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BoomspoRT usa

Detonated by prosperity in the 1980s, the golf boom continues unabated into the '90s. SI explores several facets of the phenomenon in a series of stories in this and future issues

I can live with the golf boom, now that it's upon us, a thriving, Tee-Clogging, par 3-choking reality. I have a certain amount of charity in my heart. But just because 24.7 million American men, women and children have discovered the joys of chasing a little white ball into field, flora and forest (not to mention sand, water and gronkle); just because a nation has stuffed its tennis rackets and Softball mitts into the attic to make room in the hall closet for the tempered steel irons that cost $600 in 1988 and have already been rendered passè by some graphite-titanium-shafted weapons endorsed by Jumbo or Seve or Jack—that doesn't mean I have to like it.

Not to be elitist, but I can remember when golfing wasn't cool. It wasn't that long ago, and I miss those days of solitude. I miss seeing my friends rolling their eyes and telling me how borrrring golf was as they grabbed their tennis rackets and aimed their tanned, taut bodies toward the courts.

I can remember a time when you could show up at the first tee unannounced on a weekday and have the whole course to yourself. It was like walking in your own kingdom. You could play two, three, four balls from the fairway for practice and never hold anyone up. Forget Sansabelts; you could play 18 holes sansapants, if you were so inclined, without offending a form of life higher than a gopher.

There was a time when there were no course "rangers" riding around in golf carts, keeping an eye on things; no cart paths, for that matter, carving cement swaths through the course, waiting to play moon ball with errant approach shots. The only carts were those little pull carts that cost $1 to rent and tipped over whenever you stopped, spilling the old Wilson Staffs out of the bag. Irons not only didn't have square grooves, they often had no grooves at all, since it was a badge of honor to play with a set of clubs that had been struck in the sweet spot so many times that the grooves had gone smooth as slate.

And when you did happen to come upon other golfers, they waved you through with a smile because there was no one in front of them and no one behind you, and nobody was in any particular rush anyway.

That was before the golf boom. Which is why in my most fiendish hours I find myself plotting, Grinchlike, How to put an end to it.

It's the one thing about the golf boom I can't figure out. All the rest—when it began, who's driving it, who's profiting, who's getting hurt, whatever happened to the booms of soccer, hockey and tennis—I've got a handle on. Some of that stuff I know in my bones (not to mention my cartilage, ligaments and tendons, none of which function at previous standards), and some of it I know because I've been reading material sent to me by the National Golf Foundation (NGF). Like the fact that at 38.6 years of age I am .5 of a year older than the average American golfer. That's not the kind of thing anyone knows in his bones, or is especially happy to find out, since golfers are traditionally being perceived as overweight old men. Miller Barber. Now there's a man who is the average age and weight of a golfer, according to my bones. But no. The NGF tells me that baby boomers and women have been taking to the fairways in record numbers, altering the demographics of golf.

Only you're not blaming this one on the baby boomers. Uh-uh. We've been blamed for every boom from hula hoops to oat bran, but you're not hanging the golf boom on us. Everyone's in on it. The twenty-something crowd. Retirees. Women. Blue-collar types. They're all lacing up their Foot-Joys and stepping out to the nearest links, shelling out an average of $522 a head, or some $12.9 billion a year in the U.S. market alone—up 45% from the $8.9 billion U.S. golfers spent four years ago.

You want numbers? The NGF has numbers. Between 1970 and '75, when tennis was booming, the number of golfers in the U.S. went from 11.2 to 13 million, a 16% increase and an average of 360,000 new golfers a year. (The NGF considers anyone who has played one round in the previous 12 months a golfer.) In the most recent five-year period surveyed, 1984-88, the number of golfers in the U.S. rose from 17 to 24.7 million, a 45% increase and an average of 1.54 million new golfers a year. In total, then, there are 121% more golfers today than there were 20 years ago.

