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Golf 's problems start with money and time, end with difficulty

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 second installment of a three-part series examines the reasons why so many golfers either dropout or don't start in the first place.

So you've decided to take up golf. You drop several hundred dollars, maybe $1,000 or more, on new clubs, bag, balls and shoes, maybe a fancy visor and a golf shirt with a snazzy logo.

You head out to the local country club, pay your $70 greens fee and tee it up. Five or six hours later, you come slouching back with a 110 on your scorecard, frustrated, hot and tired. You've lost a dozen balls, didn't hit a single green in regulation. Your visor droops.

On your way home, you pass a bowling alley. It looks cool and inviting inside. They have a bar. The price is right, and you'll only blow an hour and a half or so.

Why bother with golf?

That's what more and more people are asking themselves these days. Depending on who you believe, golf participation in the United States is either slowly starting to climb back up after a few lean years or declining altogether.

Keeping people in the game

Golf research groups working for traditional institutions like the PGA and the National Golf Foundation say 17 million people have, at the minimum, expressed an interest in playing. Others say more are dropping out than are starting.

"The challenge the golf industry has, and the industry doesn't want to talk about it, is retention," said Jim Koppenhaver of Pellucid, an independent golf research group. "According to our figures, in 2002 the industry gained 2.1 million golfers. That's a healthy number. The killer is they lost 2.9 million."

Koppehnhaver said preliminary figures for 2004 indicate the same trend.

What most everyone agrees on is that, of the many reasons golfers decide to give up the game, not to mention the ones that cause people not to get into it to start with, there are three most often mentioned.

Money, the difficulty of the game, and the time it takes to play it.

Money talks

Money, at one time, was the No. 1 culprit. With upscale golf courses being built at a record pace in the 1990s, more people who couldn't afford golf began to drop out. Industry leaders acknowledged the problem.

"To keep golf going, we have to build courses people can afford to play," architect Pete Dye told The Hartford Courant.

However, there are encouraging signs because of discouraging reasons.

"With the oversupply of golf courses, affordability is getting much better," Koppenhaver said. "It's not getting better because the industry is trying to make it affordable for the consumer. It's getting better because you've just got too much supply out there. Golfers have too many choices."

Six and seven hour games

With the game becoming a little more affordable, at least in the short run, disgruntled golfers have turned their grievances to the time it takes to play.

"The complaint we hear more than any other is that golf takes too much time," PGA of America President M.G. Orender told Time magazine.

With courses getting longer and more difficult, it follows that average golfers must take longer to play them.

"You hear people say, 'I'm just not willing to commit six and seven hour blocks of time when you factor in travel to the golf course, practice, the round, the post-round socialization and the travel home," Koppenhaver said.

Skinny stick, unnatural swing

"Golf is a fascinating game. It has taken me nearly 40 years to discover that I can't play it." - Ted Ray.

Imagine how the beginner feels. You put a long, skinny stick in the hands of a non-athlete and give him or her a hundred conflicting tips on how to make an unnatural swing natural - that's a recipe for utter frustration.

Add to that the fact that developers want longer and more "challenging" marquee courses to attract pro tournaments, and the game gets even harder.

"It's very difficult to get proficient enough at this game to really enjoy it," Koppenhaver said. "And so you have a lot of people who dabble at lower levels of involvement, and then fallout because it's just not fun shooting 110 and 115."

"Preserving and protecting"

The difficulty becomes more pronounced many feel because golf's ruling bodies, primarily the USGA, are so strict when it comes to deciding which clubs are legal and illegal.

"Part of the degree of difficulty is being constrained by the organizations within our industry," Koppenhaver said. "I understand the USGA's point of view, but part of their charter is to preserve and protect the integrity of the game.

"But, I don't think, as an economic engine, we should be driven by an industry whose mission is to protect and preserve. The USGA has no economic interest in the industry of golf. Many of these things that we're taking a cue from in our industry have no vested economic interest in the outcome. It doesn't make sense."

Better clubs, longer balls

That includes golf ball technology. No less an authority than Jack Nicklaus has railed against the advancing technology that makes balls fly higher and further.

The USGA, PGA Tour and the Royal and Ancient, trying to prevent golf skills from being overwhelmed by technology, have begun efforts to update the standards on ball-testing.

But, why not rein in the pros while giving the average duffer a break?

"I've been slammed in the industry for saying this, but I believe there are several games being played out there," Koppenhaver said. "For us to be regulating equipment based on pros' abilities, for the average golfer, it makes absolutely no sense. It's like saying 'this ball is making a course obsolete.' Well, it may be making it obsolete for Tiger Woods, but I have yet to meet an average golfer who walked off a course and said, 'I'm never going to play here again because that course just wasn't long enough for me."

Women, who many say are the biggest potential newcomers to the game, have a particularly hard time.

"You put all that together and it makes an interesting picture," Koppenhaver said. "Where's the benefit here? I'm not playing it well, it's taking me six or seven hours to not play it well, and I'm paying a premium price relative to going to a movie and feeling better when I walk out of the movie."

Golf's problems, like other declining sports such as tennis, are not insurmountable.

NEXT: What can be done?

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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