In 1951, the Professional Golfers Association (PGA) code of ethics included the following passage:
The name “Professional Golfer” must be and remain a synonym and pledge of honor, service, and fair dealing. His professional integrity, fidelity to the game of golf, and a sense of his great responsibility to employers and employees, manufacturers, and clients, and to his brother professionals, transcends thought of material gain in the motives of the true professional golfer… The underlying purpose of the PGA membership requirement of five years’ golf experience in some essential capacity is to uphold the high standards as a protection to the public and the game. (Thornton et al., 2012, p. 122)
The PGA, for many years, has held a position that the professional golfer must develop a set of characteristics which enable him or her to uphold the PGA crafted golf professional image in the eyes of the golf consuming public, while also being able to provide services representative of a golf professional (e.g., golf skill instruction, pro-shop and tournament management, etc.). As such, individuals interested in pursuing a career as a PGA golf professional likely see value in aligning themselves with the PGA, and in embodying the representative characteristics of the organization. The process of individuals developing interest, pursuing membership, and ultimately receiving PGA Class A certification represents a unique opportunity to investigate the way in which individuals develop social identification with a sport organization.
Identity development has received considerable attention from sport and non-sport scholars. Interest in how individuals form identities has been investigated through the use of social identity theory (Brown, 2000; Hogg et al., 1995; Hogg & Abrams, 1988; Onorato & Turner, 2004; Tajfel, 1974; Tajfel & Turner, 1979) and identity theory (Burke & Stets, 2009; Ervin & Stryker, 2001; Hogg et al., 1995), amongst other theoretical influences including organizational identity (Ashforth & Mael, 1989; Hogg & Terry, 2000; Mael & Ashforth, 1992). Sport-focused scholars have also utilized theories of identity in their research. Notable examples are athlete identity (Houle et al., 2010; Lally & Kerr, 2005; Webb et al., 1998) and team identification (Delia & James, 2018; Lock & Heere, 2017; Wann & Branscombe, 1993). Athlete identity is the degree to which individuals identify with an athlete role within their self-concept, whereas team identification has been utilized to theorize how individuals develop aspects of the self through psychological connection a sports team or entity. Germane to the sport of golf, scholars have developed a measure of golfer identity which emanates from athletic and organizational identity theories (Sachau et al., 2016).
Despite the interest in the study of identity, sport-focused scholars have paid less attention to how time spent pursuing membership with an organization influences the development of a person’s identity within their professional and relational social worlds. A few sport-focused examples of identity-focused research of non-athletes include Manuti, Mininni, and Attanasio (2016) and their research on sport referees, professional identity and organizational membership, as well as the work of Eason, Maserolle, Denegar, Burton, and McGarry (2018) which was focused on the validation of a professional identity scale for athletic trainers. Outside of sport, scholars in health sciences and professions as well as education have investigated identity development. Arndt et al. (2009) interrogated the socialization processes of individuals pursuing health education, notably identifying the importance of deliberate socialization of interprofessional education as a top priority in health education. Further, Sweitzer (2009), developed a model for identity development in doctoral students utilizing social network theory, while Trede, Macklin and Bridges (2011) provided a review of literature focused on professional identity development in education.
Resulting from the paucity in the literature regarding how membership and sport-focused career aspirations influence identity development, the purpose of this article is to examine the impact that a Professional Golf Management University Program and the pursuit of the PGA Class A professional title had on the social identity development of a group of the program’s participants. To this end, I focus attention on a group of individuals who had chosen golf to be the foundation of their educational path toward a degree in business, tourism, or hospitality and a PGA Class A certification with the PGA of America, through a Professional Golf Management (PGM) University Program located at a university in the Southeastern United States.
The focal organization provided a rich case study due to the intersection of education and sport training that defines the program. When individuals enroll in a PGM University Program they must possess a knowledge and skill base within the classroom as well as on the golf course (e.g., incoming students must possess a golf handicap no higher than 12). Thus, a unique sport, education, and employment context is created where the student, the University, and the PGA of America each work symbiotically toward the development of eventual university-graduated, Class A certified, PGA golf professionals. Benefits for each member of the relationship are realized throughout and at completion of the PGM University Program. However, because the golf professional identity is not realized until students receive PGA Class A certification, the identity of students is held in an escrow type of situation by the PGA of America and the University as the student must satisfy the requirements of both organizations to complete the program of study to affirm group membership as a class A PGA professional. If students do not complete the requirements of both programs, the attainment of their desired social identity and highly valued group membership would be nullified, which presents a unique opportunity for the further development of identity-focused scholarship.