Great, swell, wonderful. But all those new bodies are playing on only 27% more courses. The U.S. had 10,848 golf courses in 1970, and at the start of 1990, that number had risen to 13,738. Even if the growth rate of the game slows to a modest 2% (down from 7%, 7.8% and 5.5% in each of the last three years), it means there will be 30 million American golfers by the end of the decade. To keep up with demand, the NGF is calling for the construction of 400 new courses a year until the year 2000.

Of course, not everyone accepts the NGF's figures. "Those numbers present an inflated view of what's going on," cautions Dave Ferm, publisher of Golf Digest. "Our research shows there are 15 to 16 million golfers who play 10 times a year and a hard core of seven to eight million who play 25 rounds or more. I'd say the market is growing at a healthy three-to four percent a year, but I haven't used the word 'boom' in the five years I've been here. Because where there's a boom, eventually there's going to be a bust, and I don't think that's going to happen in golf."

Roger Maxwell agrees. Maxwell is head of Marriott Corporation's newly formed golf division, which owns 15 golf facilities in the U.S. "It's a media-driven boom rather than reality," Maxwell says. "We saw a nine percent growth in rounds played at our facilities in 1989 as compared with 1988—nice numbers, but not boom numbers. If you want to talk about boom numbers, then you have to talk about Europe."

That isn't at all what I want to talk about. I want to talk about how to divert this passion for golf. I want to talk about a bowling boom. But no. Marriott wants to talk about Europe, where the number of golfers has increased a whopping 242% in the past 16 years.

Mind you, the total number of golfers in Europe, some 2.5 million persons, is the approximate equivalent of the number of golfers in California. But the rate of growth, particularly on the Continent, dwarfs anything that is happening in the States. Five countries—Finland, Austria, Sweden, Belgium and Norway—boasted between 20% and 30% increases in numbers of golfers between 1988 and 1989, and golf course construction is almost keeping pace. In Norway, which has only 12 courses, there are 28 more under construction—a 133% improvement. "The big boom began in 1986," says Anna Donnestad, general secretary of the Norwegian Golf Federation. "I believe we owe a lot to the exposure of golf on television, particularly all the golf that is shown on cable TV. And the Swedish golf boom has been contagious in Norway."

Sweden may soon be a pipeline for international golf stars, as it has been for years in tennis. Liselotte Neumann, has already won the 1988 U.S. Women's Open, and Magnus Persson is an emerging factor on the European men's tour. Sweden has a modest number of courses now (207), but 101 more are being built, and Volvo has become the European PGA Tour's chief sponsor, committing some $17 million over five years. France, where golf is slowly starting to shed its image as an upper-class game, has 253 golf courses on the drawing board. And the British Isles, the birthplace of the game and home to 2,300 of Europe's 3,500 golf courses, has been challenged by the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews to build 691 more courses by the year 2000 in order to meet the growing demand.

But why now? And why golf? Certainly the success of Europe's top players in international competition during the '80s has a lot to do with the sport's increased popularity there. Nick Faldo and Sandy Lyle of Great Britain, Seve Ballesteros of Spain and Bern-hard Langer of West Germany have won four of the last six titles at the Masters and the British Open. Europe's Ryder Cup victories in 1985 and '87 and its Cup-saving halve in '89 received an enormous amount of media attention across the Atlantic.

The golf explosion in Europe is fueled by some of the same factors that have led to its growth in the U.S.—an economy that has remained healthy for a number of years, the sport's squeaky-clean image, increased television coverage, corporate involvement and a maturing population that has more leisure and disposable income than ever before. In the U.S., golfers who are 50 years and older make up only 25% of the golf population, but they accounted for 51% of the 487 million rounds played in 1988. That's an annual average of 43 rounds per senior—triple the number of rounds averaged by younger golfers. And with early retirement becoming a fact of American life, there is little hope that the trend will abate.

Try as one may, it is nearly impossible to find a convincing voice in the wilderness predicting that, like Trivial Pursuit, hot pants and lamb-chop sideburns, the golf boom is just a worldwide fad.

"Everything in this world is cyclical," says David Fay, executive director of the United States Golf Association (USGA). "But unless we have another Depression, the game's in pretty good shape."

