Club pros buried in the bunker

IAN HUTCHINSON -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 11:12 AM ET

The Ontario PGA buying show starts its three-day run later this week, which really doesn't mean much to the general public since this grand unveiling of new equipment, apparel, accessories and gizmos for 2008 is for trade only.

Club professionals make the annual trek to the International Centre in Mississauga to make their golf shop purchases for the following year. But, as time goes on, the pros' role is changing -- some say diminishing -- and that should mean something to everyone concerned with the future of the game.

Our collective attention is usually focused on touring pros, but it's the club professional who has traditionally enhanced the game at our level through various means such as lessons, clubfitting, or just being around to offer a quick tip or jaw about the latest tour event or hockey game.

It's what we grew up with when we were learning the game. The club pro is who we took our kids to so they could learn the game and make playing it a family affair, but in this era of dollars and cents, that makes no sense to the people who look at golf as purely a business proposition.

Golf is not about people anymore, it's about bottom line. Therefore, club professionals are gradually losing control of pro shops and losing lucrative revenue from golf cart rentals. Many are learning other aspects of the golf business to enhance their value, while others are treated as seasonal workers.

LESS TIME

What all of this means is that golf professionals have less time to concentrate on the matters that made them so important in the past when it was a treat to tee it up with the pro. These days, club pros have little time for their own games, let alone anyone else's.

Club professionals have themselves to blame to a certain extent. Either through arrogance, naivete, or a little of both, many ignored the warning signs and stuck their heads in the sand, only to get their tushies booted.

The Canadian PGA, which represents golf professionals in this country, was an organization in disarray for many years and was hardly in a position to stand up to the bean counters.

Things got so bad a few years back that one member, Ken Trowbridge, suggested blowing up the Canadian PGA and starting all over.

So, the pros can shoulder some of the blame, but not all. The golf industry, as a whole, has not paid attention to what its own consumers want, preferring instead to concentrate on what it wants.

What the industry wants is for golf to be an "experience'' instead of a game. Forget about walking most courses --take a cart and fork over extra cash on top of your green fees. Before playing, leave your shoes in a nice, finished wood locker and freshen up with the multitude of toiletries available afterwards.

Don't forget to have a tasty steak and a cold beer in the dining room afterwards. What's another $50 when you're talking a couple of hundred for a day out? With that kind of scratch, no wonder high-end courses are springing up everywhere.

There's one problem.

If there's one thing about a participation study released by the Royal Canadian Golf Association last year that everybody agrees with, it's that affordability is a big issue in golf these days. People are willing to trade that steak for a hot dog at the turn and leave their shoes in their cars if it means less to play the game.

Until the industry starts paying attention to what its customers want, it is guilty of what the pros did by burying its head in the sand and a large boot may be coming in its direction, if it hasn't already.

If the golf industry is filled with such bright businessmen, explain why, in a Canadian economy that has been red-hot the past few years, that golf has failed to show any significant growth?

Imagine what it will be like if the economy slows down, which is a very real possibility.

BOTTOM LINE

Nobody can fault golf course owners for wanting to run their facilities in a cost-effective manner, but so often in trying to achieve a better bottom line, businesses end up amputating the very things that made them successful in the first place.

In this case, golf is cutting at the pros, its high-profile, front-line people.

Instead of thinking of themselves as being in the business of golf, the bean-counters should consider themselves as being in the business of fun, something club professionals provided in the past.

Too often these days, pro shops seem like an off-course golf shop surrounded by fairways and greens with less product available. If the game is to grow, it needs high-profile club pros on the front line.

They really do mean something to the game.


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