By Ron Driscoll
LA ROMANA, Dominican Republic – When Mark Lawrie took over in The R&A’s newly created position of director for Latin America and the Caribbean last January, he had just finished helping to stage the first Latin America Amateur Championship at his home club, Pilar Golf, outside Buenos Aires. As he embarks on his second year with The R&A and his second LAAC, his message for the game in the region is firmly established: development over dollars.
“Much more than funding, the best thing we can do in the long term is to set up ways and means for people to get better training,” said Lawrie, who served as executive director of the Argentine Golf Association for 15 years. “If we want the game to grow, we need good instructors, good superintendents and good administrators.”
Lawrie realizes that, while expanding knowledge and best practices requires funding, it doesn’t mean simply sending a yearly check to allied associations. The 29 national associations he oversees include all the countries in South America, Central America and the Caribbean, save for Mexico, which is affiliated with the United States Golf Association.
“The growth of the game is so firmly linked to economic issues relating to each country,” said Lawrie, who in his years leading his home country association played major roles in the establishment of the PGA Tour Latinoamerica in 2012 and the staging of the World Amateur Team Championships in Buenos Aires in 2010. “Foundations are understandably tempted to start a public facility – a driving range or a nine-hole course – as a statement toward the game. They might not do the due diligence on how to keep it operating, though. You need the right people to staff it and keep sustainable. They must be aware that no one’s going to fund it forever.”
Lawrie stresses the “teach them to fish” credo, all the while understanding that golf is not an easy game to master.
“I’ve been fortunate to play most sports, and I would rate golf as one of the more difficult ones,” said Lawrie, 58, a fourth-generation Argentine. “If you’re not gifted in some way, the rate of failure at golf can be very high. If the guy who is coaching you is not reasonably proficient, it’s very likely that you’re going to get frustrated and leave the game. It takes a lot to get you into the game. We don’t want you out of the game because your grip is wrong or your stance is wrong because someone hasn’t taught you the game properly. That hurts.”
When Lawrie visits national federations in the region, he asks a seemingly baffling question: “What do you think people think you do?” After a typically blank stare from his audience, he goes on to expound on it: “In other words, what is the perception of the player who is playing at his or her club on a Saturday morning? What do they think your federation does for golf? Do they understand what you’re there for?”
The point of this exercise by Lawrie is that national and regional federations – which have nowhere near the resources of The R&A or the USGA – understandably need to narrow their focus.
“To measure your success as a federation, you need people to have some reply to that question,” Lawrie said. “Instead of doing six things, you should choose two and do them well. Stake out a plan for coaching juniors – what resources do we need to do that? Teach the Rules of Golf, focusing on how to achieve that. A federation with a staff of six can get carried away with too many initiatives and find at the end of the year that they didn’t achieve very much.”
When he visits each national association, Lawrie stresses the “rising tide” approach that he believes will ultimately produce sustained growth.
“I tell them, you might feel my coming here means I’m going to get you some money,” he said. “If it’s a good project, I will try to help, but beyond that we’re trying to set up something that’s a little more long-lasting. How can we as an organization facilitate more training, more education for stakeholders in each country that will create a multiplying effect? Money is only going to go so far. The way ahead is education.”
Ron Driscoll is the manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.