Season preview: Will golf start to recover?

Will the golf industry finally gain traction again in 2012?

It’s the economy, stupid.

It may be the most concise answer, but it only partially explains why golf is far from experiencing a recovery in 2012.

Economists seem riveted to metrics that might indicate a climb out of the fiscal morass, but others suggest this post-recession malady is unlike any other. There is a fear of uncertainty that is suffocating consumer confidence, and it won’t relinquish its stranglehold any time soon just because unemployment dips or productivity rises ever so slightly.

For many Americans, it’s the unprecedented loss in home equity – and the expectation that they’ll never regain it – that profoundly has shaken their sense of wealth and stunted their spending. Telltale indicators gleaned late in 2011 provided insight into the American frame of mind heading into the new year: In December, the closely monitored Consumer Confidence Index climbed to 64.5, but that’s still well below the level, 90, associated with robust times.

Last fall, the National Golf Foundation surveyed golfers, and their responses mirrored such pessimism and foreshadowed more belt-tightening. Nearly 60 percent said they did not expect their personal financial situation to change in 2012, and only 23 percent expected their fortunes to improve – down from 29 percent in March. Perhaps most troubling, 56 percent said they’ve adopted “more frugal behaviors” that they’ll continue to practice even after the economy recovers.

The harsh truth is, golf won’t grow again unless it improves its “value equation.” That doesn’t mean more of the same for less. Instead, it demands that golf businesses – from course operators to equipment manufacturers – customize their offerings to truly meet the needs and wants of golfers. For those who think change still is unnecessary, there are reams of data that should shake them from their delusion. Among them: The number of rounds played in the U.S. fell from 518 million to 475 million in the past decade, and it was projected to have declined for the fifth consecutive year in 2011.

The call for reform has been made repeatedly, but it will get louder as the PGA of America leads the charge with “Golf 2.0.” The initiative aims to re-train PGA professionals so they can package and deliver the sport to make it more family friendly, less time consuming and more affordable. The PGA also pledges not to market golf generically, but with tailored messages targeted to specific demographics, including families, minorities and women. Without courses across the nation committing to Golf 2.0, leaders’ long-term goal of increasing the golfer population to 40 million by 2020 will be a fantasy. The number of players peaked at 30 million in 2005 and has been sliding since, to 26.1 million today.

Skeptics inevitably will say they’ve heard these grow-the-game promises before. Indeed, the strategies that sound all too familiar have produced little in the past. But blame those failures on lack of execution from a disinterested establishment, rather than

flawed premises. If Golf 2.0 results in action inspired by the collective will of golf’s many stakeholders, the prospect of a healthier game remains.

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