Rudy Duran is a golf teacher whose most famous pupil came to him at age 4 when Duran was the head pro at Heartwell, an 18-hole par-three public course in Long Beach. The young player also took lessons from Duran at El Dorado and Skylinks, two municipal courses in Long Beach.
For six years, Duran worked with the kid, who got better and better.
That kid was Tiger Woods and his story is a little bit of history that might never be repeated.
Judging from the cart path that golf is heading down now, there's a chance we'll never see another one like him again, rising up through the grass roots and blossoming on a worldwide scene. At least that's what Duran fears when he considers a golfing climate in which there are too many players trying to play on too few public courses charging fees that are too high.
"It's a big problem, and it's getting worse," Duran said. "There's no access for the kids. Like in the L.A. area, one, they can't afford it, and two, when they might even remotely afford it, there's no time for them.
"People have been brought to golf because of Tiger's exposure . . . the same way Arnold Palmer brought people to golf. People are aware and they're going to go out and try golf. But if there's no access, they're gone. You're not going to go to a full movie theater three nights in a row. You move on to something else.
"And it's the same for adults. Sometimes it's $100 to play golf. I don't really know how to fix that."
Well, there is one way, Duran said.
"You have to be wealthy, basically."
And so it goes for golf, which seems to be saying "Give me your huddled, anonymous foursomes. . . . Give me your average Joes. . . . Give me the key to your safe-deposit box."
Golf, the would-be Populist sport, announces its goal as reaching out to the masses, representing itself as Everyman's game, opening its arms in a cheery welcome.
It's a noble mission, all right, but golf may find that it's not going to be easy getting there. At least right now, there's one thing you have to say about golf:
It's still a country club.
There are more people playing more golf than ever before, according to the National Golf Foundation, which tabulated the number of golfers in the U.S. at 26.9 million--about 14% of the population.
So what's the income group of golfers that is growing the most? Households earning $75,000 and higher, according to research by the Sporting Goods Business Network.
Apparently, you don't have to be rich to play golf, but it certainly helps.
Rod Warnick, a specialist in trends analysis for recreation and sports at the University of Massachusetts, said this definitely represents a trend.
"Golf is still an upscale sport," Warnick said.
Peter Titlebaum of the Department of Health and Sports Science at the University of Dayton said green fees are priced according to basic economic principles. Simply put, it's what the market will bear.
"They're going to stay that way until everybody gets upset about it. . . . but who's going to get upset?," Titlebaum said. "You're outside, you're in the sun, you like what you're doing. I don't see too much unrest. It's a comfortable norm."
Golf's green fees fall nicely in line when compared to the cost of some other sports activities, such as professional spectator sports, according to Titlebaum. He conducted a survey of NBA ticket prices for a party of four, taking into account tickets in poor locations. He found the cheapest price for four seats was $150 in Denver. The most expensive was $297 for the New York Knicks' home games.
Titlebaum's conclusion is that golf really isn't alone in its high cost.
"It's no longer sports for everyone," he said. "It's sports for those who can afford it.
"How do you classify golf as a sport for everyone when you have those green fees involved? How are you supposed to be good at the game if you can't play it? It's still a big business and a country club sport. Golf would love to see itself as an urban sport, but it's never going to be. What are you going to do? Put kids on a bus, put their clubs on there to go play? It's a terrible picture I'm painting."
There are some movements trying to paint over that picture. The most ambitious is a project called the First Tee, overseen by the World Golf Foundation and dedicated to creating 100 junior golf programs and facilities through public and private partnerships in the next two years.
According to the First Tee, less than 2% of children ages 12-17 are introduced to golf each year.
Former President George Bush, honorary chairman of First Tee, lauded efforts by golf organizations and associations to introduce the game to broad segments of the population, but he acknowledged that affordable access has remained a persistent problem.
At least the First Tee has some heavy hitters behind it: The PGA Tour, the PGA of America, the LPGA, the United States Golf Assn. and Augusta National Golf Club.