Originally created 04/14/02

Bogeys for business



As an avid golfer and fan of the game, Steve Leone loves the lore that surrounds the Masters Tournament. As the owner of Augusta Custom Golf, the oldest equipment and repair shop in the area, he's also a fan of the sales the tournament generates.

Each April, Mr. Leone sees a spike in sales and repairs - but each year the surge subsides in the hot summer months.

"Every year there's an influx of new players after the Masters," he said. "The pros make it look so easy, it draws people in. It looks like fun, but they find out how hard the sport really is, and they don't last beyond May. They're what I call 'closet golfers."'

It's a problem endemic in the sport. Each year, 3 million people pick up the game and 3 million drop it, according to the National Golf Foundation. Just six years after Tiger Woods burst onto the pro scene, energizing the sport with an influx of new fans and players, growth in golf is stagnant.

Thousands of new golf courses, built in the past 10 years amid projections of astronomical future popularity, can't fill their tee times.

Everyone from equipment manufacturers to golf course superintendents is feeling the squeeze.

"Expenses go up every year, but revenues don't," said Rich Davis, general manager at Belle Meade Country Club in Thomson. "With all the new golf courses being added on, if we don't add new players to the game we'll be hurting."

So Golf 2020, a series of initiatives designed to increase interest and participation in golf, was created.

National golfing groups - including the U.S. Golf Association, the Professional Golfers Association and Ladies Professional Golf Association tours, the National Golf Course Owners Association and the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, among others - have joined with equipment manufacturers and retailers on local levels to tap into "latent demand" for golf in America.

"We know there is tremendous interest in the game, but some people have yet to take the first step," said Ruffin Beckwith, senior vice president of the World Golf Foundation and chairman of Golf 2020. "So in 2000 we came together as an industry to ... ensure the game's vitality 20 years down the road by tapping into that latent interest."

Hook 'em young

If Golf 2020 is to achieve its goal of 55 million U.S. golfers by the year 2020 - which could have the effect of almost doubling golf-related commerce - it will have to reach America's youth.

First Tee, an initiative of the World Golf Foundation, hopes to do so by providing affordable golf access to children who otherwise might not have an opportunity to play.

First Tee's oversight committee includes representatives of the USGA, the LPGA, the Augusta National Golf Club, the PGA Tour and the PGA of America. The program offers instruction in the game and its ethics, and it is marketed as an alternative to inner city basketball courts and sandlots.

The First Tee Life Skills Program shows participants how the sport's values apply to everyday life. Students are taught about responsibility, how to make decisions by addressing possible consequences, how to set and define goals and how to maintain a positive attitude.

Children 17 and younger can shoot 18 holes for $7.50 at First Tee of Augusta, a six-hole course near Daniel Field designed for free by Arnold Palmer's architectural firm. For $40, children get six group lessons, six individual lessons, six rounds of golf and practice balls.

The catch is that the youngsters have to agree to attend etiquette classes as well, said Blaine Patin, head golf pro at First Tee of Augusta, which opened on April 2, 2001, and is one of 85 First Tee programs in North America.

"The program is introducing the game to thousands of kids who've never had access to it," Mr. Patin said. "It's good for them, and it's good for the sport."

The USGA has chipped in on Golf 2020's Junior Initiative, creating juniorlinks.com, a Web site that links 550 junior golf programs throughout the country to share ideas and serve as a resource hub.

The site has information on how to earn scholarships through golf, how to get a job in the industry or how to improve one's game. For parents, it can identify the junior golf program nearest home.

"In the long-term vision, junior golf emerges as a major stakeholder in this," said USGA spokeswoman Jessica Turnwald. "This is a strategic look at growing the game, and future growth in the golf industry depends on it."

The back nine

More activity at golf courses leads to more hours at the manufacturing plants and more sales for retailers.

"Increasing participation and interest touches everyone in the industry," said Golf 2020 Chairman Mr. Beckwith.

Club Car President Phil Tralies said the vehicle manufacturer's golf-cart revenues have been flat for five years. The company is devoting time and resources to the Golf 2020 Initiative, even donating some equipment to golf programs throughout the country.

"Accelerating the growth of the game helps the overall well-being of the industry," he said. "For us, the wave of new course construction is over. You can't ride that wave anymore. It behooves us to make sure we do everything we can to grow the sport. We need to get demand to catch up with supply."

At E-Z-Go, where the biggest seller is the fleet golf cart, sales are lagging as well, said Bill Robson, director of marketing. So the company offers financial support and vehicles to golfing functions through 24 stores nationwide, hoping to attract more people to the game.

Golf-course builders are bringing back the pitch-and-putt and par-three concepts. The smaller courses are less intimidating, less time-consuming and more affordable than a country club.

Golf 2020 hopes that by eliminating some of the barriers to new players - by providing access to lessons and building smaller, less expensive courses - the golf world can stop the familiar trend of what Mr. Leone calls "closet golfers."

"The more people play, the more people break their equipment, the more people come to me to get it fixed," Mr. Leone said. "I like it when it gets busy. The more clubs I sell and fix, the more people are playing. It's all tied together."

WHO'S PLAYING

The United States has about 35.5 million golfers, according to the U.S. Golf Association. Here's how they break down:

25.5 million adult golfers (19 and older), of which there are:

 

  • 12 million who play 1-8 rounds annually

     

     

  • 7 million who play 9-24 rounds annually

     

     

  • 6.5 million who play more than 24 rounds annually

     

     

  • 6 million golf range users

     

     

  • 4 million junior golfers (ages 5-18)

     

    Source: The PGA Tour

    PGA VS. NFL

    Golf 2020, the industry's vision for the future, wants to achieve three major objectives in the United States by the year 2020:

     

  • Golf will be as popular as pro football.

     

     

  • There will be 55 million golfers.

     

     

  • There will be 1 billion rounds of golf played each year.

     

    Source: World Golf Foundation

    Reach John Bankston at (706) 823-3352 or john.banks@augustachronicle.com.