major Masters Champions have before, on the 18th green of Augusta National Golf Club,” said Payne.
He continued: “It is our collective hope and belief that this quest to make it to Augusta National will become the dream of kids all over the country and their participation will inspire others to make the effort, and by doing so, to discover this wonderful, wonderful game.”
It sounds like an incredible opportunity for youngsters with a most memorable experience for the finalists, right here at Augusta National!
Most importantly, there will be no entrance fees for the participants. And the fact that these three important golf entities are working together to help popularize the sport amongst young people, is notable and a most important step in promoting the game to more young people and hopefully increase the numbers of junior golfers.
For more information on Drive, Chip & Putt, visit www.drivechipandputt.com.
Would you sign your child up? Think this will help grow the game? Be heard in the comments!