In line with the purpose of the research and the given research context, social identity theory (SIT: Brown, 2000; Tajfel & Turner, 1979), as well as SIT’s extension self-categorization theory (SCT: Onorato & Turner, 2004), were chosen as guiding theoretical framework. SIT and SCT form an appropriate theoretical framework as they are predicated on personal psychological group membership and categorization as opposed to other theories including identity theory (Burke & Stets, 2009), which is informed by symbolic interactions amongst individuals. This is an important distinction as it allows for an investigation into how individuals develop valued group associations, categorize themselves within desirable groups, acquire group characteristics, and the outcomes which occur during the identity formation process all of which are explicit and implicit aspects of education and professional development programs such as a PGM University Program.
Review of Literature
To provide theoretical grounding to the study, an overview of SIT and SCT is provided below. Following the review of literature, research questions are presented in order to guide the study and next the research context is explained.
SIT and SCT
Throughout recorded history, human beings have gathered and formed groups and as a result developed common characteristics which define the group. The primary tenet of social identity theory is that individuals will develop a portion of the self-concept as a result of the groups with which they perceive a sense of belonging. Resulting from this psychological connection with a certain group, individuals develop distinctiveness by favoring the ingroup and disfavoring the outgroup (Slater et al., 2016; Tajfel & Turner, 1979). Individuals develop and hold multiple social identities that enable them to interact in a variety of social situations. Due to the multiple social identities that individuals possess, it is highly unlikely two people would have an identical grouping of identities. As Hogg and Abrams (1988) make clear, “Individuals belong to many different social categories and thus potentially have a repertoire of many different identities to draw upon” (p. 19).
Building from the work of scholars such as Tajfel and Turner (1979), Hogg et al. (1995), and Lock and Heere (2017), it is conceivable that individuals participating in a PGM University Program may have social identities in common, while also having distinct and personally relevant social identities. Indeed, where individuals participating in a PGM University Program will have a diverse quiver of social identities, it is assumed that the ultimate goal of most of the PGM students is to be able to classify and categorize themselves in a similar way, as Class A PGA Professionals.
Self-categorization theory (Turner, 1991) is an extension of social identity theory, which aids in the explanation of the cognitive processes associated with the development of in-groups (including the self) and out-groups (Hogg et al., 1995). Through the process of self-categorization, individuals develop in-group associations between the self and relevant others in comparison to individuals and groups who are perceived to be within a relevant out-group (Hogg & Terry, 2000). The comparative mechanism between in-group and out-group comes in the form of the group prototype, which is a subjective representation of a category or group (Hogg et al., 1995). In the present context, an example of a prototype is the established PGA Class A certified golf professional employed at a high-end publicly-accessible golf course (e.g., Pebble Beach Golf Links) or private golf and country club (e.g., Cypress Point Club). For individuals whose socialization processes led to valuing golf as a future career, the social identity of golf professional would be highly valued. As a result, these individuals would likely choose to activate their golf professional identity in a variety of social situations including interactions subjectively relevant to sport, but also in instances when the chosen identity provides prestige, such as a conversation about the occupation one currently holds.
Through the social identity and self-categorization processes, individuals make sense of, and develop their place within, social worlds. These sense-making activities may include the way a person dresses, the verbiage used in conversation, and preferences for social activities, amongst others. A common method for the development of a valued group membership (and thus social identity) is through the completion of an academic program of study and the resultant career training and job skill development process. As a result, in this case study, I focus on a group of individuals who chose the golf industry as their future career environment and who pursued membership with PGA of America through a PGM University Program.
To guide the study, the following research questions were developed:
RQ1: How does golf interest and participation influence the social identity development of individuals looking to develop a career in the golf industry?
RQ2: What influences do the parent organizations (PGA and PGM University Program) have on the social identity development of individuals looking to develop certifications through the organizations?
RQ3: What influence do the parent organizations (PGA and PGM University Program) have on the social trajectory of individuals involved in the certification process?
In the following section, a brief explanation of the research context is provided. Following the description of the research context, attention is turned to the methods utilized throughout the study.
Founded in 1916, the PGA of America is, according to its own literature, “one of the world’s largest sports organizations, composed of PGA Professionals who work daily to grow interest and participation in the game of golf” (pga.org, 2022b, para 1). The PGA of America is the governing body that certifies professional golfers as leaders in teaching, managing, and growing the game of golf within the United States.
There are two primary routes by which an individual may become a PGA Class A Member, The PGA Associate Program and the PGA PGM University Program (pga.org, 2022a, 2022d). There is also a lesser used third option available to former members of the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) Tour. The PGA Associate Program requires individuals to complete a series of three levels of education, while concurrently being employed in one of the approved golf employment positions. Individuals in the PGA Associate Program are responsible for passing an initial qualify playing test and completing the Playing Ability Test (PAT). Though similar to the PGA PGM University Program, the PGA PGM Associate Program is not a partnership between the PGA and an accredited University. Rather, the participants have nine years from their initial acceptance to complete all the aspects of the associate program (pga.org, 2022e).
