Golf Isn't Out Of The Woods

From a front page L.A. Times story today by Greg Johnson:

Operators are dangling discounts and promotions in front of customers — and courting a new generation of duffers who prefer T-shirts to polos and wouldn't think of playing without their iPods and Bluetooth-enabled cellphones. To survive, some courses are taking Palm Desert's approach: plowing under acreage to build homes that will finance improvements.

This isn't the scenario that golf's gurus envisioned in the 1990s, when the "Tiger effect" — a surge in interest in the sport inspired by the arrival of Tiger Woods on the pro tour — and dot-com stock options fueled the belief that a course a day could be built for the foreseeable future.

That euphoria extended into 2000, when 400 courses opened nationwide. This year, about 150 will open, still far exceeding the 50 or so that will shut down.

The build-it-and-they-will-come mentality has been fueled by demand for high-end communities anchored by alluring courses. It comes after a heady half-century of growth; only 3.5 million Americans played golf in 1950, compared with 27.3 million in 2004.

But the number of rounds played increased by just 0.7% in 2004 after three years of decline. The ranks of serious golfers — the roughly half of all players who account for the vast majority of rounds — fell by nearly 5% last year.

"We've gotten to the point where we could probably stand to close a course a day for the next 10 years," said Walt Lankow, the owner of a family-run golf business outside Boston.

Woods has lured newcomers, including many minorities, to the game. Latinos, Asians and African Americans now account for one-fifth of all players, according to a 2003 National Golf Foundation survey.

But many new golfers quickly retire their clubs because of the game's high costs, its inherent difficulty and the time it takes to play 18 holes — or because they come to agree with Mark Twain's observation that golf is a good walk spoiled.

That leaves golf's near-term success in the grip of baby boomers, those now in their 40s and 50s with time and money to play, their fascination with the game ingrained after watching Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer turn it into a television staple.