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Reality check: Despite appearances, interest in golf is flat

SHARE Reality check: Despite appearances, interest in golf is flat

From most indications, golf appears it will be the sport of the 21st century. Golf courses are springing up everywhere, professional golf purses are skyrocketing, the sport is as popular as ever on television and the most famous athlete on the planet now and for the foreseeable future (say, the next three decades or so) is a golfer — one Eldrick "Tiger" Woods.

It seems like everybody's playing golf these days, from your 85-year-old neighbor to businessmen making afternoon deals out on the links, from housewives playing in ladies leagues every Tuesday to 5-year-olds swinging cut-down clubs under the watchful eyes of proud parents.

It seems like it, anyway.

In reality, golf has been flattening out after a big upturn in the past couple of decades, not only nationally but in Utah as well.

"Golf's tremendous exposure has created the impression of a boom," Joseph F. Beditz, president of the National Golf Foundation, told the Wall Street Journal. Beditz said most people believe there is still a golf boom until he shows them some statistics.

The statistics say that golf has flattened out after remarkable growth throughout most of the 1990s. According to the National Golf Foundation, an industry-funded research group, the game's key indicators — the number of golfers and the amount they play — have stagnated for a decade.

The NGF's studies show that about 26 million American golfers played approximately 530 million rounds of golf last year — which is not much more than in 1988. While approximately 3 million people take up the game annually, nearly 3 million golfers also drop out every year.

The trend is similar in Utah.

"I think golf in general is flattening," said Devin Dehlin, the director of golf in Salt Lake County. "Revenue is where it needs to be, but overall it's spread out a little bit more."

Dehlin said that in the early 1990s, Meadow Brook, the busiest course in Salt Lake County, used to do 110,000 rounds per year, but last year, it was down to 95,000. That was despite a new clubhouse and improvements to the course. Dehlin acknowledges part of the decrease was due to an influx of new courses, not only in the county but in Utah. Still, it concerns him that golf seems to have hit its peak.

"It just seems like people aren't as excited about golf as they used to be," said Dehlin. "We're in a bit of a lull right now."

Dehlin said tee times are available most afternoons at the Salt Lake County courses and that Sunday afternoons are "the slowest times we have now," perhaps because morning tee times on the weekends are more readily available.

Mark Lynch, the executive director of the Utah Section PGA, agrees with Dehlin.

"I pretty much see the same trend here as nationally," he said. "I think our rounds are up overall in Utah, but I think the same people are playing more. We're not getting many more new golfers."

Like Dehlin, Lynch also senses golf isn't as big of a deal as it was a few years ago. He finds that people on the street don't talk about golf like they did a few years ago.

Just recently, Salt Lake City had to cut five golf positions, including two professionals because of declining revenues.

One person who doesn't see a downturn in local golf is Utah Golf Association executive director Joe Watts.

"I don't know what the situation is at the individual golf courses, but our membership is up significantly," he said. "We always get about a 2 to 3 percent increase, but this year it's 4 to 5 percent. A lot of that might have to do with the wonderful spring weather we've had. But we're doing great."

Perhaps one reason the UGA seems to be bucking the trend is because the more serious, regular golfers are most apt to get handicaps, while the average, beginning golfers, whose numbers aren't increasing, aren't as inclined to join the UGA.

The golf retail business certainly doesn't seem to be suffering right now. Talk to any salesperson at Uinta Golf, a local discount golf store, and they'll tell you business is booming. Just this year, Uinta opened a new store in Sandy 2 1/2 times as large as the original store in Salt Lake City. And golf pros such as Golf In The Round's Ken Clark still keep booked for lessons a couple of weeks in advance.

A recent article in the Boston Globe points out "Three Toos" as being problems with golf these days — too intimidating, too expensive and too time-consuming.

"I think a lot of people are intimidated by it, especially beginners," said Dehlin.

Lynch sees cost and time as two of the main drawbacks toward developing new golfers and believes some golf traditions may change in the future to make the game less cost-prohibitive and less time-consuming.

"I think in the future you'll see someone make three six-hole courses or six three-hole courses," he said. "That way people could go and play three holes on their lunch hour. Someday, people will figure out a way to do that and be very successful."

Dehlin said his wife often tells him golf courses should change to 14 holes with two 7-hole courses. That way people could play in a more reasonable three hours. And just think — all those golfers who shoot in the 90s would suddenly be shooting in the 70s.

As for the cost, Dehlin points out that Utah's prices are better than most parts of the country but are increasing every couple of years.

"It's a great value, but it's right on the border of being too much for people to do it a lot," he said.

Utah golfers have discovered it's easier to get a tee time than it was about five years ago. That's mainly because of the number of new courses that have been built. Just in the last five years alone, Utah has seen several new courses built, including Thanksgiving Point, South Mountain, Old Mill, Stonebridge, Glen Eagle, Sun Hills and River Oaks. Most of those facilities, however, are upscale, high-fee courses, which are one of the problems in golf, a recent article in the Wall Street Journal points out.

"The big problem is that two-thirds of the new courses are of a type that is hugely costly to build and maintain — some cost $10 million or more and require green fees of $60 to $100 or more to make them viable," the article states. "Courses that look like the ones on TV do help sell the housing developments around them. But the big green fees attract only avid golfers, not beginners."

At $45 for 18 holes and a cart, South Mountain is one of the more expensive courses in Utah. Most municipal courses average around $20 without a cart.

Watts agrees the recent building boom in Utah golf courses has made it easier to get tee times, but he warns that it won't last. He believes there will be a shortage of golf courses within the next couple of decades.

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