The second way to become a PGA certified golf professional—and of main interest to this research—is through one of the accredited PGA PGM University Programs that exist within the United States. Since its inception the PGM University Program has produced hundreds of graduates and boasts a 100% job placement rate (pga.org, 2022e). The PGA PGM University Program pairs the golf-specific educational focus, with a university baccalaureate program to form a hybrid program taking four-and-a-half to five years, with an average cost of $37,651USD per year (Prosser et al., 2022). Typically, a PGM University Program will be aligned with a degree program that emphasizes Business Management or Administration, Hospitality Management, Marketing, or Recreation and Tourism, with each program offering a unique path toward graduation and PGA Class A membership.
PGM University Programs
PGM University Programs pair the golf-specific educational focus, with a university baccalaureate program to form 4.5-5 year hybrid program, which provide both a bachelor’s degree and certification with the PGA of America at the completion of the program. Typically, a PGM University Program will be aligned with a degree program that emphasizes Business Management or Administration, Hospitality Management, Marketing, or Recreation and Tourism. All aspects of the PGA PGM Associate program that would be taught outside of the academy are covered within the University degree program, while the students are also subject to the course programming that characterizes the academic department within which the PGM University Program resides. For example, Campbell University, one of the 18 accredited PGA PGM University programs in the United States, offers qualified students the opportunity to apply to join the PGA Golf Management Program, which is housed within the Lundy-Fetterman School of Business. After gaining acceptance into the program, students work toward earning a Bachelor of Business Administration degree with a major in Golf Management. Alternatively, Ferris State’s Professional Golf Management Program—which is also housed within a College of Business—offers students the opportunity to complete a degree within the Hospitality Management Program. In the case of the focal organization of this article, the PGM University Program was housed in the Department of Hospitality. Following completion of the degree program and level three testing, graduating students become eligible for PGA membership.
Considering the specific program in focus, the PGM students completed their golf-specific coursework with PGA certified university affiliated faculty members or with PGA facilitators not employed directly by the University. Golf-specific classes were held in an academic building housed on the property of the campus owned and operated golf course. The classroom space overlooked the course driving range which included a PGM University Program specific hitting area, practice facility, and putting area. The offices of the program instructors and administrators were housed in the same budling. While the campus course was a public golf facility with specific rates for students, faculty, alumni and other university affiliated individuals, there was a clear distinction for the PGM University Program.
Vital to the success of PGM University programs is the ability to provide quality internships for the students who enroll in the program. Because the PGA requires “on the job” experience in order to garner PGA membership, students are required to find a way to work and gain on the job experience, while also participating in a full class load that typifies a university degree program. PGM University Program administrators and students typically accomplish this by seeking out and securing internship agreements at golf specific locales around the country (either placed by a particular program, through their advisor, or from the student’s own network). Internship experience opportunities can vary as a result of several factors including geographic location of the program, total number of students, and the relationships that administrators responsible for obtaining internship experiences have developed. The level that the student has progressed will determine the type, length and characteristics of the internship experience. Typically, a student would complete three internships that are three months in duration, followed by a final extended internship of seven months to complete the 16-month internship requirement. The internship requirement was one of the most highly discussed aspects of the program amongst participants as they often loosely competed (i.e., multiple applications to the same site) for elite placements at high-end private golf clubs.
To most effectively answer the research questions above, I utilized qualitative methods to develop a rich description (Weick, 2007) of the influence that the PGM University Program had on the identity development of a sample group of the program’s members. Using multiple methods, including participant observation and interviews (Kvale & Brinkmann, 2009), I embedded myself in the culture of a PGM University Program in order to address the research questions and most fruitfully describe the impact that the organization had on this group of participants.
The primary data for this study was collected in 2015 through ten semi-structured interviews with students enrolled in a PGM University Program in the southeastern United States. Familiarity with the participants, program, and the guiding interview questions were informed by, and developed, during the 18 month participant observation with the program throughout 2014 and 2015. Although several years have passed since data was collected, the PGM University Program parameters have remained largely the same in the interim period, and thus, the lived experiences of the participants remain reflective of the PGM University Program.
Utilizing an inductive approach (Gioia et al., 2013), I gained IRB approval and conducted an 18-month participant observation utilizing the organizational detective techniques described by Goodall (1989). The participant observation was active in nature and included participation in classroom sessions, off-campus meetings and activities, on-course practice sessions, and industry meetings. Specifically, classes consisting entirely of PGA PGM University Program students produced by the focal University were audited over the course of three semesters with full support of the program director. Prior to any participation, my goals as a researcher and a general description of the project were provided to all students, instructors, and administrators. To ensure students were consistently aware of my presence and position as researcher, in each class or activity I observed, my presence was announced either by the lead instructor of the class, or I made the announcement myself. This transparency allowed for a high level of comfortability amongst the focal group which allowed my participation in classroom activities to proceed in manner consistent with a typical PGA PGM University program student. With my role as researcher out in the open, I was able to adopt a type of participant-as-observer role discussed by Takyi (2015), while also ensuring that my presence was not covert in nature. Ultimately, this allowed for my research activities to operate as involved-detachment (Matthews, 2018), where I was able to develop relationships with the participants, understand their experiences and the research context, while also maintaining a level separation necessary to maintain my researcher position and identity.
