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Golf in the Rough

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When Tiger Woods's golf game imploded in 2009, the entire sport got stuck in the rough. Viewing figures declined along with the number of players. And the challenge of attracting and retaining new golfers only became harder for a time-intensive game often criticized for its misogyny, elitism and cost. Optimists point to an emerging crop of professional stars and to its return as an Olympic sport after a 112-year absence. They also see new and faster formats than traditional 18-hole rounds as a way to reinvigorate golf. The question is, will a sport hardly renowned for embracing change and progressive attitudes adapt quickly enough?

Professional golf is rallying, spurred by a core of top men’s players — Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson and Jason Day — all in their twenties or early thirties. Prize money has jumped, with tournament payouts up by more than one-third on the U.S. PGA Tour since Woods's heyday in the mid-2000s. At the grassroots, it's another story. The number of U.S. golfers dropped from a Woods-propelled peak of 30.6 million in 2003 to 24.1 million in 2014. The decline has been more severe in Japan, another of the sport’s heartlands, offsetting growth in golfing frontiers like China and India. New course openings are at an all-time low, according to the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, or R&A, which oversees golf outside the U.S. and Mexico. And participation among young people is down 30 percent over two decades. Even golf's reinstatement to the 2016 Olympics, a seeming godsend for a sport seeking to showcase itself, may have backfired after Spieth, McIlroy and Day withdrew because of concerns over the Zika virus. Nike, the world’s largest maker of sporting goods, said it will stop selling golf equipment, while Adidas, its biggest rival, is also shifting away from the sport. Meantime, Woods returned to action after a 15-month layoff following back surgeries only to require a fourth back operation in April that may have ended his season.