ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. -- Tiger Woods had just finished off one of the greatest seasons in golf. Television ratings were at an all-time high. More than 96 million Americans over age 12 considered themselves fans, a 22-percent increase since 1994.
The climate for growth could not have been better when more than 200 top industry leaders gathered last year at the World Golf Village and laid down ambitious plans to attract more people to golf.
PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem found himself staring at a different set of circumstances during the second installment of "Golf 20/20: Vision for the Future" - an economy sliding into a recession, compounded by uncertainty from the war on terrorism.
"This has been a bad year," Finchem said. "But we can't lose sight of the fact that 20/20 is long term. It's an ongoing process of analyzing how we can move the needle in growing participation. Our focus is on the big picture."
The goal is unchanged - making golf more comfortable for newcomers and more attractive for everyone. One disturbing trend is that while 3 million take up golf each year, 3 million quit playing.
What emerged from this year's conference were two concepts that could help meet some of the targets by 2020.
Link Up 2 Golf
In a pilot program sponsored by the PGA of America, eight golf facilities in North Carolina offered six hours of lessons, five rounds of golf, orientation seminars and use of the practice range for $199.
The program attracted 334 players from June 15 to Sept. 15. Of those, 20 percent had never played and 17 percent had only hit balls on the range.
One of the keys to "Link Up 2 Golf" were not feeling intimidated about a game that can humble even the best players. Research showed that 64 percent of the participants were uncomfortable on the golf course before the program, and only 4 percent felt that way after the program.
A couple of other statistics were of interest to golf course operators.
The survey showed that 65 percent of the participants had an annual income of at least $50,000; 73 percent said they planned to buy golf equipment in the next year; and 45 percent said they would buy that equipment from the golf shop where they learned to play.
"The program opened my eyes," said Sam Brewer, head pro at North Ridge Country Club in Raleigh, a private course. "We had 65 members register, including both new and older players. They had a lot of fun and developed new friends. We sold golf merchandise, and I couldn't be more excited about this."
Brewer said he plans to offer "Link Up 2 Golf" every year.
"It's overdue, and I hope that the concept takes off nationally," he said.
The PGA of America and the National Golf Course Owners Association want to expand the program next year into select markets that are receptive to growth. It probably will be funded by the two organizations.
"Once you show there is a benefit to the owner and the professional ... then, given that we're down in play, I can't see any owner who wouldn't say, 'If you have that kind of success, count me in,"' PGA chief executive Jim Awtrey said.
One of the complaints about golf is that it needs to take less time and cost less money. The biggest buzz at the "20/20" conference was alternative facilities - driving ranges, executive courses, par-3 courses and other configurations.
"There are people who don't care about score and handicap," said Dwight Pate of San Francisco-based Pate International. "These players just want to experience the joys of hitting shots."
Pate devised a unique course called "Golf Trail." It is circular compound with tees on the outside aimed toward a target area of fairways and greens, allowing players to select from a variety of shots - long drives, doglegs, 150-yard approach shots over water.
Sportometrics, a golf economics research company, found 5,542 alternative facilities in the United States. The report found that more people play traditional golf courses in areas where there is an abundance of alternative facilities.
"People can learn to play golf, then take a step to the 3-hole or 9-hole courses. That prepares them for an 18-hole round," said Mike Pullin of McCumber Golf. "If they don't live in an area where there are short courses, the 18-hole experience may be too much for them, and they get frustrated and drop out of the game."
While The First Tee program caters primarily to urban kids, the U.S. Golf Association launched a Web site called "juniorlinks.com." It contains a list of every junior program in the country, and also provides information on golf scholarships.
Steve Czarnecki of the USGA Foundation said adults between 19 and 34 who were exposed to golf through youth programs are playing 50 percent more rounds and spending 70 percent more on fees and equipment than adults who didn't take part in youth programs.
"We took an inventory of junior golf programs throughout the United States and found there was a great void in the area of communication," he said.
All the programs are designed to get more people playing golf - which means more money spent on greens fees and on equipment.
"Most industry initiatives are advertising or lobbying efforts," said Gary Stevenson, head of a sports marketing firm in Los Angeles that ran the "Link Up 2 Golf" program. "There are very few industries that would try a consumer marketing program. I bet you baseball wishes it had done this 10 years ago."
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