Why PGA CEO Seth Waugh Says Golf Is the Answer to the Pandemic
Canceled tournaments. A raging pandemic. Tiger Woods unlikely to compete again. Despite all of that, Seth Waugh, CEO of the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA), is firmly convinced that the future of golf has never been brighter.
“What sport was the first to appear on television once the COVID-19 pandemic began?” Waugh asks. “Golf! The game gave people hope and a sense that normalcy could eventually return. As a result, it is become a much more relatable sport. More and different people are playing the game today than ever, and there are more ways to play it together than ever. Our sport’s future has never been better.”
As early as last May, when the world had just shut down, Waugh realized that golf could be part of the solution.
“At its core,” Waugh says, “golf is a walk in the park. And if you put a bag on your shoulder and walk in a 200-acre park, which is what a golf course really is, you’d probably be totally safe, right?”
“So, we challenged our folks to think about golf that way, and then we found our way to Dr. Fauci and the leaders of the Centers for Disease Control,” he continued. “We told them, ‘we have this concept and belief that golf can be part of the solution not the problem. That people need a healthy escape for mind and body. Isn’t that what people need? We are all stuck on zoom, and working in our bedrooms, and we need to find things that we can do safely to breath some air and do something for ourselves.’ So, we worked with the CDC to find responsible paths to reopen golf courses so that people could have some sense of normalcy in their lives.”
Waugh says that the response from the CDC was entirely positive.
“As a result,” Waugh explained, “we were able to reopen courses and get people out in the sunshine socializing, enjoying nature and having a piece of their normal pre-pandemic lives—but in a safe way. On the other hand, we had to postpone the Ryder Cup for a year because, as we said at the time, a Ryder Cup without fans isn’t a Ryder Cup, but we are excited to bring it back later this year. In the meantime, millions of people have been able to find sanctuary and return some joy in their lives on America’s golf courses.”
Tiger Woods is currently recuperating from his injuries, but Waugh really hopes he will be able to be a presence at the Ryder Cup—if not involved in the action, then perhaps riding in a golf cart to coach and inspire teammates.
“The beauty of sports is that you never know when a superstar like a Tiger Woods, a Michael Jordan, a Muhammad Ali comes along,” Waugh said. “Look at tennis. We’ve had Federer, Nadal and Djokovic for the last 20 years. Before that, in golf, you had Arnie and Jack.”
“So, the good news about golf is that we know there will be future GOATs [greatest of all time players]…[we] don’t have to just wait around for the next Tiger, but rather appreciate the phenomenal number of outstanding players we have today,” Waugh said “Ratings are up. The obsessed and the newly converted are enjoying the game in every form as there are more ways for individuals to get involved in golf than ever before as a participant and a fan.”
Waugh credits Topgolf as an approach that’s bringing more people to the sport.
“When Topgolf began, many viewed it as competition,” Waugh acknowledged. “But then we all quickly realized, this is a new gateway to the game, one that can broaden the appeal. Topgolf is now one of our most trusted and valued partners, and we have PGA members working at virtually every Topgolf facility across the country, showing people how to improve and have more fun playing our beautiful game. By embracing Topgolf, instead of running from it, we’ve been able to broaden the base of the game, and we’ve had the opportunity to introduce millions of new players to the experience of getting out there on an actual course.”
“Whether you’re playing 18 holes with your regular foursome, or you’re getting in a quick three holes after work, or you’re going to the range, or you’re playing Topgolf, it’s all golf,” he added. “I compare it to shooting hoops in the driveway with your buddies or your kids. It’s not five-on-five with a referee, but it’s still basketball, right? There are just more ways to enjoy the sport than ever, and that’s one of the important reasons that the game is growing so rapidly.”
However, one of Waugh’s deepest concerns is increasing diversity in golf.
“Our history is not perfect by any means,” Waugh admitted. “We’re working hard to participate in today’s movements of social justice and diversity. As an industry, we have assembled working groups focused passionately on how to create a bigger funnel of employees of color and gender in the industry. We are an $85 billion industry with over two million jobs. We all want to compete for the best people to join our entity, but unless we widen the funnel overall, we won’t really progress the industry or the game.”
“The ruling bodies now see ourselves as ‘Golf Inc.,’—not competitors but more like we’re the board of directors of golf. We see ourselves as fiduciaries of our game, and our job is to pass it on better than we found it,” he concluded. “It’s a lot like when I was running Deutsche Bank. I had to maximize revenues for my shareholders. And the way you do that is you get the best employees and treat them well. In my role at the PGA, I’m trying to maximize long-term benefits and opportunity for the members through a variety of channels—to make the lives of our 28,000 [members] better, to grow the game and to leave it better than we found it.”
New York Times bestselling author and Shark Tank contestant Michael Levin runs MichaelLevinWrites.com, a leading book ghostwriting firm.