Golf Ontario’s Strategic Plan More Than A Paper Tiger












Reed On The Greens December 2, 2018
by Jeffrey Reed, Editor,

It is often said that the game of golf is played in a global village. Perhaps only soccer reaches as many corners of the earth as golf.

But according to Golf Ontario executive director Mike Kelly, growing the game begins at home – in particular within the cozy confines of individual golf clubs.

With Golf Ontario’s new four-year strategic plan now published, one common theme emerges: Ontario’s 805 golf facilities must play a larger role in sustaining participation and in drawing more people – in particular, women and girls – to the game.

Mike Kelly

“I’ll be honest with you,” Kelly said, “Golf Ontario can’t grow the game alone. The reality is, it takes a village to grow the game in any given community, and it takes golf courses working together. It’s going to take people in the community to get involved, like we see in minor hockey.”

The golf industry is notorious for being insular. Golf Ontario’s focus on strengthening its relationships with facilities while giving them the tools they need to sustain participation and to grow the game will be much easier than getting individual clubs to step up their game. But if those clubs work collectively for the good of all stakeholders, then everyone will win. Convincing them to get off their collective behind is the real issue.

Golf By The Numbers

Golf Ontario, the game’s steward as recognized by the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport, in partnership with Golf Canada, calls its new strategic plan, Toward A Nation Golfing. It’s a suitable title, since Canada is second only to the U.S. in housing golf facilities.

In Ontario, there are 680 daily fee – public and semi-private – clubs, and 125 private clubs. London and Middlesex County boast seven private and 24 daily fee clubs, while in Southwestern Ontario there are 12 private clubs, 106 daily fee facilities, 18 individually-operated practice facilities plus numerous indoor golf simulators available to ease the pain of area golfers not fortunate enough to be snowbirds.

No one is more passionate than Kelly when it comes to growing the game of golf. He’s also wise enough to see past the smoke and mirrors delivered by most strategic plans that more resemble paper tigers than Tiger Woods when it comes to delivering on promises.

“Strategic plans are fantastic, but it’s all about demonstrating your commitment to that direction,” Kelly said. “At the end of the day, growing the sport needs sustainable solutions. A program won’t grow the game. And at the end of the day it comes down to the clubs. The facilities are where the new golfers will go to. And growing the game is also about the golfers we already have, but growing their passion for the game.

“There are certainly benefits to Golf Ontario, Golf Canada and PGA of Canada working together,” Kelly added, “but at the end of the day, it’s still up to the club. The club needs to be at the centre of what we’re doing. That’s where the golfers are.”

“At the end of the day, it comes down to the clubs.” Golf Ontario executive director Mike Kelly

If junior golfers are the future of the game, then Ontario could be in trouble. Kelly said less than half of Ontario clubs have a junior program, and that less than half of the clubs in Ontario even have a teaching professional.

Mackenzie Butzer. Photo: PGA of America.

It has been well documented that junior girls in Canada represent the largest demographic in terms of golf’s growth, but many of those junior golfers abandon the game as they reach adulthood because they lack playing partners. Better players don’t have that problem because they aren’t intimidated when teeing it up with boys.

Junior Tyson Tour grad Mackenzie Butzer of Chatham is among the minority. Butzer, 24, led NCAA Division I Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida to four straight women’s team titles, and captured two straight individual titles at the PGA Minority Collegiate Championship. She’s now an assistant coach at her alma mater.

As an 18 year old playing out of her home Maple City Country Club, Butzer won all seven of her 2013 Tyson Tour events and captured her third girls’ title (2010, 2012-13). Only London’s Ann Marie Kovacs captured that title three times, in 1991-93.

Butzer said the very fact that there are more junior boys golfing than there are junior girls makes it difficult to draw girls to tournament golf.

“I’m from a small town, and it could have been hard to find people to play with,” Butzer said, “but I played with the guys. I wasn’t intimidated, but most girls would be. They may be shy, or feel ashamed that they aren’t as good as the boys.

“Golf can be an expensive game, too. And there are so many other things for kids to do today,” Butzer added.

According to Tyson Tour convenor and City of London golf director Steve Bennett, who coached Mike Weir at Huron Oaks Golf Club in Bright’s Grove, Ontario, gone forever are the days when hundreds of kids are dropped off at the golf course each day to practice, have fun and compete against their peers – especially when it comes to junior girls.

Team Italy captures 2018 World Junior Girls Championship. Photo: Bernard Brault/Golf Canada.

“Keeping junior girls in the game has always been a problem since I’ve been involved with golf,” Bennett said, “and it will continue to be a problem. But we have to keep trying to attract them to the sport.”

