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Over the last three years we have watched the golf industry in the U.S. pull together in unprecedented ways. This unified leadership comes in response to urgent and complex challenges facing the game: that golf has become too expensive for too many people, that golf takes too long to play in a modern society that is constantly pressed for time, and that golf seems to sit behind closed gates in ways that are elitist and exclusionary for too many people.
Our ability to overcome these challenges depends on informed solutions developed through ongoing collaboration, rather than conflict. That's the approach that we have embraced at the U.S. Golf Association. We have supported successful programs like the PGA of America's Get Golf Ready initiative, which introduces the game to new players in five easy lessons, and the USGA--PGA Tee It Forward initiative, which encourages golfers to play from tees that best suit their driving distance and therefore to play faster and have more fun. Last year 10,000 girls at 249 sites nationwide participated in LPGA--USGA Girls Golf, and the program grew by 20%.
At the same time we are working with partners such as the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America to help make the game more affordable. The USGA's staff of 20 agronomists visited more than 1,250 courses in 2012, sharing best practices for improving the turfgrass we play on in ways that are good for the environment and the bottom line. We also convened a summit of leaders from golf, science, government and the environmental community to discuss the sport's use of water, one of our nation's most important and challenged resources. We believe that water usage may be the biggest challenge facing the game in years to come—a point that too few golfers truly understand.
These combined efforts have begun building a better future for the game. And after several years of declining participation, we're now seeing hopeful signs of progress, including a healthy increase in rounds played in 2012.
But working to sustain the game means more than simply providing a healthy economic future for golf. It also means protecting the traditions and character of this wonderful game. Together with the R&A, our partner in governing the game worldwide, the USGA proposed a rule that would prohibit a player from anchoring a club while making a stroke. For centuries the essence of the stroke has been to grip the club with two hands and swing the entire club freely. We hope the swing will be the same hundreds of years from now. Preserving the skill and challenge of the stroke is fundamental both to our obligation to govern and to the long-term health of the game.
Sustaining golf also requires a focus on the role that distance plays in the game. Through the work of the USGA and the R&A, driving distance at the elite amateur and professional level has remained quite stable over the past decade. Today the USGA and the R&A are studying the footprint of golf courses with an eye toward ensuring sustainability of the game for future generations. We want to understand how distance affects the footprint of the world's 33,000-plus courses, as well as courses yet to be built. We want to understand how the size of courses affects the cost of the game, the time it takes to play and the consumption of water and other resources. And we want to understand how distance affects golfers' enjoyment of the game. Could shorter courses potentially lessen the consumption of resources and foster the long-term economic and environmental health of the game? For too long we have gravitated toward courses that are longer, harder, require more space and cost more to maintain. We must change this model and reset our expectations by embracing courses that are shorter, more efficiently maintained, more affordable—and ultimately more fun.
Golf's return to the Olympics in 2016 has spurred an expansion of the game around the world. From Asia to South America to the Middle East, we are watching the sport grow at a rate not seen since the early 20th century. New populations with different cultures and languages are taking up the game. They may not have a long history with golf and its traditions, but with strong leadership we can ensure that the game growing around the world is the same game we have revered for more than 600 years.
Mike Davis is executive director of the USGA.