PGA MERCHANDISE SHOW: Nicklaus says golf is “at a crossroads”

ORLANDO, FL. — The biggest show in golf started on a sobering note Thursday, and it was offered by the game’s greatest player.

Jack Nicklaus gave the keynote address as the 59th PGA Merchandise Show opened its three-day run at the Orange County Convention Center. In it he voiced concerns about the game’s future, then expanded on his thoughts in a press conference with other industry leaders.

“Our game is at a crossroads,’’ Nicklaus told a standing-room-only, early-morning gathering of show-goers, who are expected to number over 42,000 before the show ends on Saturday. “We need to think outside the box if we’re to help the game we love grow.’’

No doubt the economic downturns of the past few years have adversely impacted the golf industry, just has they have impacted virtually every other business. But in golf it goes deeper than economics.

“We’ve lost 23 percent of the women and 36 percent of the kids in the game since 2006,’’ said Nicklaus. “Those are not good stats.’’

Even growing up a Nicklaus didn’t help boost golf’s numbers. The Golden Bear, winner of a record 18 major championships, plays once a month now. His wife Barbara plays less than that. So do 21 of their 22 grandchildren. Only one grandchild, a 9-year old boy, is considered a regular player.

Nicklaus cites the time demands that golf requires for the dropoff in popularity.

“Other sports are grabbing attention time from our kids,’’ he said. “Their parents don’t have time to play golf, and the kids aren’t being introduced to it.’’

But, at least, the PGA of America has come up with a possible solution, called the PGA Certified Professional Program 2.0, as the centerpiece for advanced training and education curriculum for those in the industry — not just club professionals. Nicklaus calls it “the most comprehensive and complete, well-thought out program’’ to get golf growing again.

While PGA executive director Joe Steranka calls the initiative “an alliance of the industry,’’ it represents a multi-million dollar investment by the PGA to educate its members on how to grow the game.

Chicago is one of nine targeted markets where the all-digital 2.0 initiative will be put in place first. Four of the markets have regional managers selected, and Chicago’s is Frank Chieppa. He’s a former officer in the Illinois PGA Section and the head professional at Randall Oaks in Dundee Twp. for 15 seasons. He left Randall Oaks last year for a head job at The Legends in Franklin, Ind., but is returning to Chicago to spearhead the golf growth effort here.

While specifics on how the program will work affect present and perhpas future players was limited, the announcement of the 2.0 initiative was well-received by the turnout that included over 1,000 vendors, 30 more than last year. The closed-to-the-public event takes up about one million square feet of showroom floorspace.