Reflexively, my ability to develop a level of rapport with the PGM University Program students should be expected as I possess all the characteristics demographically, physically, and economically typical for those who participate in the sport of golf within North America. My outward identity aligned with the students who populated the PGM program that I spent time with, aside from being a few years older than the typical student.
Informed by the time spent with the PGM University Program group as a participant observer and content analysis of PGM program documentation, a second stage of data-collection using semi-structured interviews (Kvale & Brinkmann, 2009) was conducted. The participant observation allowed for the development of interview questions which addressed the research questions, but were also relevant, timely, and subjectively appropriate. Ten interviews were conducted over a period of three weeks with students of the PGM University Program representing all levels of study (i.e., level 1, level 2, level 3) and all interviews were conducted on the program’s campus. The participants were all male, and between the ages of 19-24. The participants interviewed were representative of the PGM University Program—both in age and gender—as the focal program, during the observation period, consisted entirely of male students within the age range listed above. The interviews lasted between 25-60 minutes and were digitally audio recorded before being transcribed verbatim, resulting in 61 pages of single-spaced text. To ensure anonymity, the name of each of the participants—and any identifiable names mentioned through the interview process—were replaced with pseudonyms within the transcription process and throughout the current article. After I completed the transcription process, the transcripts were shared with a second scholar with expertise in social identity theory who had agreed to serve as a critical friend throughout the data analysis process (Smith & McGannon, 2018).
After reviewing the transcripts, I utilized thematic analysis (Braun et al., 2016), including an inductive and deductive coding process, to produce codes and ultimately overarching themes from the bulk data set. Given the express interest in social identity development, following the first coding process, data outside the scope of interest was removed from consideration. After the transcripts were pared down to relate specifically to social identity development, a second analysis was conducted. Following the second analysis the critical friend was again consulted and findings were discussed and challenged. The data analysis process resulted in agreement on the development three themes: PGM influenced social identity; social mobility via PGM, and the importance of the PAT. In the following sections, the three themes are discussed beginning first with the influence of PGM on the social identity of the participants.
PGM Influenced Social Identity
To understand the influence of the program on the social identity development of the participants, participants were asked to describe the social groups they belonged to and with which they perceived membership. Justin was quick to refer to the importance of golf in his social group memberships. Justin said,
Golf. The PGM group is great. Also, academics has always been a forefront of mine, so if there is an academics group I’d be right there with it. Just the…if you can group people by personality I’d say the outgoing group, everybody in my group, PGM, are outgoing personable, funny…sometimes.
To Justin, the PGM group—which necessarily involves the sport of golf—was the group that he had the most prominent membership within. Though Justin also noted the importance of his academic group affiliation, his initial insistence of golf and the PGM group drives home the importance of the PGM group.
Simon delved deeper into his group membership by comparing and contrasting his former group membership with his then current group membership. Simon said,
It’s definitely different now. Once you graduate high school people go their separate ways. There are a couple close friends that have moved. People change, things change. I still have close friends. Compared to home, PGM is totally different. My social group in high school weren’t golfers. PGM in itself is like a fraternity, when I got here I didn’t feel the need to go join a frat to make friends. There is this really tight 100 person group that you see all the time. You go to the golf course and you’re guaranteed to see someone you know. We hang out, play a ton of golf, watch football.
Based on his description of the group, it is clear that Simon formed a strong connection with the PGM University Program social group and greatly valued the membership he held with the group. As was the case with Justin, Simon also viewed PGM as his most prevalent social group.
Adding simplicity to the importance of the PGM University Program, Cody’s response summed up the place that the program holds in his social identity. Cody provided the following when thinking about his social groups, “Really one, it’s the PGM. I’m not an overly social person.” The singular nature of the way Cody thinks of his social identity points to the importance of the PGM University Program. Representative of the feelings of many of the participants, Brody again placed great value on his PGM University Program membership. He said the following of his social groups,
The golf social group, I’m a fan of the university and the teams, and the hospitality social group as a result of the classes. I know everyone in the program and everyone is willing to talk to and associate. It is the nature of the business. They are all very friendly and trustworthy. It’s something that goes with the territory of golf. Golfers are honest and nice, and so are my friends.
Based on the responses received from the majority of participants, the PGM University Program group was the dominant social group for the participants. The PGM group formed the ingroup for the participants, which is a central tenet of SIT. Simon’s comments about the similarities between the PGM University Program and a fraternity are telling in this regard. The ingroups and outgroups that define segments of people also characterize Greek life. It is also evident that the PGM group was of great value for the participants. Similar to the participants in the work of Mael and Ashforth (1992), the participants in the current study placed a high value on their group association and as a result internalized the characteristics of the group, affirming the thoughts of Brown (2000) and Brewer (1999) who view social identity theory to be predicated on ingroup love rather than outgroup hate.
