BY JEFF FALK
You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Or in people terms: You can’t make someone do something they don’t want to do.
You must excuse the Lebanon County Golf Association right now if it’s feeling a little disappointed or bewildered or scared. There is something which is striking at the core of its signature event, and the LCGA isn’t quite sure what to do about it.
Exactly what is bothering the Lebanon County Golf Association is apathy, a general lack of interest and low participation.
The LCGA is coming off the 59th edition of its Lebanon County Amateur Golf Championship this past weekend which drew a field of only 29 competitors. The fact that that level of participation is a record low isn’t alarming in and of itself – the County Amateur field has been experiencing yearly declines for nearly two decades.
What’s scary is that that number of 29 is about 13 competitors off last year’s field. And it makes one wonder how low the Lebanon County Amateur field can go and still remain a legitimate golf tournament.
“We’re slowly seeing a slight decline,” said Lebanon County Amateur tournament director Justin Arnt. “I think that’s mainly because guys don’t want to play their own ball in individual tournaments. In better-ball, they may count a ten, but their partner my have had a four, so they post a par. We need to do a better job of reaching out to the players. I think some of these players aren’t getting the information. That way, we can send it to them well in advance.
“(Assistant director) John Day and I were looking back at it and we were very happy with the quality of the field,” Arnt continued. “We thought we had 20-23 players who were competitive. The other side is 29 is lower than we would’ve liked. The course (Fairview) was in great shape. The only disappointment was we didn’t have more players.”
“We still have guys who can play,” said Jimmy Gardner, the County Amateur’s former tournament director. “But we haven’t had an influx of younger guys. What is it? We don’t know. Guys just ain’t doing it. I never expected 29 at Fairview. Fairview was the one course where more people showed up.
“We’re seeing declining golf, and its not just our tournaments,” Gardner added. “There’s a drop-off in tournaments. There’s definitely less people. Fifteen to 20 years ago we had so many people because we treated it as an outing. We enjoyed the company. There’s guys who wanted to have a good time. They felt like they could compete in their flights. Twenty-nine to me, that’s hitting a red line. It’s a little concerning.”
During its heydays in the 1980s and 1990s, the Lebanon County Amateur was one of the most popular events in all of local sports, consistently drawing triple-digit fields of players of all make-ups, skill levels and walks of life – high school players, college players, coaches, players who believed they could win, players who didn’t think they could win, players who just wanted to support local golf, players who had pride in Lebanon County. Still, during the last five years or so, the County Amateur’s numbers fluctuated in the mid 30s to around 50 competitors.
“Say you get 20 guys who are the better players in the county, I feel like it’s still worth having a tournament because it’s 20 solid guys,” said Arnt. “If you get below 20, you might start thinking about things. Hopefully we won’t have to worry about that next year. Hopefully we can draw a bigger crowd. That’s the main target right now.
“I had a target in mind of 36 (for this year’s event),” Arnt added. “I fell a little bit short of it. I’m glad we had a quality field, that the guys still wanted to play in it.”
“I really don’t know,” said Gardner, when asked how low the field can go and still be considered a viable event. “It would sound funny if you were playing against ten guys. Let’s see what happens next year. We should always be around 40 guys. I know a lot of players who aren’t playing and who are good players. They could win it.
“Everything (this year) was run fine,” added Gardner. “We obviously would’ve liked to have more people. We had a small group, but it was a good group. We’d like to have ten more guys. It is what it is. We’re shocked.”
The reasons fewer and fewer people are competing in the Lebanon County Amateur Golf Championship are both varied and complex. And while the LCGA seems to be doing everything in its power to reverse the trend, there may be some issues related to the golf industry itself and society in general that may be out of its control.
It takes more time to make as much money as it once did. Participation in the game of golf is down across the board – from the instructional and developmental levels to the levels of play in surrounding counties. With more competing interests, people are simply less active.
“As a committee, we can’t control players who don’t want to play their own ball any more,” said Arnt. “Some players have in their minds that they do not want to post their scores. We want to entice men of all ages.
“You’re correct. That’t the other aspect of it,” continued Arnt. “I remember courses always being packed and a lot of kids running around at them. The number one thing is money. I think the cost of golf is really detrimental for a younger generation. Just the economy in general. The cost of everything is increasing. And you don’t always see your salary rise accordingly.”
“You can’t force people to play,” said Garnder. “We’ve been at $130 (entry fee) for at least eight years. We haven’t come up and the golf courses have been great with us. I feel like we (the LCGA) did everything we could. It wasn’t anything we didn’t do. I don’t know what more can be done. We’ve been beating our heads against the wall ever since we got into the 60s.
“Those are all factors,” Gardner continued. “Overall, it’s an older group of guys I play with. Without a doubt, we’re not getting the youth movement. It’s the reality of it. I don’t think we have the younger people coming up. Golf is an expensive sport. But it isn’t just in this county.”
Before it can stabilize the County Amateur’s numbers, the Lebanon County Golf Association must first stop the bleeding. Right now, the idea of ultimately reversing the alarming trend seems very far off.
“You have to walk before you can run,” said Arnt. “Obviously we’re not going to say, ‘We had 29 this year, next year we expect 50.’ If we could add two more foursomes, that would be good. Thirty-five to 40, I’d be happy with that. I think we have to take a look at the format.
“We have a good group on the committee,” Arnt added. “We’ve had more volunteers jump on board. We throw out good ideas and we bounce them off each other. Hopefully we can come up with the right plan and maybe create an ‘Aww’ moment for the players like, ‘Hey, they finally got it.’ We’ll see what happens.”
“I don’t ever see us getting up to 50 or 60 players,” said Gardner. “But there’s no reason we shouldn’t have 30 or 40 every year. I’m still confident it could be 35. That’s a good amount. There’s still plenty of golfers. We’ve got to get them out and we’ve got to have flights.”
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Lebanon County Amateur Golf Championship
1989 — Joe Faller, 146, MV