A Depression. Hmm. Now that's an idea. Harsh medicine, to be sure, but these are desperate times. And it's a tried-and-true cure: It took the Depression to put a screeching halt to America's first golf boom, a 15-year stretch during which the number of U.S. golf courses more than quadrupled, from a mere 1,200 in 1916 to 5,700 in'31.

Not much changed in that regard until the 1950s, when a second golf boom began, ignited by Dwight D. Eisenhower's putting green on the south lawn of the White House. Arnold Palmer, the charismatic son of a teaching pro, emerged in the late '50s to recast and refresh the game's country club image. Golf course construction, which had been relatively dormant for the previous 30 years, suddenly surged in the Swinging (natch) '60s, a decade in which an average of more than one golf course was opened per day, a total of 3,935 new courses in all. Purses on the PGA Tour grew as the game grew, rising from a mere $1.3 million in 1960 to $6.8 million in 1970 to $13.4 million in 1980. Nice dough, if you could get it, but not exactly the treasure of King Tut's tomb.

Then came the Easy '80s, when being a member of Deane Beman's all-exempt PGA Tour meant never having to say, "I'm hungry." Big corporate bucks, attracted to the Tour's clean-cut image, rolled in. In an era in which other sports were making headlines with steroids, cocaine, recruiting scandals, strikes, tantrums and violence, the gentlemanly game of golf—following the standards set by its superstars—remained quaintly, almost boringly, unsullied.

The upshot is that in 1990 the regular PGA Tour is playing for $45 million in purses; the 10-year-old Senior tour, for $18 million; the LPGA, for $16 million; and the newly formed Ben Hogan Tour, which was created for young golfers trying to break in to the big time, for $3 million. Those are all purses. Off the course, three of the top four money-makers among athletes in the endorsement field arc golfers: Arnold Palmer ($12.5 million in '89), Greg Norman ($10 million) and Jack Nicklaus ($7 million). The other is tennis player Boris Becker ($8 million).

Still, as the absence of a contemporary American superstar to rival Palmer suggests, the PGA Tour is more the beneficiary of the golf boom than the driving force behind it. "Right now the professional and amateur aspects of the game are on a parallel course," says Ferm. "But if the PGA Tour went down in popularity, I think the amateur game would continue to flourish. It isn't like the tennis boom of the '70s, when a lot of new players were attracted to tennis because of its health-fitness qualities and then went on to aerobics and other things. Golf has a much stronger core. Once you're hooked, you tend to stay hooked."

"Golf is a communicable addiction," says the USGA's Fay. "It's a game you can talk about, because every course and every round is different. In tennis you either play on clay or concrete or grass. But you're never going to sit around and say, 'What about that fifth court down at Harbour Town?' "

I don't mean to dump on tennis, because I cling to the hope that these newly converted golfers will—like Adam—return to the clay from which they sprang. But one of tennis's drawbacks is you have to find someone of your own caliber to play with. No one wants to take the court with a hacker, which makes tennis an awkward sport to pick up as an adult.

Golf, however, has a handicap system that transcends variations in skill. Duffy Divot can play against Tom Kite on fair and competitive terms without embarrassing himself. Fathers can play with sons, husbands with wives, senior partners with junior partners. The result is that the quality of a round of golf does not depend upon the quality of your opponent, unless you consider the opponent to be the golf course itself. Or the 14 clubs in your bag.

It is one of the secrets of golf's success that you can actually play with people you like. All because of handicaps. "Golf is just too good a game to screw up," says Golf Digest's editorial director, Nick Seitz. "Even in a bad economy it wouldn't get set back much. It would take a combination of calamities."

Cheery as that assessment may be, I am happy to report that the golf boom knows a few bounds. "There are three limiting factors to the game," says Maxwell. "One: a lack of facilities in many markets. Two: the cost of the game. Three: the time it takes to play the game." The time factor is interesting. Normally, it takes from three to four hours to play 18 holes of golf, a feature frequently touted as golf's worst. But when the NGF asked golfers their reasons for not playing more often, 73% said it was because of a lack of time, while only 12% said that the game took too much time. In other words, the fault lies not with the game but with ourselves.