To further understand the influence of the PGM University Program, the participants were asked whether they believed the program had an influence on their identity. Speaking to the ingroup nature of PGM program membership, John mentioned that he believed PGM program participation to be personally beneficial. John said,
It’s definitely cool when people ask me what my major is and I get to tell them professional golf management; I think it’s cool. It separates me from other people. And now my family associates me with the sport and the program, so I would definitely say that I associate myself with the sport and program.
John’s comments are telling as he refers to his ingroup status and acknowledges the existence of an outgroup by stating that his participation in the PGM University Program separated him from other people. He also pointed out that he thinks his membership is ‘cool’ and that he associates himself with both the group and the sport of golf, both of which are personally beneficial.
Like the response of John, Brody also credited the PGM University Program for having a distinct impact on his social identity by encouraging him to be more social. Brody said,
It has made me more outgoing for sure. I used to like to stay and hang out by myself, but now as a result of talking to so many people and being on internship I’m much more social. I can talk to anybody now, sometimes before I would get pretty nervous, but now I know how to talk to people. It also has helped with becoming more responsible. We have a lot of things that we’re responsible for.
Eric provided the following response regarding the influence he believes the PGM University Program has had on his identity. His response shows that he believed the PGM program aided in his social access in the present but would also be beneficial in the future—offering him a level of social mobility. Eric said of the influence that the PGM University Program,
Quite a bit, especially with the group of guys I hang out with. I really enjoy them and we kind of do our own thing. It’s opened plenty of doors, and I’ve been able to meet some incredible people and worked at some amazing clubs. It helped a lot knowing what I wanted to do after college, not having to take a bunch of classes and be exploratory.
Eric’s response elucidates the impact that he believed the PGM University Program had on his identity development, especially regarding the individuals and groups that he developed associations with. Based on his response, participation in the PGM University Program provided Eric with a valued social group in the present, but that PGA membership would also provide social group memberships in the future. To explore the future value of group associations, in the following section the social access and mobility the participants believed they would garner as a result of being in the PGM University Program is discussed.
Social Mobility Via PGM
Eric’s mention of the groups that he believed the PGM University Program would give him access to was a comment made or insinuated by a number of the participants. To better understand the social mobility the participants believed they would receive from PGM participation, the participants were asked what access to social groups PGM University Program participation would provide for them. The responses help to understand the groups the participants believed they would have access to, but also the groups they believed would be valuable additions to their group memberships upon completion of the program. Justin outlined the future access he believed his participation would provide by stating,
The people we get to know or meet, all the people in that PGM class are one group, and all of the collective groups—level 1 level 2 level 3—those are all connections you get to know in the industry, those are all connections you make with the PGA of America, and also getting to know the PGM Directors, it’s always great. They’re my kind of people, the major thing we all have in common is golf, we all come from different backgrounds, you know Colorado, California, it doesn’t matter because we all the same interests and we all have relatively the same personalities and it’s inevitable that eventually we’re all going to get together and have fun.
Justin’s response shows that he believed that his PGM affiliation would provide him with valued access in places all around the United States and set the stage to make connections going forward. Also, based on his comment that the people he developed access to are “my type of people,” it is clear Justin viewed himself as part of an ingroup while also implicating others in his ingroup.
Like Justin, Eric and student Derek also valued the future access that the PGM University Program group would provide. Eric said, “Besides the PGM group, we have met so many GM’s at huge clubs, I’ve also met a lot of boosters because of PGM.” Eric clearly valued the associations with club General Managers that he developed as a result of his time in the PGM program. Derek viewed the PGA of America as a desirable group that he would receive access to. Derek said, “Access to the biggest network there is—there are 27,000 PGA professionals and they are one phone call away.” Derek appeared to have formed his ingroup affiliation with the PGA and mentioned a type of intimate connection to those within the PGA—by stating that these individuals were only a phone call away—despite not having technical membership with the PGA of America at that point in his educational journey.
Brody echoed the thoughts of the others mentioned above while also designating a specific group PGM participation provided him access to. Brody said,
I think it does, for sure. It has given me access to the hospitality group as well as the others in the PGM group. It has also given me a lot of access in the business world through groups like the CMAA (Club Managers’ Association of America). I may want to move from the golf industry into another role like a General Manager role and groups like the CMAA can help with that.
Another interesting aspect of Brody’s response is that he was looking past a career in the golf industry and considering the access his PGM University Program participation would give him in other future career endeavors. This shows that he believed the program would give him access to an array of social groups, not simply golf specific groups, which widens potential ingroup access and social mobility.
