The Sport of Golf Is in A Global Downturn, but ELHS Coach Bob Filter Is Keeping His Program Strong
EAST LANSING, Mich. - East Lansing High School girls’ varsity golf was once a dominant program, defined by 14 straight state finals appearances through 2014. A sudden drop off in success changed the way head coach Bob Filter is approaching the game.
An inclusive environment at ELHS is putting an emphasis on fun and life lessons.
“What we’re relying on now in East Lansing is, ‘Hey, you’re my friend, do you want to come golf with me?’ and it’s a friend,” said Filter. “Two girls come up to the high school and one of them is interested in golf, and they tell the other, ‘You should come out with me’.
“Honestly, we’re getting a lot of girls involved in our program that are just a friend.”
There are 22 girls on the ELHS golf team, with only eight playing on varsity. The other 14 are just learning the basics of the game.
“In the East Lansing community, golf was always seen as a sport that kids played,” said Filter. “It also helped that for a really long time you had an institution like Walnut Hills. It was a place where a lot of kids learned how to golf because they would go to the junior golf program and learn.”
Walnut Hills Country Club was thriving during golf’s popularity boost at the start of the 21st century. The Oldsmobile Classic, an LPGA tour event, was held at Walnut Hills from 1992 to 2000. However, Walnut Hills fell victim to the steady decline of golf, as it closed this last winter.
“That club has a 95-year history, and you see dying membership and uncertainty in what the future holds,” said Filter. “You start to see families, especially people my age, we don’t join clubs. People our age tend to spend more money on travel.”
The closing of Walnut Hills represents a trend around the world. According to the National Golf Foundation, over 211 golf courses closed in 2016. NGF also announced that even more courses are projected to close by the end of 2018.
Golf is an expensive game to play. According to Golf Week, the average cost of 18 holes of golf at a public course is $36 and according to Global Golf, the average cost of golf clubs is between $200 and $400. An organization called “Youth on Course” is helping to cut those costs down for kids 19 and under. It costs $5 to join.
“You can walk into any golf course that participates in the program and for $3 for nine holes and $5 for 18 holes you can go out and play,” said Filter. “That’s an incredible deal. Groesbeck Golf Course in Lansing participates in it. Cost being the number one barrier to playing golf, Youth on Course has now said that we don’t want that to be a barrier.
“For $10, I’ve just given my kids an entire afternoon of things to do.”
Golf’s slow decline can be directly correlated with the drop off of success at ELHS. But the stability in the Lansing area is one of the reasons that ELHS girls golf is going to continue.
“We are really lucky where we sit right here at East Lansing High School because we are surrounded by golf,” said Filter.
A few miles south of the high school, there are two 18 hole golf courses at Michigan State’s Forest Akers club. Hawk Hollow has a nine-hole executive course, which is great for JV golfers because it’s only a par-31. There is a 12-hole course at Woodside Golf Course in Lansing. Just north of the school, there are 18 more holes at Eagle Eye.
“You’ve got all these golf courses that have all different levels of access to players,” said Filter. “What makes me hopeful is that there is a golf course and a type of golf that can fit every single person that would want to play golf.”
Two of the top golfers on the team are sophomores Holly O’Neill and Mary Kate Swords. O’Neill averages a score of 96 and Swords an average of 93.
O’Neill is glad she played this past season.
“I’ve enjoyed getting closer with my team and getting more opportunities to spend time with them and have a bunch of fun,” said O’Neill. “I love playing with everybody and it’s so much fun being a part of the team. The next two years are better things to come.”
Swords is also confident moving forward.
“I’m really excited for the next two years because we had a better season this year than last year,” said Swords. “It makes me realize that we can keep getting better and keep building on it and make it to states.”
Golf isn’t seeing the popularity it once did. Filter is transforming the perception of golf in the eyes of young women, with hopes that success on the course will soon follow.
“I want it to become a thing where I’m developing these girls socially and developing them as people,” said Filter. “Developing their sense of integrity. We have to make this a game where everybody feels like they can embrace it. I want it to be a game where every kid can feel like they can go play for the golf team if they wanted to.”