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Opinion & Analysis

Why many former elite college golfers quit the game

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About a year ago, I was on social media connecting with college friends when I noticed something: many of these former elite college players didn’t appear to play any golf anymore. A couple months later, I brought the topic up to Dr. Laura Upenieks at Baylor University and a study was born to examine the motivations of mid-amateur golfers.

With the support of Golf Ontario, Reg Millage, Jussi Pitkanen (Finnish Women’s National Coach) and Khan Pullen of Australia, we collected data from 69 mid-amateur players trying to better understand key elements of their development and motivation. This included 20 questions over a 5-minute survey which covered everything from their family, their demographics, their competitive history, and their current relationship with golf.

So what did we find? In a forthcoming study entitled, “A Lifespan Approach to the Social Correlates of Motivations of Elite Mid-Amateur Golf Competitors in North America,” forthcoming in the International Journal of Golf Science, we found that the players who still competed in elite mid-amateur competition still showed a healthy love of the game of golf. According to our findings, 58% of our respondents were motivated by the prestige of winning, and 37% by the fact that their skill level allows them to be well-regarded. In addition, 54% of the sample was motivated to feel good about oneself. This suggests that some level of extrinsic motivation was present, but that many of our respondents were not motivated by extrinsic factors.

On the other hand, almost 75% of our sample reported that they derived personal satisfaction from mastering the game (the highest level of agreement), and 62% reported competing because playing competitive golf was an integral part of life. These latter statistics suggest that more than anything else, those who stayed involved in elite mid-amateur competition were driven by extrinsic motives.

The study shows an interesting counter narrative to the current thought of many coaches and parents, which pushes junior golfers to use golf as a career and to secure a scholarship. The evidence suggests that this creates the wrong motivations and can eventually drive people away from golf. In fact, we found that those who continued to play elite mid-amateur golf reported very high levels of intrinsic motivation, motivated by a desire to master the game.

So many of my former college teammates no longer play our wonderful game due to burnout, pressure, and/or the failure of not ascending to the PGA Tour. As researchers, Laura and I love this game and hope that this research can help start an informed discussion about why juniors should play golf. Our study shows that encouraging junior golfers to play for reasons that are intrinsically motivated and do not involve capitulating to the goals set forth by parents, coaches, or sport organizers is a good place to start.

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Brendan Ryan, an entrepreneur and scientist, is a passionate golfer who loves his local muni. Armed with a keen interest in the game, a large network of friends in the industry, Brendan works to find and produce unique content for GolfWRX.

15 Comments

15 Comments

  1. ChipNRun

    May 17, 2022 at 8:05 pm

    The study reached out to mid-amateur players to find out what motivated them to stay active in golf.

    Then, the study over-extrapolates, namely, uses the findings to guess about the motivations of those not included in the study, namely former college golfers who no longer play the game.

    A more sound way to build the study. Select the following groups:
    * 70 people who still play in mid-amateur events.
    * 70 golfers with college playing experience who have quit the game. (selecting this group would require quota sampling)

    Compare the Mid-Amateur vs. Quit Golf group to see the differences between the two groups.

    As study stand now, lots of “noise” – unexplainable patterns – limit effectiveness of study.

    (I have chaired 7 doctoral dissertations in the management area, so I know a bit about structuring valid research projects).

  2. namewitheldbecausecoachknows

    May 10, 2022 at 4:23 pm

    Too many repetitive motion injuries from practicing so much was my biggest reason. You do not have to hit balls or play for 4 hours per day to get better.

    • Professor

      May 12, 2022 at 9:10 am

      Amen! I also believe there’s not enough attention paid to the mental side of golf. When you hit a bad shot it’s either swing mechanics or equipment when in reality it’s more likely lack of intention and/or commitment to the shot. Also, learning to control your breathing and heart rate and playing under pressure. And of course, learning to manage expectations.

  3. phizzy

    May 9, 2022 at 5:29 pm

    Played at a D2 college for a year and the party lifestyle and health problems derailed my dreams to try and make on the PGA Tour. My love for the game is as strong as however after two organ transplants, herniated discs and a bad left knee. I will play for as long as I can until my body gives out or my mind goes.

  4. Carl Spackler

    May 8, 2022 at 6:27 am

    I played at a high level between the ages of 14-17, burned out, took academic scholarship and didn’t play golf in college. Had 40 schools recruiting me for golf. I was sick of it. Fell in love with again while in college and today 30 years later I still love studying the game and playing to a scratch handicap. I think not playing golf in college the best decision I could have ever made. I was a really good player but was never going to be on TV. I focused on my eduction and build a professional career. All of my friends who played in college quite playing the game. I still play 20+ times a year and still enjoy every minute of it.