Importance of the Playing Ability Test
In order to continue the path toward PGA membership and garner personal and social mobility benefits associated with PGA membership, individuals in a PGM University Program must pass the Playing Ability Test (PAT) by shooting a score within 15 strokes of the course par value over 36 holes on PAT testing day at some point during their time in the program. This aspect of the process toward PGA membership is often thought of as the most difficult aspect of the Class A certification process as the PAT is quite difficult for many to pass. Indeed, the PGA states the pass rate for the PAT is less than 20% (pga.org, 2022c).
The PAT is an important feature of the PGM University Program both from the perspective of the participant, as it is the test that required the participants to display a high level of golf-specific ability, but also from the perspective of the PGA, as the PAT is used as a type of gate-keeping mechanism. By having the PAT in place, it allows the PGA and the PGM University Program to vet and thus only admit those individuals who possess relatively high level golf skill who are capable of passing the test and completing the program.
To better understand the importance of the PAT, I begin first with a response received from John who was the only participant who had not completed the PAT at the time of interview, before discussing the responses received from those who had completed the test. John said the following in discussing the PAT,
Honestly the PAT is knowing that my golf game is the best it can be. I entered with a 12 handicap so the first time I played I knew there was no way I would pass. The second time I took it and I thought I would pass, I thought I had it, but I’m not a tournament golfer. It’s frustrating, you know your game is there, but you just can’t convert the skills with the pressure. The PAT means knowing you’re good enough to be a head pro.
John’s comments show the importance of the PAT as a mechanism for affirming the place a person holds within the PGM University Program and the PGA. As John said, passing the PAT shows that a person is a skilled enough golfer to be a head professional. However, there is more to John’s comment about being ‘good enough’ to be a head pro than simply the skill level. John’s comment also insinuates that by passing the PAT he would also be viewed by others to be good enough to be a head professional; essentially, passing the PAT would preliminarily affirm his golf professional social identity.
The comments made by John were common amongst several participants and the sentiment behind the meaning of the PAT was frequently repeated. To the majority of the participants, the PAT was a major test of their golf ability and also a confirmation of their place within the group of future PGA professionals. Cody described the pressure associated with the PAT and why it is such a difficult task for those looking to gain a PGA class certification. Cody said,
I was really nervous, theoretically it shouldn’t be that difficult if you’re good at golf, which to be in the program you have to be good at golf. It’s from the green tees: 1) the course isn’t that hard, I could pass the PAT from the back tees no problem, 2) they set the course up really easy and then you play it twice—36 holes in one day. You have to shoot 78-77, 155 or below. The reason it is so hard is because you know you have to shoot that number, so the first bogey you make you start thinking that you have 5 bogeys left. There are a lot of kids that can’t get over that hump, or it takes them a while. That’s why I said to be good at golf you have to be mentally strong because that is the ultimate test.
As Cody suggested, the PAT is a fair challenge when it comes to the game of golf itself; the course is set up in a relatively easy fashion (e.g., pins placed in the center of putting greens), and the competitors are only required to shoot a certain score rather than being required to beat any of the other competitors in head-to-head competition. However, as can also be seen in Cody’s comments, the test is far more than a test of golf. It is a mental grind of golf skill related psychological hurdles, but also the psychological hurdles associated with passing a test that is required for PGA certification. Other participants, like Eric—who viewed the PAT to be a certain type of pain—echoed Cody’s sentiment. Eric said,
It’s a pain in the ass. It’s a mental challenge, that’s what it really means. It’s about keeping your head together. You have to be a decent player to get in, so we can all shoot the scores to pass, but it’s the mental battle to get through.
The feeling of animosity surrounding the PAT and what the test meant for the confirmation of skill and identity amongst potential golf professionals was especially evident on the days leading up to the PAT and on the actual PAT test dates. In one particular test day experience, a student—who was not part of the interview group, but was discussed anecdotally by multiple participants—passed the PAT by making two birdies on the final two holes of competition to finish with a score on the passing number during his fourth attempt at passing the PAT. This student was scheduled to graduate, finish the program, then almost immediately make an extended geographic move to begin a new Assistant Professional position at a highly regarded golf club. Had he not passed the PAT, he would not have been able to gain his PGA Class A certification, essentially ending his future plans before they were to start. The PAT was his gateway to his new professional and personal life—a confirmation of his social identity.
Building from the results presented above, within this section I outline how the future social identity of the PGM University Program students was being held in a type of escrow agreement between the student, the PGM University program, and the PGA of America. Indeed, without the notoriety of PGA Class A certification the participants’ formed and valued social identity and ingroup membership would be dubious as they would not receive the professional certification and status. Further, I discuss how completion of the PAT signaled a major step in identity development as golf participation and practice specifically for many tapered off after the completion of this element of the program. Finally, I discuss how the newly formed social identity and ingroup membership may not serve to grow the game of golf, a major focus of the PGA of America.
