One reason why golf has stopped growing is that it has lost the organic root system that used to turn young caddies into lifelong devotees. That is the considered opinion of Bradley Klein, who ought to know. He is an editor at Golfweek magazine, the head of its course rating program and one of the world's most respected authors on golf architecture.
Plus, he is Exhibit A: a former teen caddie at the Woodmere Club who helped pay his 1971 SUNY-Binghamton tuition with a Long Island Caddie Scholarship.
"I fell in love with the trajectory of a golf ball. The first shot I ever saw, it landed, and I fell in love right there," said the man who earned a PhD in political science and was a professor for 14 years before he got back into the game that had hooked him.
In his myriad travels -- he is away 150 days a year as Golfweek's architecture editor -- he just doesn't see many young Bradley Klein types in caddie yards. The proliferation of golf carts has made teenage loopers as rare as double eagles, as have other factors. The bottom line is that golf has lost some of its pulse and lifeblood.
That was among the pitfalls he mentioned in his keynote address Monday at the Long Island Golf Association's meeting for club presidents, all of whom are well aware that their game is losing ground.
Still, his presentation to the group that once presented a scholarship to him was generously seasoned with golf's beauties as well as its challenges. Befitting an International Caddie Hall of Famer (he was on tour, carrying for Bernhard Langer), Klein came bearing detailed information: There were roughly as many U.S. private courses in 1930 as there are now, meaning the game has become dramatically more public. The average American home is 20 percent larger than in 1980, which might explain why most outdoor activities are flagging.
For him, though, the course always was liberating. "I wanted to get out of the house. I lived in a complicated house," the Rosedale, Queens, native said after his talk at Fresh Meadow Country Club (in his new book, "Wide Open Fairways," he refers to his father's mood disorder).
"I loved the look and feel of the open space. I couldn't wait to get out there in the morning. I still get up at 4 in the morning," the author said.
His feeling resonated with people in the audience Monday, whose mere presence validated Klein's point.
"I grew up in a caddie yard, like Bradley did," said Rick Meskell, the head pro at Meadow Brook Club. "My dad was an avid golfer and that's the way he introduced me to it. He said, 'You're going to learn more from the caddie yard out.' I was just talking to my new president about our caddie program and how to grow it."
Doug Vergith, the LIGA's executive director, said he got started as a caddie in Chautauqua, New York. "In my best loop, I had four good players. I carried doubles and got $4 a bag. I felt like I was rich," he said.
Vergith pointed out that the Long Island economy makes it hard for teen caddies, what with so many adults looping because they need the income. Klein added that New York State labor laws are more prohibitive than they were when he was carrying bags in the late 1960s.
Nonetheless, it is worth encouraging young people to give it a shot. Klein's whole life was shaped by his days carrying for the likes of Alan Finkelstein, now the president of the LIGA, whose dad also used to get his clubs and yardages from young Klein. Of the elder Finkelstein, the guest speaker said, "He was the most competitive 36-handicap I ever saw."
A Play Golf America day, featuring lessons from local pros, club demonstrations and a clinic by trick shot artist Dennis Walters, will be held 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at Eisenhower Park . . . Italian Americans in Government Inc. will hold its golf outing, benefiting AHRC (for people with developmental disabilities), June 5 at Lawrence Yacht and Country Club. Call 516-997-9683 . . . St. Joseph's College will hold its 24th Annual Golf Classic June 9 at Plandome Country Club. Honoree will be former athletic director Don Lizak. Call 631-687-2655.