  5. Duh

    May 8, 2022 at 12:12 am

    This is no shock. Not having the time to play , means it takes 3/4 holes to settle in. Well. That’s now grinding out a 75-79. For someone who once broke par 75 % of the time , shooting 75-79 and having to grind to do it , is just hell on earth.

    It’s no different than anything else. Ignorance is bliss. The 18 handicap doesn’t know what he’s missing. The former D1 star , now insurance salesman with 3 kids does. And it’s akin to torcher to be around the game and never taste that sweet adrenaline rush of a heater again.

  6. F

    May 7, 2022 at 12:22 pm

    The pyramid is narrow at the top for golf to be a steady income as a player is why most of them quit, not because they’re bad players, it’s because there’s only so few spaces up there and one bad shot can knock you out

  7. Ivan Morris

    May 7, 2022 at 5:16 am

    No surprises here but I would like to read the whole report. It’s obvious that those with the propensity to quit would never have succeeded anyway. There are thousands upon thousands of young golfers good enough ball hitters to play on the PGA Tour but will never get there because they do not have the extremely rare mental capacity required. I like to win as much as anybody (and did!) but playing well and endeavouring to ‘master the game’ rather than winning was, indeed, a better motivation. I’m 77 now and will only quit when my ageing body ‘gives up’ first. I have had a few serious injury setbacks but I survived them and so has my golf, which at its most basic level is ‘too good for me physically and psychologically to give it up’. It’s my way of life. Golf has enriched my life in spite of some ‘big disappointments’ – in the end, triumphs and failures are only signposts. In golf, it is ALWAYS the next shot that counts. These days, I am consoled and motivated by being able to beat my age regularly if I play off tees that suit my 200-yards drives. As long as I can do that I’ll never give up golf! Keep up the good work, Brendan, give me a shout sometime. My email is attached.

    • Ray Neese

      May 11, 2022 at 5:17 pm

      Well said. Golf has given me going on 47 years this year plenty of joy and frustration. Life does get in the way and that’s why in the older days divorce golfers sacrificed either a wife, children or both to pursue their dreams. I love the challenge of golf for myself and enjoy once a week rounds with my friends, music and a few cold ones. I too will play until my bodies dictates I quit. At 62 I have many years until I can shoot my age or try to anyway.

  8. Vas

    May 6, 2022 at 2:56 pm

    As someone who had a cup of coffee in D1 golf, it was burnout from the endless “relief or frustration” cycle that did me in. Funny story though… tearing up my shoulder in a different sport killed my plus handicap days, but I love golf more than ever these days. Not sure if it’s a blessing or a curse!

  9. Cdub

    May 5, 2022 at 10:17 pm

    Refreshing article. While I would never consider myself elite (played at top 15 d3 level), I don’t find golf much fun anymore in my 40’s. I feel like my brain is ingrained with visuals of good shots that I just can’t execute anymore after many surgeries and middle aged life. This game is hard.

  10. Jon

    May 5, 2022 at 2:19 pm

    For a mid am who was once a elite player, as life gets in the way and your no longer able to spend the time to keep your game , many would rather not play than be continually disappointed grinding out an 80. What used to be satisfying and rewarding is now just disappointment and anger

    • lenny

      May 5, 2022 at 3:19 pm

      Certainly true in my experience as well, but it can be overcome. I wasn’t “elite” by any measure, but I played competitively (DIII) through college. When I moved on to grad school, I only found time to play a handful of times a year, and practicing was non-existent other than putting on the carpet. It was a huge and frustrating adjustment coming to terms with the fact that it wasn’t reasonable to hold myself to the same standards and expectations anymore.

      • Tyler

        May 6, 2022 at 10:04 am

        I played at a low level D1 school and your last statement is my exact reason for playing less and less. I still expect low 70’s and it is just not possible with out continual practice that’s not possible with family and working a real job.

    • Mower

      May 5, 2022 at 7:01 pm

      Yeah, f*** golf.

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Opinion & Analysis

The Wedge Guy: A Tale of Two Misses

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It seems like I somewhat “touched a nerve” with last week’s post ‘A Defense of Blades’, based on the scoring you all gave my take on that controversial topic.

