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Popular game losing players

Industry hopes Play Golf America initiative will lure more to sport.

Published May 20, 2004

Golf has never been more popular. It is one of the few sports that has seen an increase in television ratings. Purses on the PGA Tour keep rising to staggering levels, and attendance figures follow along. Sponsorships are strong because companies love entertaining their clients at golf tournaments.

So why are fewer people playing?

That remains the big mystery among officials in the golf industry, who don't see the interest in the game translating to more people on the fairways. In fact, some research shows the number of golfers has decreased while more and more people can't wait to see Tiger Woods on TV or in person.

"The fact that participation has been down doesn't really make sense," said M.G. Orender, president of the PGA of America, which recently started a marketing program with the goal of increasing participation among new and occasional adult golfers.

The primary targets are the estimated 17-million Americans who do not play but have expressed an interest, and the 14-million who are considered "occasional" golfers - those who play between one and seven times a year.

Play Golf America is the name of the initiative, with a big push to drive golfers to the Web site Consumers can search for facilities in their area that offer "grow-the-game" programs. There are 13 programs, including for beginners, families and women. More than 3,400 facilities are participating, with more than 4,700 PGA professionals signed up for May's Free Lesson Month program.

Tampa Bay area participation is strong, with more than 20 facilities offering some or all aspects of the initiative.

"The good thing about it is it's very broad," said Clay Thomas, director of golf at Tampa's Westchase Golf Club. "There are a lot of facets to it. There's a senior portion. There's a business person's part. There's a junior part, family clinics. I think it's going to do a real good job of introducing new golfers and taking away their reservations about coming to the golf course.

"There are a lot of simple things that a lot of us take for granted that are intimidating to new golfers. It could be as simple as making a tee time. What do they do when they get here? How do you make a tee time, how do you check in, what's a bag drop? That's what part of this program will do."

According to the National Golf Foundation, 61 percent of facilities in the United States reported a decline in rounds in 2002, and 55 percent reported declines in 2003. Rounds decreased overall by three percent from 2001 to 2002, and by 1.5 percent from 2002 to 2003. Those declines are not big, but as Orender points out, it is disturbing when players such as Woods, Annika Sorenstam and Michelle Wie are prompting more interest in the game.

Another concern is that course construction is ahead of projections for rounds played.

"There was going to be a train wreck," Orender said. "We're not waiting for the train wreck."

In addition to attracting more players, Play Golf America hopes to offer alternative ways to play in terms of format and number of holes. Time is the factor most mentioned when players say why they gave up golf or don't play often.

"Statistics show that people are working five hours more a week than 10 years ago, and that's one round of golf," Orender said. "What we have to do is get people to realize that golf doesn't always have to be about 18 holes and four or five hours. It can be three, six or nine holes, and be one hour or two hours."

Orender, who lives in Jacksonville Beach and operates his own golf course, tells the story of going to Oklahoma, where he happened upon a diner. There was a poster that said, "Please God, give us one more oil boom. We won't mess this one up."

He said the same is true of golf. "In the 1980s and '90s, our industry enjoyed great popularity and strong growth," he said. "You could put up a sign by the side of the road that said "new golf course' and you had 40,000 rounds of golf coming through the door each year. ... I think we forgot to wear our promoter and innovator hats."

Play Golf America is being helped by nearly $12-million for television ads. The Web site, was launched this spring and offers information on programs at courses around the country. To find one near you, simply enter your zip code.

"They should have done something like this 20 years ago," said Dave Stewart, head golf pro at Fox Hollow, which is participating. "It's sort of closing the door to the barn after the horse got out.

"I don't know the answer. I don't know where we are going to find more golfers. One of the hardest things is just getting started. Pick something else, sailing, fly fishing. There is a skill involved and you can't just read a book and learn how to do it. And there is a big expense involved in equipment. It's tough."

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