An urgent call to fix golf

Ka'anapali Golf Resort allows guests to play rounds in 'portions' to better fit their schedules.

Call it a cavalry of round-bellies and graybeards.

For years now, a stagnant game has been awaiting the arrival of club-wielding baby boomers. Experts promised the unprecedented generational wave, nearly 80 million strong, would take up golf as they entered their golden years and revitalize golf courses that often resemble abandoned lots.

By all accounts, these fiftysomethings are doing their golfing duty. They now are responsible for about half of all rounds played in the U.S., and as they grow older and bask in the luxury of free time, they’re teeing it up even more.

What’s perplexing is that participation still is sliding. Since 2005, the total number of golfers has declined steadily, from 30 million to 27.1 million in 2009, according to the National Golf Foundation. Rounds played is trending the wrong way, too – off nearly 3 percent during the same period.

So, why isn’t golf reveling in its senior moment?

Because it’s suffering losses in another demographic that may prove far more vital: golfers ages 25-44.

In 1990, there were approximately 12.4 million golfers in that age group; by 2005, their ranks had fallen to 9.2 million – an alarming 26 percent drop. According to industry consultant Stuart Lindsay, who attributed the data to the National Sporting Goods Association, the fall-off bluntly underscores that golf isn’t appealing enough to the sweet spot of the U.S. population. He says the participation rate for that age group is about 20 percent lower today.

“All the boomers are doing is masking what’s really leaking in golf,” he says.

The situation is hurting golf, but the real pain likely is yet to come, considering the link between aging golfers and their increased frequency of play.

“Twenty years from now, there’ll be far less demand,” warns Lindsay, principal of Edgehill Golf Advisors, which conducts market research for golf courses and industry groups. “It could be catastrophic.”

Golf finds itself in this predicament for one main reason: In a day and age when free moments – let alone hours – are scarcer than ever, the game has become a time-sucking affair. Simply put, golf hasn’t adapted to sweeping societal changes, including the predominance of dual-income households. The increase in the number of married women in the workplace has redefined child-rearing and the division of household labor.

“Helicopter parenting” – hopping from one child’s activity to another – saps potential time on the links. And when these harried folks finally do get a chance to play, they’re quickly discouraged from going out again, thanks to five-hour-plus rounds.

Indeed, slow play is an epidemic. Blame it, in part, on developers’ desire to build tougher tracks: 70 percent of courses built in the U.S. between 1990 and 2006 had a slope rating of 125 or more. By comparison, the average U.S. slope rating has been hovering around 119.

It also hasn’t helped that golf’s biggest promoter perpetuates plodding. “We’ve depended way too much on the PGA Tour to market our product for us,” Lindsay says. “And frankly, all they do is market slow play.”

Much of golf’s woes are self-inflicted, and for years, industry leaders, acknowledging their mistakes, have pledged improvements – to make the game faster, family friendly, more affordable. But lip service won’t suffice anymore. Many of the proposed fixes actually work; it’s just a matter of copying those who already have put them in play.

For example, the Cincinnati Recreation Commission’s seven municipal courses in 2006 began a simple program: One paying adult entitles an accompanying junior to play for free. That means a parent and child can play nine holes during off-peak hours for $13.50.

“We started it to boost juniors, but we quickly realized it was allowing families to play together,” says Rob Higby, director of golf for the commission’s facilities, which are managed by Billy Casper Golf. The program has grown at an average rate of 26 percent annually since its inception.

Others are rethinking how golfers can consume 18 holes.

At Ka’anapali Golf Resort in Hawaii, guests can play “Golf My Way,” which enables them to enjoy a round in “portions” that best suit them. For example, they might play six holes at a time over three days. Such unconventional approaches likely won’t appeal to traditionalists. But that’s the point.

“If you do what you always did, you won’t even get what you always got,” says Scott Anderson, president of Kohler Co.’s Hospitality & Real Estate Group, which includes Whistling Straits.

That maxim should be heeded. Otherwise, there’s a chance that no one will be left to rescue golf.

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