The cost of playing the game is a different matter. Golf has become big business, and when big business is involved, prices have a way of going up. And up. And up. A sleeve of three golf balls that cost $3.75 a decade ago now retails for $6.75. Greens fees at some of the new signature courses that are cropping up all over the Sun Belt are routinely $65-$70 for 18 holes. A round at Pebble Beach is $175 any day of the week. Golf will never be an inexpensive form of recreation, but if current trends continue, the 32% of U.S. golfers who have household incomes of less than $30,000 will soon be priced out of the sport.

The problem isn't so much a lack of golf facilities in the U.S. as it is a lack of the kind of facilities that are most needed. Namely, municipal courses and public driving ranges. Unfortunately, most of the money being invested in golf courses these days is in the area of resort development and luxury real estate. The Acme Golf Corporation borrows a chunk of change from the Savings and Loan, buys a tract of desert, pays a big-name architect to sculpt a 36-hole layout, names it after a famous Indian and sells house sites for a half million dollars each. Nothing like doing your bit to solve the tee-time crunch.

"A lot of real estate developers have been using golf lo build an address." says Maxwell, "and as a result some markets have been overbuilt. There are as many as 18 golf facilities for sale in Phoenix alone. That ought to tell you something."

It tells me that all those people clogging up my home course ought to move to Phoenix. "When the NGF says we need to open a course a day by the year 2000," says Randy Frey, the editor of the NGF's newsletter, Golf Market Today, "it doesn't mean you can open a course just anywhere. The major metropolitan areas is where they need more courses."

In recent months some of these golf resorts and developments have failed—enough of them to lead many to wonder if the golf boom is already a thing of the past. For instance, the Ballymead Country Club in Falmouth, Mass., which was financed with a reported $39 million borrowed from the troubled Bank of New England, has filed for Chapter 11 protection. Landmark Land Co., the nation's largest golf resort developer, with 23 golf courses nationwide, financed its construction projects by borrowing money from the two federally-insured savings-and-loan institutions it owned in Louisiana. When the Office of Thrift Supervision cracked down on thrifts last year, Landmark had to put a large portion of its portfolio up for sale. But in these and other instances, it isn't so much that the golf boom has petered out as it is that the real estate boom, and the days of unsupervised S&L financing, are over.

Meanwhile, existing golf facilities in big cities have been overwhelmed. The NGF fears that golfers in Los Angeles and New York City might one day be forced to spend their entire careers smacking balls in multitiered driving ranges, as now happens in Japan, where an estimated 85% of golfers never play on a real course. Small wonder the Japanese, who think nothing of commuting to Hawaii for a couple of rounds, are buying up courses around the world as fast as they can lay down their yen.

One solution to the shortage of courses near the major metropolitan areas? Build them cheap. Build them simple. Build them, if necessary, at just nine holes. "I'd like to see more of what I call entry-level courses," says Fay, "which would be the equivalent of the local ski area that a youngster cuts his teeth on. Really low maintenance, without a lot of bunkers. No railroad ties. Carry your own sack or pull a trolley. But that's golf. You still have to hit it. It's the same game as they play at Pine Valley or Pebble Beach."

Carry your own sack. Music to a golf Grinch's ears, for one of the truly rotten side effects of the U.S. golf boom is that in an effort to speed up the game and increase revenues, more and more golf courses require players to rent carts. Golfers are not even given an option to walk. "I find it ironic that there's supposed to be a fitness boom, but meanwhile walking is being phased out of golf," laments Fay. "Twenty years ago you needed a letter from your doctor to be able to use a cart. Now you practically have to get a letter from your doctor to be able to walk."

Twenty years ago. Back before golf videos, instructional schools, metal woods, island greens and Sansabelts. Back before the boom. Well, I think I have come up with a solution. It's a sport that is economically affordable, environmentally sensitive, low-maintenance and efficient in its use of land and space. Like golf, it is sedentary, cerebral and satisfies the primal urge to whack around a hard, round object on a green, mowed lawn.

Anyone for a round of croquet?





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