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Is golf trying too hard to attract the new while shorting the rest of us?

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

The state of the U.S. golf industry is either healthy as a horse or sick as a dog, depending on who you ask. This the third installment of a three-part series examines the reasons why so many golfers either dropout or don't start in the first place.

With the number of U.S. golfers in decline over the last few years, the big players in the industry did something unprecedented.

They decided to pool their resources and cooperate.

For the overall good of the game, not to mention sizable economic investments, disparate golf interests are finally coming together to try and find out what the heck is wrong and how to fix it.

Why are more golf courses closing? Why are fewer rounds being played? Why are equipment sales falling off?

"That's a fairly new phenomenon, all the industry associations are working together," said Mike Tinkey of the National Golf Course Owners Association.

So sitting around the same tables you have such competitors as Callaway, Nike, Wilson and TopFlite, as well as people from the PGA, LPGA and USGA, all trying to come up with solutions.

Many start, more quit

Most industry observers agree that is a good thing. But there are some who still feel golf is focusing too much on attracting new players at the expense of allowing existing players to abandon the game.

According to figures from independent market research firm Pellucid, in 2002 the industry gained 2.1 million golfers, but lost 2.9 million.

"You're letting 2.9 million people who have already gone through the expense of getting the equipment and the initial pain of learning the game (and) who already have a relationship with a golf course out there, you're letting them walk out the door," said Pellucid president Jim Koppenhaver.

The golf establishment says it knows what the problems are and says it is taking significant steps to fix them.

"We do need to pay attention to welcoming golfers at facilities, and providing a good experience for women and minorities in order to increase retention," said Jim Kass, the National Golf Foundation's director of research. "All those things are being addressed. There are a lot of programs that are under way to both attract and retain."

Huge marketing campaign

For example, the National Golf Foundation has spun off several initiatives to help golf get back to its heyday when Nicklaus and Palmer captured the public imagination.

They include Play Golf America, organized by the PGA; The First Tee, a World Golf Foundation project; juniorlinks.com for young golfers, and Golf20/20, which focuses on growth. The PGA also has its own separate youth program.

As a whole, golf has embarked on a marketing campaign costing roughly $10 million.

Play Golf America is a one-stop Web site where golfers can click to find nearby facilities that offer instruction and clinics. It also has programs that help golfers find programs that fit their time and budgets, two traditional gripes from disgruntled players.

Tiger fans aren't playing

The First Tee, a World Golf Foundation project, provides learning facilities and programs for youth; there were 152 facilities open as of June, with dozens more on tap. The First Tee hopes to attract all those young Tiger Woods fans, whose adulation of their hero isn't translating into actually playing the game.

Golf 20/20 acknowledges that the game must come up with "better ways for beginners to start minimizing the intimidation factor," according to its annual report. It also knows the game has to reach out to minorities more.

An ESPN Sports poll showed that Asians, African-Americans and women represent by far the biggest new fans of the game.

Pouring gas on the flames

But, Koppenhaver and others feel the industry should be doing more to keep players in the game.

"The industry wants to talk about player development," Koppenhaver said. "What you've got is people putting gasoline on a fire. The bucket is leaking at the bottom, with people dropping out. We're getting 2 million people in a year and they're spending all this time on industry initiatives trying to dump more people on top of the bucket. What I'm saying is as long as you've got a huge hole at the bottom, that's just wasted money."

Both sides agree that holding on to golfers and enticing them to play more rounds starts with the golf course owners.

"In our mind, that challenge starts with the individual facility operator," Koppenhaver said. "They have the relationship with those people. The PGA Tour is not going fix that, the PGA of America is not going to fix that, the National Golf Foundation is not going to fix that."

Put your money where your mouth is

The National Golf Course Owners Association has several initiatives, including one for women. It also has links to "beginner-friendly" courses, as well as links to programs like Link Up To Golf and a Web learning class for courses on how to retain golfers.

That's a lot of programs but they need to start putting their money where their mouths are, Koppenhaver believes.

"It amazes me how many operators let grass sit idle on a weekday because they want $70 in greens fees," he said. "The consumer is telling us very emphatically 'in the middle of the day, on a weekday, I'm not going to pay you $70 to play the course.' We're just not very smart businessmen about some of this stuff."

Give us less for less

Golfers are also clamoring that they want a golf experience without committing huge blocks of time.

"If somebody told me they want a nine-hole experience and they're willing to give me an hour and a half -- and at a time when I can't sell a full 18-hole experience at a full revenue rate ?--why in the heck would I not only offer a nine-hole xperience, but encourage it?" Koppenhaver said.

"Consumers keep telling us this. You would think if that is one of the driving factors of what we call 'learning and practice' facilities, you'd think they would boom because they answer the consumer's needs."

There are movements to encourage shorter golf, especially with Play Golf America, but the fact remains that of the more than 13,600 U.S. courses, only about 1,300 are short courses, such as executive and par-3 layouts.

Why aren't we having fun?

However, studies also indicate consumers are as mixed up as the owners when it comes to what they want.

"What they're telling us is 'I want a two-hour experience, but I want that two-hour experience in par-4s and par-5s, hitting drives and irons and chip shots, not just hitting 5- and 6-irons and pitching and putting,'" Koppenhaver said.

"The reason learning and practice facilities haven't taken off is the consumer is stuck between those two conflicting needs. Golf facilities need to start offering alternative venues or different uses of their facilities to give golfers that time-compressed experience. That takes some creativity on the part of the operators that we're just not seeing. We have such a stigma in trying to align golfers with an experience that challenges their skill level and makes sure they have fun."

Which is, after all, why we play the game, isn't it?

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.


 
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