Commentary: How To Keep Duffers On The Fairway

Unless golf changes its rules and marketing, it risks a steady drain of players

As the PGA Tour closes the books on another successful season, this should be the best of times for golf. Tiger Woods, a hot ticket even when he's slumping, and resurgent rivals like Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson kept TV ratings for the men's tour strong. And rising teen phenoms such as Paula Creamer and Michelle Wie created new buzz around a women's tour that is desperately trying to break out of the shadows.

Indeed, golf has drawn so many new fans that it stands second only to the NFL in total TV viewership. The pro tour is cashing in: TV revenues for the PGA were on pace to climb nearly 42% this year, to roughly $230 million -- more than four times the payout from just a decade ago.

Look beyond the pro circuit, however, and the grass isn't so green. According to the National Golf Foundation, the number of rounds played by all golfers has declined over the past three full years and was up just 1.3% through the first nine months of 2004. Equipment makers are struggling, with sales of clubs and balls largely flat since the late 1990s. That has led to a shakeout of smaller clubmakers like Orlimar Golf Co. and a bankruptcy auction last year for ballmaker Top-Flite Golf Co. (ELY ). There is talk that Callaway Golf Co. could get bagged by Nike Inc. (NKE ) (BW - Nov. 15)

These statistics suggest that many of the newcomers lured into the game by Woods have concluded that golf is an expensive, time-consuming, and frustrating endeavor. While industry officials boast of the 26 million people who now play golf, the dirty secret is that nearly 3 million quit the game each year -- leaving the industry hunting for new players just to stay even.

It doesn't have to be that way -- because there are plenty of steps golf could take to expand the game. For starters, the bluecoats at the U.S. Golf Assn. (USGA) and Britain's Royal & Ancient Golf Club -- the two governing bodies -- need to lighten up about new equipment technology.

The standard-setters say they're just trying to preserve the game's integrity. But the reality is that they seem obsessed with holding back the technology that would allow tour pros -- who are now hitting average drives approaching 300 yards -- to further obliterate the courses they play in tournaments. In the process, the high priests are creating too many obstacles for clubmakers trying to develop drivers and irons that would make the game fun for newbies. "The rule-making bodies simply and as a matter of fact don't care about the business of golf," complained Ronald A. Drapeau, then CEO of Callaway Golf Co., at an industry conference earlier this year.

The solution is simple: force the pros to play with "limited distance" balls, a reform Jack Nicklaus has advocated for years. USGA officials insist that the beauty of one-size-fits-all standards is that they make pros and duffers part of the same game. But most players don't aspire to play the same game as the pros (in fact, only 14% of players even bother to keep a USGA handicap). At the same time, the sanctioning bodies need to become more flexible in their approvals of new clubs -- and not reject any new technology that moves the needle forward.

But snazzy new clubs aren't the only answer. There's a lot the rest of the industry could do. More owners should take the lead of M.G. Orender, an owner of four Florida courses and past president of PGA of America, the body representing club pros and instructors. Four nights a week, Orender hosts special six- to nine-hole outings -- a "singles night" with cocktails, a couples' league, and a "six [holes] after six" program for women golfers who want to play a few holes on the way home. And on Saturday mornings, he offers a special rate for "soccer dads" hoping to squeeze in nine holes before their children's games start, as well as programs for kids. "Eighteen holes isn't a magic number for the average golfer," notes Orender. "We have to package our product differently." Other course owners are going one further, creating special kids' tees -- and even short "pitch and putt" courses for younger players. Along with more forgiving equipment, such efforts might help ensure that the masses don't slip back into seeing golf as just another spectator sport.

By Dean Foust

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.