And that’s exactly what Kelly said: never get complacent, always move forward, even when the odds are overwhelmingly against you. Kelly sees the World Junior Girls Championship as a great launching pad for getting more young women involved in the game.

The championship, headed by Golf Canada with partner Golf Ontario, and supported by the R&A and the International Golf Federation, was played for a fifth year in mid-September at Ottawa’s Camelot Golf and Country Club. According to Kelly, the Ontario golf industry can use the event as a catalyst to growing the game.

“It’s a world-class event. Sometimes people look at an event as very trendy, but really it’s a platform,” Kelly said. “Our intention is to bring both women and girls together at the event and hopefully create a festival around it. For example, we can give female business leaders a chance to connect with young junior girls – those who are trying the game for the first time, as well as (world junior competitors). We can also mix in women who are playing the game, either competitively or recreationally, to connect with junior golfers.”

According to Kelly, “It’s interesting that the female segment offers the biggest opportunity for growth, but it is also our biggest issue when it comes to retention.”

New Rules, New Handicapping, New Championships

These are exciting times for the game. Next year we usher in a fresh set of rules which aim to make the game friendlier for the amateur golfer and professional golfer alike. In 2020, the USGA and R&A will unveil a new World Handicap System which aims to create a single handicap index that’s easier to obtain and maintain.

The USGA and R&A have also recently announced they will administer a global ranking for golfers with disabilities, which will help to grow participation and competition around the world while promoting inclusivity. The ranking will launch on January 1, 2019 and will be administered in tandem with the World Amateur Golf Ranking for both men and women via

One of the most important announcements attached to Golf Ontario’s new strategic plan is that a new championship for golfers with disabilities will be launched in Ontario next year. More details are expected to be announced soon, but Kelly said already numerous Ontario clubs have come forward as potential host clubs.

“This event is a first step. And I think we can make this event pretty big in year two or three. We’ll chat with the R&A to ensure we have the right format and to iron out details. I know we won’t have an issue with a venue or with participants. But it’s a new area for us and it’s very exciting,” he said.

A Team Ontario program for disabled golfers is a real possibility, according to Kelly, who understands the need for a structured ranking system for disabled golfers, given the myriad of physical challenges that demographic faces.

On a personal note, and as a disabled golfer, I applaud Golf Ontario for launching this initiative. Kelly said it isn’t a pilot project; rather, it will run continuously and simultaneously with all other Golf Ontario programs.

Indeed, these are exciting times for golf in Ontario, but at the same time Golf Ontario has its hands full as it aims to grow the game. Financially, Golf Ontario is sound with four straight years of financial surplus. Now it’s up to all stakeholders – in particular, individual clubs – to raise their games.

“Our growth target for participation is very small. We’re not looking to change the world here. All we’re trying to do is be very specific with the use of our time and resources, and to work together with our partners. So it’s a bit new for use to take a step back and say, we want to grow the game, and we will. But it’s going to take a village,” Kelly said.

“We want to use golf to have a greater impact on our communities, and we need people who have a common belief and who get involved. But those are the people who are going to move it forward already. I’ve tried it many times, and I’ve failed. I’ve failed many times trying to create a program in our office that we felt was awesome, but failed when we went to market with it,” he explained.

“Sometimes golf takes a little bit longer to move in the right direction than it probably needs to. We love our core golf tenants. And we love to be the Ontario golf custodian. But we need to evolve, and I know we will.”

Kelly said Golf Ontario doesn’t have all the answers. “We don’t know exactly what’s going on out there,” he admitted. And he acknowledges that engaging industry stakeholders – in particular junior golfers – is a process.

The riddle that is golf will never be solved. It’s not a Rubik’s Cube. But that doesn’t stop us from trying to perfect our game from tee to green.

Likewise, Golf Ontario, through its new strategic plan, will continue to try to solve golf’s stagnant growth challenges – one club at a time, one village at a time.


Jeffrey Reed is a three-time writing award winner, as presented by the Golf Journalists Association of Canada, one of Canada’s leading golf journalists, and in 2019 celebrates a 40th year of covering the game in Southwestern Ontario. A disabled golfer, Reed is an ambassador for numerous golf industry members and a member of London’s Highland Country Club. His third book, The Canadian Seniors’ Golf Association, Celebrating 100 Years of  Seniors Golf, was published this summer by the CSGA. Reach him at 

Twitter Digg Delicious Stumbleupon Technorati Facebook Email

About jeffreyreed

A leading Canadian communications professional. Corporate office established 1989.