I do appreciate it when you take the time to score your reaction to my work, as it keeps me tuned in to what you really want me to pontificate about. Before I get into today’s topic, I request that any of you who have a subject you’d like me to address please drop me an email at [email protected], OK?

So, in somewhat of a follow-up to last week, let’s talk today about misses. Those too frequent shots that move your scores in the wrong direction.

Early in my life, I was always part of “the group” of low-handicap players who had various kinds of “money games”, but that put me in touch only with other low-handicap players who were highly competitive. Just as I was getting fully engaged in the golf equipment industry in the early 1980s, I was blessed to be a part of a group at my club called “The Grinders”. We had standing tee times every day…so if you could get away, you played. There were about 35-40 of us who might show up, with as many as 6-7 groups going off on Fridays and Saturdays.

These guys sported handicaps from scratch to 20, and we threw up balls to see how we were paired, so for twenty years, I had up close and personal observation of a variety of “lab rats.”

This let me observe and study how many different ways there were to approach the game and how many different kinds of mishits could happen in a round of golf. As a golf industry marketer and club designer, I couldn’t have planned it any better.

So back to a continuation of the topic of last week, the type of irons you choose to play should reflect the kinds of misses you are hoping to help. And the cold, hard truth is this:

We as golf club designers, engineers and fitters, can only do so much to help the outcome of any given shot.

Generally, mishits will fall into two categories – the “swing miss” and the “impact miss”.

Let’s start with the former, as it is a vast category of possibilities.

The “swing miss” occurs when the swing you made never had a chance of producing the golf shot you had hoped to see. The clubhead was not on a good path through impact, and/or the clubface was not at all square to the target line. This can produce any number of outcomes that are wildly wrong, such as a cold skull of the ball, laying the sod over it, hard block to the right (for a right-hand player), smother hook…I think you get the point.

The smaller swing misses might be a draw that turns over a bit too much because you rotated through impact a bit aggressively or a planned draw that doesn’t turn over at all because you didn’t. Or it could be the shot that flies a bit too high because you released the club a bit early…or much too low because you had your hands excessively ahead of the clubhead through impact.

The swing miss could be simply that you made a pretty darn good swing, but your alignment was not good, or the ball position was a bit too far forward in your swing…or too far back. Basically, the possible variations of a “swing miss” are practically endless and affect tour pros and recreational golfers alike.

The cruel fact is that most recreational golfers do not have solid enough swing mechanics or playing disciplines to deliver the clubhead to the ball in a consistent manner. It starts with a fundamentally sound hold on the club. From there, the only solution is to make a commitment to learn more about the golf swing and your golf swing and embark on a journey to become a more consistent striker of the golf ball. I would suggest that this is one of the most fascinating aspects of the game and encourage anyone who loves golf to go down this path.

But today’s post is about “mishits”, so let’s move on the other and much smaller category of misses…the “impact miss”. As a 40-year golf club designer, this is the world in which I function and, unfortunately, to which I am limited.

The “impact miss” is when most of the elements of the swing pretty much fall into place, so that the club is delivered pretty accurately to the ball…on the right path…face square to the target line at impact…but you miss the sweet spot of the club by just a bit.

Finding ways of getting better results out of those mishits is the singular goal of the entire golf club industry.

Big drivers of today are so much more forgiving of a 1/8 to ½ inch miss than even drivers of a decade ago, it’s crazy. Center strikes are better, of course, with our fast faces and Star Wars technology, but the biggest value of these big drivers is that your mishits fly much more like a perfect hit than ever before. In my own launch monitor testing of my current model driver to an old Reid Lockhart persimmon driver of the mid-1990s, I see that dead center hits are 20-25 yards different, but mishits can be as far as 75-80 yards apart, the advantage obviously going to the modern driver.

The difference is not nearly as striking with game improvement irons versus a pure forged one-piece blade. If the lofts and other specs are the same, the distance a pure strike travels is only a few yards more with the game improvement design, but a slight mishit can see that differential increase to 12-15 yards. But, as I noted in last week’s article, this difference tends to reduce as the lofts increase. Blades and GI irons are much less different in the 8- and 9-irons than in the lower lofts.

This has gotten a bit longer than usual, so how about I wrap up this topic next week with “A Tale of Two Misses – Part 2”? I promise to share some robotic testing insights that might surprise you.

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Golf's Perfect Imperfections

Golf’s Perfect Imperfections: World Long Drive! Go Mu!

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In this week’s podcast we discuss Wisdom In Golf Premium, new ways to help and fun talk about rules and etiquette.

