The Madras High School golf program, once championship caliber, is down to a single player

by: BILLY GATES/THE PIONEER - Madras senior Lauren Simmons works on her chipping during practice Sunday at Desert Peaks Golf Course outside Madras. She is the only golfer in the Madras High School program this season.Once a stellar, state title-winning sport for Madras High School, the golf program is on the brink of extinction.

After fielding both a boys and girls team last season, and every year before that in recent history, the White Buffalos don't have any boys this year, and just one girl — senior Lauren Simmons.

How can a program with a history of success, a nice home course in Desert Peaks and dedicated teachers of the game become nothing?

There are a few theories out there that could potentially explain it, but the decline in golf's popularity is something that the nation is dealing with, especially on the boys side of the tee.

According to participation surveys conducted by the National Federation of State High School Associations, participation in boys high school golf has dropped from 157,756 in the 2009-10 school year to 152,725 during the 2011-12 year, a decline of more than 5,000 boys nationwide, or roughly a 3 percent drop within the span of the three school years.

In a study done by the National Golf Foundation, participation rates for junior golfers (ages 6-17) have dropped 24 percent from 3.8 million in 2005 to 2.4 million in 2011.

So how does this relate to what the Madras High School program is going through? Madras is on par with the national trend. Participation has been falling, and without any more interested young players, it will die.

Why the decline?

Like most sports, expense is a big factor. The equipment for golf especially is pretty high up the price scale. A set of nice, respectable clubs can run someone anywhere between $400-$800, then throw in course green fees and travel, and the price tag is just about enough to make a mother's purse run for cover.

Oh, and lessons. Can't forget lessons. Those teaching pros have to make some money, too.

Area demographics, and overall golf culture of being a "rich kid" sport are also factors. Parents simply don't think they make enough money for their kid to be a golfer.

Madras High School coach Spud Miller said while he thinks expense is part of the sport's decline in the area, he also has a couple supplemental theories, at least for the Madras area.

"We don't have a lot of parents with younger kids that golf, and that's a big part of it," Miller said. "We don't have the commitment from kids like we used to, either. When you see a kid with a little potential, and tell them they need to play during the summer, they quit because it's too much work."

He also thinks the variety of sports offered during the spring, the golf season, is also a factor.

Miller is hoping the junior golf program, coordinated by Carl Lindgren, will help develop interest in golf, but that could be a few years away — if it happens at all.

"You can't necessarily put your finger on one reason," Miller said. "Courses bend over backward for the juniors, but there's just not the commitment level there used to be."

Making tough decisions

Madras High School Athletic Director Rory Oster makes tough decisions about what to do with the athletic program (budget) on a daily basis. He's responsible for the bottom line, and every decision he makes is in good faith and effort, but some are harder than others.

Cutting funding for the golf program was one of them, and he cites participation declines as the main factor in doing so.

"Our numbers have been in decline for the past five years," Oster said. "When I was hired for the job, one of the first things I was asked to do was to trim $15,000 from the budget. Since the golf numbers were declining, along with the cost of running the program and that it is a nonrevenue sport, I had to go there."

That was the first big blow delivered to the program. But the golf team had money in an account already, which they raised through various means and donations outside of school district funding, so Oster was able to solicit a sign-up period of a month for interested golfers before the season.

That went right in the water hazard.

One person signed up, Simmons, and that was that.

The money will run out, unless of course more is raised, but 509-J won't be cutting a check for it anytime soon.

"I needed people to sign up to figure out if I could do it," Oster said. "We had it in the announcements, fliers around the school and the whole thing. But only one person signed up."

A girl and her clubs

Simmons, a 3-year golfer in the program before this season, was afraid she wouldn't get to play her fourth year after no one else turned out.

"It was such a relief to know that I'd be able to play golf," she said. "I want to get really good, and having played the three years before and not playing my senior year would have been a huge letdown."

But, since the golf team had surplus fundraiser dollars, Simmons is able to hit the links for her final year of high school. She plans to use it, too. She's got some big goals, and if there's any indication on her intentions, playing in the snow and hail on Sunday morning is one of them.

Miller, who technically came out of coaching retirement to take Simmons on as a student this year, did it out of the goodness of his heart.

"She's a great kid with a great attitude," Miller said of Simmons. "She's been doing pretty darn well this season, and she just keep getting better," Miller said.

Simmons shot a career-best 94 at The Ridge Course at Eagle Crest in Redmond two weeks ago, then followed that up with a 95 at Prineville's Meadow Lakes Golf Course.

Since she's the only player, Simmons is always paired with the top golfers in the tournament. While it might not seem fair when she's going up against the likes of current 5A champ Madison Odiorne of Summit, and other top golfers in Central Oregon, she loves it.

"It forces me to focus and get better," she said. "I see how they play and how they do things. It motivates me."

A history lesson

Perhaps the biggest shame of the program's collapse is not having any boys out for the team, especially to Coach Miller since his sons are some of the best in Madras High School history.

The boys team won a state championship in 1995, and local pro Brian Miller won a pair of state championships, in 1995 (his freshman year) and 1998 (his senior year, and he shared the title with teammate Brian Ringering).

Another one of Spud's sons, Phillip, finished third in 1995. The White Buffalos followed the state title year with a second-place finish in 1996, falling to Enterprise by just three strokes.

The girls team won three state championships, one in 1994 and back-to-back titles in 1996-1997. They didn't have any individual champs, but Melissa O'Meara (whose family owned Desert Peaks at the time) finished second in the medalist race both years and was a member of all three title teams.

But, the success has slowly faded deeper into the history books, and golf has become about as popular as calculus homework.

The future of Madras golf

The junior program has been showing some promise, Miller said, but unless the kids intend on joining the high school team when they are old enough, it's not going to help all that much.

If the golf program completely evaporates by the end of the year, it won't be because Miller didn't try hard enough to make it work. He's done all he can, from helping teach the junior golf clinics to trying to recruit high school players, but there's a limit someone reaches.

Then the hands go up, and it's time to face facts.

"I've tried my best to put all the time in I can," Miller said. "My goal is to restore the program, but unless we can get parents to grab it by the bootstraps and play, it might be done."

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