Is high school golf dying?

By Steve Sell
April 11, 2017

What is happening to high school golf?

The subject is near and dear to my heart and right now my heart is breaking.

I played high school golf at Independence during the halcyon days of the mid 1970s, back when there were both two-man and four-man divisions, which put pressure on the coaches to decide how to set their lineups.

I also grew up in a golfing bastion as while Southeast Kansas hasn’t done well on the state stage in football and basketball, in the ‘70s it was a golfing mecca. In addition to Indy, other golfing powerhouses were Chanute, Coffeyville, Pittsburg and Parsons as our battles with those schools were classic. We had state champions emerge from the area, including my alma mater.

The state changed the rules more than 30 years ago that six players would still compete, but the best four scores would count. That meant if a golfer or two had an off day, it wouldn’t totally hurt their team.

Having covered high school golf for the past 40 years, I fear for the future of the sport. If any evidence was needed, look no further than Monday’s McPherson Invitational at Turkey Creek.

First off, though, it should be noted it was a tough day weather-wise. Anytime the wind blows out of the north at 20 mph. or more, scores are going to go up. Four of the first five holes on the front nine head dead into the wind. It also makes the stretch of 13, 14 and 15 very difficult and those holes are hard enough to begin with.

Sacred Heart, which will win Class 2A in a walk, shot a 303, outstanding even in mild conditions. I have a feeling on a nice day it would have been the low 290s since par is 70.

Hays shot a 318 for second, a score in past years that would have been middle of the pack. But a 345 by Arkansas City for third? There’s been years when 345 would have been at the bottom.

I talked with several coaches about the dearth of golfers. One of them, McPherson High grad Charlie Pierce —  now the head coach at Hutchinson — could only shake his head. Hutchinson has one of the most legendary programs in Kansas history, yet the Salt Hawks’ low four scores on Monday totaled 384 — a 96 average. Pierce said he’s never had a year where he has so few of golfers and such little quality. There’s been several years where Hutch has broken 300 in this tournament.

Mark Watts, who always has a strong program at Hays, said he believes social media in part is playing a role. Kids these days spend so much time texting, on instagram and other forms of communication that it’s taking time away from all activities, not to mention school work. 

Then you have sports that have become year-around, such as basketball and even football. Instead of practicing their chipping and putting or hitting balls on the range on the weekends, kids are playing MAYB tournaments or attending camps.

Just look at McPherson High’s golf team, one that I once helped coach to a state championship in 1991. Coach Kurt Kinnamon has his smallest squad ever and had he not coaxed some of his basketball players into coming out, he’d been hard-pressed to field a complete team.

And with Turkey Creek head pro John Hastert leaving for Wichita later this month, I really fear at some point McPherson High won’t have golf because he spent a lot of time in the summer with youths.

Kinnamon does have a great player in Jacob Lackey. A senior who has signed with the University of Central Oklahoma, Lackey spends countless hours practicing. I know because I spend a lot of time at the course and very seldom is Lackey not there when I’m there. His hard work has paid off because he’ll be playing at the NCAA Division II level.

I realize golf isn’t for everybody. An average sports fan often looks at it as a “country club” sport. It’s not cheap for clubs, golf bags and balls. And to belong to a public course as Turkey Creek or McPherson Country Club costs a pretty penny.

High school golf is going the way of the dinosaur and that makes me sad. Not only did I enjoy the competition when I played in high school and later in college, but I still have friendships with some of my opponents that have lasted more than 40 years. It’s also a game of sportsmanship and teaches you many life lessons, such as honesty and being cordial to others.