“Growing the game.” It’s a tired, overworked phrase. And I’m not entirely sure people really understand what it means.
Yeah, the game is experiencing a resurgence. Equipment companies, golf courses, retailers and teaching pros are all riding the COVID wave. Both the National Golf Foundation and the R&A are reporting impressive growth in participation and record-breaking numbers of rounds played.
Keeping that momentum rolling, however, will be the challenge. Part of it, of course, is making sure as many of the “new” golfers as possible stick with the game once the newness wears off.
The second part is keeping the pipeline filled with juniors.
Right now, that pipeline appears to be brimming. There’s The First Tee, of course. And there are plenty of private and public junior programs out there. But John Breaker, founder, inventor and guiding spirit of Birdie Ball, sees another avenue that could very well introduce the game on a completely separate level while helping kids have more fun in the process.
And it involves your kid’s gym teacher.
Keeping the Pipeline Full
“Since we started, we’ve sold maybe eight million Birdie Balls,” the always animated Breaker tells MyGolfSpy. “But the number that’s important is that we’re in about 7,000 schools in the country. I think when we talk about growing the game, P.E. teachers are kind of an unsung hero.”
Modern Phys. Ed is a little different from when you or I were in school. Today’s PE teachers tend to focus less on team sports and more on their new mantra: Individual athletics for the rest of your life.
“Every state has its own AAHPERD (American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance) chapter and they hold a convention every year,” says Breaker. “We used to go to all of those before we got too big for our own britches. But we forged very close relationships with PE teachers.
“They can’t afford to take kids to the driving range or the golf course. But we would have Birdie Ball booths set up and talk to PE teachers on how to teach the game of golf at school.”
Golf in Gym Class
The original Birdie Ball is a small plastic cylinder that simulates the flight of a golf ball. The important part is the fact you can hit the ever-loving snot out of it and it’ll only go about 40 yards or less. Breaker says it was a big hit at AAHPERD conferences where both the USGA and PGA of America were conspicuously absent.
“It’s funny. People thought we were the PGA,” he says. “The U.S. Tennis Association was there, and we were there, so people just assumed we must be part of ‘golf’ in some way when in fact we were there for purely selfish reasons. We wanted to sell some stuff.”
Over the past 20 years, Breaker and Birdie Ball have put together packages to help PE teachers get kids off on the right foot.
“With our Strike Pad, which you can put down on any surface, including a gym floor, we can do both indoor and outdoor golf as a physical education unit,” says Breaker. “And with our targeting system, we can set up a nine-hole golf course on a football field.”
COVID has put Birdie Ball’s outreach efforts into a bit of a bind the last few years. The company has experienced crazy growth not only in Birdie Ball sales but also in sales of its award-winning putting mats.
“We’ve kind of gotten spoiled a little bit,” admits Breaker. “We haven’t attended these conferences for a couple of years now. We’re not looking for a whole lot of new business but we know how important we are in that unsung PE teacher world.”
The Birdie Ball Golf Curriculum
Breaker and Birdie Ball have partnered with the Colorado PGA of America and PGA professional Danny Harvanek with a Golf In Schools program since 2007.
“They’ll do three weeks of Birdie Ball,” says Breaker. “The kids have more success because they started with Birdie Ball. They work on their grip, swing path and impact and see the thing fly up in the air. The final piece is to go to the golf course.”
Does it “grow the game”? Breaker believes so.
“I don’t think they know how much of it sticks,” he says. “But it’s like I don’t know exactly how much my Google ad spend gets me every day. I just know when I turn it off, I don’t get many orders.”
The marriage between Birdie Ball and gym class is Spock-level logical. But you don’t have to be a Vulcan to see one big roadblock. When school districts have bake sales to fund basic needs, spending money on a golf curriculum seems like a non-starter.
“I’ve had PE teachers call me and tell me it’s coming out of their own pocket,” says Breaker. “I’ll go, ‘Here’s a 20-percent discount.’ We can’t give every school in the U.S. a nine-hole field set. We have a business to run, but we also have an obligation because of this invention, the Birdie Ball, that is so Vulcan, so logical. We owe it to the game to help.”
To help make gym class golf a reality, Birdie Ball is donating five of its nine-hole Golf Instruction Field Sets to five school districts. The set includes 200 Birdie Balls, 18 Strike Pads, nine targets and tee box markers, plus other accessories. If you are involved in a school district, please visit this page on the Birdie Ball website to get more information and to find out how to apply.
The Kids Are All Right
If you’ve ever watched a parent trying to teach a kid how to hit a golf ball, you’ve witnessed varying levels of frustration. And nothing kills a kid’s desire to play golf more than dribbling ball after ball off a practice mat.
“It’s so disheartening to see,” says Breaker. “You know when that kid empties his bucket he’s never coming back. That’s one we just lost.”
So can the combination of Strike Pads and Birdie Balls flatten the learning curve and make the whole endeavor a little more fun? That’s the recipe, says Breaker and, in his experience, it’s a solid way to get kids started.
“This game is so counterintuitive,” he says. “You want to swing from inside out. If you want the ball to go left, swing right. I know it doesn’t make any sense but there’s a picture of it on the Strike Pad. It’s counterintuitive until you see it.”
Breaker says Birdie Ball has also had success with its Family Fun Zones at selected Korn Ferry Tour events.
“We spend the entire week there and bring our entire set-up—the full menagerie of animals as well as our adult road game. I would do it for free because it does give us some exposure but it helps them, too. There’s no reason why there shouldn’t be a family fun zone at every Korn Ferry event.”
Growing The Game: One Gym Class at a Time
Is this the answer to growing the game?
No, for one simple reason. Looking for one all-encompassing solution to any complex problem is a fool’s errand. But finding ways to make golf part of gym class, and to do so affordably, can certainly be part of the solution. The First Tee is a great program and it’s made a difference. Private clubs have youth programs but they are, by their very nature, limited and exclusive. And public courses, munis and driving ranges also offer affordable kids’ programs. Breaker’s initiative is simply another avenue to give kids who wouldn’t ordinarily try golf a chance, just to see if they have fun with it.
“If you’re a PE teacher and tell me you have a generous parent who’s willing to donate $500 for a six-hole field set, we’ll work with you,” says Breaker. “We’re blessed. We have this great business that’s exceeded all our wildest expectations. So, we are generous, we want to help grow the game. Will it come back to help us? Yes, in so many ways.
“The inherent difficulty with getting a ball up in the air is directly proportional to the stickiness the game has,” says Breaker. “Is Birdie Ball like training wheels? Yeah, it is. But why can’t we have training wheels? There’s a reason checkers isn’t chess.”
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