Identity in Escrow
Participants formed group associations with the PGM University Program and PGA of America prior to joining, or early on in their program of study, and the group association provided positive benefits for the participants (Ashforth & Mael, 1989). However, there was also noticeable concern from the participants about the place that the PGA of America played in their identity development. Although the students were confident that they would complete the program and ultimately achieve their goal of PGA Class A membership, thus confirming the group association with the PGA of America, their future identity and group association was essentially being held in escrow by the two groups: The PGA of America and the PGM University program. If any of the three members of the relationship (i.e., student, university, PGA of America) did not uphold their end of the deal, then the student would be left without the title and status necessary to garner the social identity benefits of their chosen career path.
This finding is vital because it challenges the belief that group associations and social identities are solely a psychological connection formed within the mind of the individual. In this instance, although the participants did indeed garner psychological benefits from their group association prior to the completion of the program, if they were to not complete the program for one reason or another, their social identity would no longer be confirmed, and the group association would be invalid. This finding was developed by the participants responding to how they would know when they are considered by others to be a PGA professional and how they personally would know they are a Class A PGA professional. Though none of the participants had yet to receive their certification at the time the interviews were conducted, the responses received were telling of how golf professionals have their desired identity confirmed both internally and externally.
John said the following of having his identity as a golf professional confirmed, “Once I have that title of being an assistant pro, and people are coming to me for lessons. Once my name is out there at my club and people start to approach me for lessons.” To John, the title of assistant professional was one aspect that would define his identity, but just as importantly, John mentioned how he would feel like a professional when others come to him for lessons. John also mentioned the importance of having his name publicized at the club where he would work in the future. This comment signifies the importance of group membership—a group which he valued greatly.
Lance provided an explanation similar to John’s when describing how he would know when he was a PGA professional. Lance said,
When I get the card that says my name on it. I knew it from the first year that I was part of the group; me working toward it gave me the credibility. In other people’s eyes they don’t see you as a professional until you have those three letters after your name. You have to show that all your hard work didn’t go to waste.
Lance, like John, stressed the importance of obtaining the title of PGA Professional, though he mentioned that he felt like a part of the group since he joined the program. John also stressed the importance of having the three letters (PGA) behind his name during social interactions because until other people recognized him as a member of the PGA of America the identity would not exist—the identity must be confirmed by others to be internally valued. This was also seen through the anxiety certain members had around the completion of the PAT—which is discussed in greater depth in the following section. Though the students in the PGM University Program spend over four years crafting their identity in accordance with the expectations of their program and of the PGA of America, until they receive the title—and the letters that accompany the title—their PGA professional social identity is not validated, and the self-concept benefits of group membership are not fully accrued. In addition, the social mobility the individuals believed PGA affiliation would provide would not be realized. This is a vital finding because it helps to elucidate the complexities associated with ingroup belongingness and social identity development for this group of individuals.
Completing the PAT
Specific to the management of golf and golf instruction, an interesting finding came to light during the research process. As previously discussed, the PAT was an important feature of the PGM program both from the perspective of the participant, as it was the only test that required the participants to display a high level of golf-specific ability, but also from the perspective of the PGA as the PAT was used as a type of gate-keeping mechanism to only let those individuals who possessed high level golf skill complete the program. While the challenge of the PAT differed for the participants due to the variance in golf skill, a common behavior was discussed by participants who passed the PAT—they greatly reduced their golf practice and also reduced the amount of golf they played golf, at times to zero.
Cody, the Director of Tournaments for the PGM program, witnessed the attrition of players at the practice range more than anyone. Describing practice after passing the PAT, Cody said,
They passed the PAT and then they don’t practice or play anymore. That is one of the unfortunate things about the PAT is that essentially, I can pass the PAT and then never have to play golf again and be a PGA golf professional. I can shoot 95 and still be a golf professional and I think that is one of the unfortunate things; I don’t think that is good for the organization as a whole. There are some kids that once they pass the PAT you never see them at the course. I run the tournaments and we’ll only get 20 out of 90 students participating, so there are definitely people who won’t play after the PAT.
Chris outlined a clear rationale for why this phenomenon may be occurring. Chris said,
The PAT to me isn’t nearly as valuable as it is to others. The game itself is everything, that’s my only real interest in being a part of the PGA is being a part of the game of golf, being a part of the people that play it. I don’t care about the business side as much, in fact I kind of despise business as a whole. But, I feel that it should be more difficult to pass the PAT but the problem is that there is not an extraordinary amount of people that can pass the PAT as is, so if they make the PAT requirements more difficult they are going to detract people from pursuing PGA membership which they obviously do not want to do. To the average person the PAT is difficult, but I feel that to be a golf professional you should be an elite player, and that is not often the case.
In Chris’ comments it can be seen why participants may choose to scale back their practice after completing the PAT. Due to the importance the PGA places on the business side of becoming and fulfilling the role of PGA professional, once the PAT is completed, the requirement has been achieved and now attention and focus can be placed on the more pressing aspects of achieving Class A certification and completing the University degree program. Because the PAT must only be passed a single time during the career of a PGA professional, once it is passed the impetus to practice and maintain a high-level golf game is no longer as prevalent for some. Practically, this finding may spur conversation about the place golf skill holds for PGA professionals after they have completed their Class A certification.