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Opinion & Analysis

Vincenzi: How the 2022 Presidents Cup actually grew the game

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As fall approached, the world of professional golf was drowning in a sea of continuous division and animosity.

The Presidents Cup, which should have been a silver lining in the most tumultuous time in the history of the sport, had suddenly become a pasquinade.

The Internationals had always been an underdog and had just one win in fourteen tries against the Americans.

In 2019, the scrappy Internationals led by Ernie Els gave the United States team led by Tiger Woods all that they could handle at Royal Melbourne. The United States retained the cup, winning the competition 16–14, but the Els’ team fought to the end. The future was bright for professional golf on the world stage.

In 2022, things were different. The Internationals had just lost arguably their two best players in Cameron Smith and Joaquin Niemann, plus a handful of other Presidents Cup shoe-ins including Louis Oosthuizen and Abraham Ancer.

The International players who had joined the controversial LIV Golf series were deemed ineligible to participate in the competition, which resulted in the decimation of what should have been a deep and competitive team of Internationals. By the time the event started, the United States had ballooned to a -900 favorite.

One phrase that’s been repeated ad nauseum over the past few months has been “grow the game”.

After a bleak opening few days at the Presidents Cup, we caught a glimpse of what “growing the game” looked like over the weekend.

There are plenty of ways to potentially grow the game of golf. One of those ways unfolded in real time at Quail Hollow thanks in part to a spirited group of Asian golfers who refused to let their team go quietly into the night.

First, there was the budding superstar, Tom Kim.

Kim scored two points for the Internationals, but the impact he had on the event dwarfed his point total. The South Korean hijacked the event with his charisma, energy and determination to help his team succeed. Golf fans were treated to memorable moment after memorable moment whenever the 20-year-old was on their television screen.

Kim had already had a handful of moments that will live in our memories for many Presidents Cups to come, but the most memorable came on the 18th hole of Saturday’s afternoon foursomes. Facing a seemingly invincible duo of Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele, Kim put a 2-iron to less than six feet of the hole. He then sunk the clutch putt to knock off the fourth and fifth ranked players in the world.

Tom wasn’t the only “Kim” to leave a lasting impact at the 2022 Presidents Cup. Fellow South Korean Si Woo Kim had his share of memorable moments as well.

Going into Sunday singles, the Internationals were trailing 11-7 and in need of a historic day. Typically, the trailing team will “frontload” their best players to attempt a comeback. When United States captain Davis Love III called the name of Justin Thomas to lead off in the first match of the day, many expected the international team captain Trevor Immelmann to call the name of Hideki Matsuyama or Adam Scott. Instead, he called the name of Si Woo Kim.

Si Woo did not disappoint. Kim took out the de-facto leader of the United States team 1-up. The 27-year-old didn’t shy away from the spotlight, and matched Thomas both in his ability to sink clutch putts and to bring energy with his animated style of play.

Tom Kim and Si Woo Kim provided some of the most memorable moments of the Presidents Cup, but it’s Sungjae Im who’s been the best player for the Internationals in both 2019 and 2022.

Back in 2019, Sungjae tied with Abraham Ancer for the leading points scorer (3.5) for the Internationals during their narrow defeat in Australia. He was a rookie then, but this year he was depended upon to go against some on the United States best teams and delivered, scoring 2.5 points and knocking off young American star Cameron Young in their singles match.

As influential as the performances by the trio of South Koreans were, the overall impact of Asian golfers cannot be discussed without mentioning Hideki Matsuyama.

The 2021 Masters Champion has long been rumored to be interested in joining LIV Golf, but he was at Quail Hollow competing alongside his International teammates.

Stars were born at the 2022 Presidents Cup, but Matsuyama has been “growing the game” for what feels like a lifetime. Labeled from an early age as the savior for Japanese golf, Hideki has delivered time and time again. The former young prodigy has slowly but surely turned into a pillar of global golf and leader of the Internationals.

After a slow start, Hideki was able to grind out a win and a tie to help the Internationals remain competitive throughout the weekend.

While the Internationals were eventually defeated 17.5-12.5, a more important mission that cannot be measured by wins and losses was undoubtedly accomplished.

Amongst all of the turmoil and strife in the world golf, it’s easy to forget how much the game means to so many people.

Countless young golfers across the world went to bed on Sunday night and dreamt of being the next Tom Kim, Si Woo Kim or Hideki Matsuyama.

That sounds like an excellent way to “grow the game”.

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