AUGUSTA — Billy Payne held his annual State of the Masters news conference Wednesday, a presentation more fit for Nickelodeon Network than The Golf Channel.
Sure, the Augusta National Golf Club chairman talked about new members Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore (“just awesome”) and the first Masters' cut policy change since 1962 (top 50 and ties plus those within 10 shots of the leader).
He talked about 2012 Masters winner Bubba Watson and the “impossible” shot at No. 10.
But nothing Payne said means as much to the sport as his drumbeat for Augusta National's all-out blitz to convince the planet's children that golf is worth playing and watching.
“Our mission is simple — to get kids interested, to get them excited and get them motivated to play this great game,” Payne said.
Augusta National this week unveiled plans to host the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship for boys and girls ages 7-15. Payne on Monday lauded the club's efforts in building the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship.
Not quite. The 77th Masters that starts today is sure to entertain. Sunday remains appointment viewing, whether kids like it or not.
But a reverse interest trend — particularly among young people — parallels dangerously with Tiger Woods' fading career path.
Augusta National, infamously stodgy when it comes to women joining the club, is splendidly progressive in its pursuit of kids. A junior patrons program was introduced in 2008, allowing children free admission on tournament days when accompanied by an accredited patron.
“We have promised to lead or follow, it doesn't matter,” said Payne, who saluted USGA outreach efforts. “Our industry must continue to address the critical issues of the sport's declining participation among youth and we simply want to help.”
The first Drive, Chip and Putt Championship is set for next April, one week before the Masters. Local qualifying events, 110 in all, begin this June.
Now children of almost all ages can dream of playing Amen Corner in a televised event.
“And more importantly,” Payne said, “it will be seen by millions of other young boys and girls who are in the process of making important lifetime choices of sports and activities they wish to embrace.”
Since 2000, the number of golfers has steadily declined, a National Golf Foundation study confirms. While the NGF study predicts a growth rate of approximately one percent per year to 2020 (roughly the same rate as projected U.S. population growth), most of that bullishness comes from “expected increases in the size of high income/high participation rate clusters.”
Few golf industry types are boldly forecasting an interest boom among U.S. middle schoolers.
There are kids out there who love riding around in golf carts, but not on a golf course.
Chinese middle class
Maybe a Drive, Chip and Putt contest is a snowball thrown at economic downturns and shorter American attention spans.
But it helps to have an actual kid in this week's Masters field. Tianlang Guan, a 14-year-old eighth grader from China, is the youngest participant in Masters history. He played a practice round Monday with Woods, and got here by winning the 2012 Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship.
“Really, the only place in the world where active golf construction is going on,” Payne said of the Asian market. “An emerging middle class of some 200 million people a year.”
An Augusta National chairman is banking on disposable income trends in China while most of the golf U.S. kids play is confined to video games.