Identity for Whom?
A common refrain amongst participants was a desire to grow the game of golf through their work as future PGA professionals. Indeed, in all the interviews that I conducted, the desire of the PGA to grow the game through the influence of the membership was mentioned. The participants also believed that a major aspect of their future career would be to grow the game and to encourage more diversity in golf participation and within the membership of the PGA. However, it must be noted that this desire to grow and diversify the game of golf was common amongst a homogenous group of individuals who had the economic means to complete a college degree and had been provided a level of socialization into the sport of golf necessary to compete at a high enough level to pass the PAT. Returning to social identity and self-categorization theory, in order for individuals to develop psychological group membership with the sport of golf and ultimately categorize themselves as members of said group thus growing the game, there must be a self-concept benefit for doing so. There also must be socializing opportunities to participate in the game, which is difficult for those in communities where golf participation is not common or as Prosser et al. (2022) identified, support structures are absent. Further, with the goal of many of the PGM students to ultimately work at high-end private golf clubs and a decreased focus on golf skill and teaching, perhaps growing the game was more a recitation of one of the PGA’s stated initiatives than a tangible goal. Despite the focus on growing the game by most of the participants, it was not universally espoused uncritically. Justin provided an informed look into some of the angst associated with gaining PGA membership identity by stating,
To grow the game of golf, which if I work at a high-end private club with 2000 members with a lot of money, how am I going to grow the game? I’m only going to be able to grow the game amongst a very limited number of people and that is the members’ kids. If I work at a public course maybe I can grow the game; I can advertise and get more people there and grow the game that way. The other thing I ask myself is that the best PGA professionals work at the best clubs: the high-end private clubs, the best pros work at the best high-end clubs, the place that is exclusive and you have to have money to be there. So, if our best professionals are working at the most exclusive clubs with the most money, so if they are the best [the professionals] how are they going to grow the game if they’re at the most exclusive clubs? Then the run of the mill professionals are working at the places that the game can be grown, that’s just something I’ve thought about. The high-end clubs will cease to exist if we can’t grow the game, and the game is going to grow from the less nice courses and then fill the gaps in the nicer clubs.
In this article, I have presented a case study of ten individuals participating in a Professional Golf Management University Program, focusing particularly on how the process of participating in the program allowed for the development of a social identity and group association with the PGM University Program and the PGA of America. It has been shown that this group of individuals developed their group association with the PGM University Program and PGA of America early in the program and they greatly valued their future PGA membership. Participants were also found to have their highly valued social identity held in escrow by the two participating organizations, for if they were to not complete the program, their social identity would not be validated through PGA Class A Professional certification. This poses an interesting situation for those investigating phenomena through the lens of SIT, for as has been shown, the social identity of the individuals presented was dependent both on personal psychological group association and through the confirmation of the group association by the accrediting body (i.e., the PGA of America). Further, the importance of the PAT and the influence it had on identity development and subsequent golf behavior was discussed before I provided a critique of how the PGA influenced group membership may not result in individuals serving the people and initiatives the organizations claimed to promote.
The research presented above also has practical value. In many instances, individuals undergo training processes, or seek to gain new skills or experiences through certification programs. It is important for those involved in the administration and operation of training programs to understand the influence that time spent in training or certification has on the identity development of participants. When training or certification materials are designed, it is vital that the previous experiences of the participants and the goals of the training protocol be taken into consideration as the identity development of the individual is internally and externally influenced during the training process. Further, this research draws into question the place golf related ability holds for golf professionals once they have completed the PAT and ultimately achieved Class A certification. Though not all PGA golf professionals are involved in instruction or in competitive play, perhaps ongoing opt-in skill development and testing sessions could be developed for existing professionals to allow for golf skill to be central to the PGA golf professional identity. Finally, because this group of students overwhelmingly aspired to work at high-end golf clubs and participated in internships at similar types of clubs, perhaps their ability to grow the game with non-affluent individuals is lessened. As a result, students could be encouraged or required to complete part of their practical training at sites which are more accessible to the general public and those from less affluent positions in society.
As with all scholarly endeavors, this research is not without limitations. Students from only one PGM University program were interviewed, and the investigation was limited to future professionals in the United States. Scholars may consider a broader investigation of the PGM University Program in future research efforts.
The findings presented above allow for the development of future research questions. Scholars are encouraged to investigate other social phenomena in which individuals have their identity affirmed by external organizations, and the impact of these unique situations. Due to the certification requirements associated with sport, it would be interesting for scholars to investigate the process of becoming certified to coach, administer athletic training and physical training services, officiate, or other such situations in which the identity of individuals is affirmed through certification or other external recognition.
A typical championship golf course will have a par value of 72.