By Jeff Nations
FRONT ROYAL -- Mike Ahrnsbrak loves the game of golf, that's easy enough to surmise.
A PGA Professional and the general manager of Blue Ridge Shadows Golf Club in Front Royal, Ahrnsbrak makes his living by instructing others -- and he's good at it, too, as evidenced by his selection by Golf Digest as one of the nation's finest golf teachers.
Ahrnsbrak knows that not everyone feels that way about golf, and he's among a growing number of golf professionals aiming to break down some of the barriers they've discovered that have kept and continue to keep potential newcomers from taking up the sport.
A member of the National PGA Board of Directors, Ahrnsbrak said the sport's governing body has noticed a disturbing downward trend golf participation in recent years, and even hired a consulting firm to identify the main barriers in encouraging people to play golf.
Among those findings -- golf is too difficult, too expensive, too exclusionary and just takes too long.
"We've been dealing with this issue for the better part of four or five years," Ahrnsbrak said. "With the downturn of the economy, a lot of golf courses, like a lot of other businesses, have gone through some tough times. We have experienced that here at Blue Ridge Shadows."
Taking a page from the PGA's Golf 2.0 featured programs, Ahrnsbrak and Blue Ridge Shadows have tried to be progressive in their approach to luring new golfers -- especially women -- and encouraging lapsed players to return once more to the game.
"We understand the barriers to playing the game," Ahrnsbrak said. "A lot of the barriers are just not true. Is it a hard game to play? Yeah, if you're going to the back of the tees it can be.
"There is a cost barrier. People think it's expensive to play, and it can be. But we have times of the day when people can come out and it's more affordable."
Much of the work Ahrnsbrak deals with introducing potential new players to golf. On Saturday and Sunday, Blue Ridge Shadows will host an expanded Family Fun Day -- a regular feature at the club -- offering free food and games, face painting, balloons, Frisbee golf, access to the putt-putt course, skills contests ... and yes, free golf lessons for adults and kids. This weekends Family Fun Day will be held on both Saturday and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. at Blue Ridge Shadows.
"We've been doing Family Fun Day every Sunday for quite a while," Ahrnsbrak said. "Participation has always been somewhat sporadic, so we thought we'd try a different approach this year."
"It's something we're committed to and that we believe in. We're going to continue to do it and I think it's eventually going to take off. We want to get people to consider Blue Ridge Shadows as their facility, even if they don't play golf."
Ahrnsbrak said Blue Ridge Shadows has implemented the "Play Golf America" and "Get Golf Ready" initiatives pushed by PGA. "Get Golf Ready," part of the Golf 2.0 concept which Ahrnsbrak describes as a road map to make the game more welcoming, is an introductory program emphasizing the fun of playing. The series of five lessons is aimed at bringing adults into the game "in a fast, fun and affordable way." Ahrnsbrak said that teaching on the course is just part of the introduction. Participants will be shown around the clubhouse and pro shop, advised on issues ranging from golf etiquette to basic equipment needs.
The idea is to remove the stress and uncertainty newcomers might have about trying golf.
"Ultimately the game has to be fun," Ahrnsbrak said. "The game has to be enjoyable or you aren't going to play it."
Blue Ridge Shadows also has specific programs aimed at bringing more women into the game, and that approach seems to be working as the course was recently ranked No. 31 nationally as a woman-friendly course by Golf Digest Woman Magazine.
Kids are another area of focus, with Blue Ridge Shadows charging now greens fees for young golfers. It's just another way to encourage budding golfers to stay on course.
"We started to see golf participation declining and continue to decline," Ahrnsbrak said. "We knew we needed to do something to stem the tide. We bring in a lot of people to start playing the game, but we're also losing a lot of people for whatever reason.
"We can teach them do it, inexpensively. Hopefully once they take up the game, they'll stay with it because golf is one of the few sports that you can play basically as long as you can walk."
For more information about Blue Ridge Shadow's special programs, visit the website at http:/blueridgeshadows.com or call 540-631-9661.
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>