Golf - Same Problems, Same Solutions...
By Jim Reffkin

July 2004

Golf and Tennis have always had one thing in common, they are both "Country Club" sports. But unfortunately, they have something much more important in common, they both currently have a lack of participation problem. We knew that tennis was struggling, but who would've expected that golf, with Tiger Woods, the biggest attraction in all of sports, would be suffering as well.

Here is some bad news for the United States Golf Association. Tiger Woods and television may be the trendy "in fashion" sport today to watch and talk about, but in the last ten years participation at all levels has remained flat. And even worse, the National Golf Foundation has reported a 61% decrease in rounds played in 2002 and 55% last year.

Interesting enough, thanks to a July 7, 2004 USA Today article on why golf is suffering, it reflects many of the same reasons Tennis is flat as well: Lack of time, family obligations and health reasons being the top three problems for the average consumer. As a facility director, I must add one more barrier that was also mentioned in the article - too difficult to play the game. Have you ever watched "beginning/intermediate" golfers and tennis players try to enjoy the game? They have in common, trying to hit as hard as possible, or just as bad, "push" the ball over the net, then inevitably search the rough for golf balls or chase out of bounds, high bouncing tennis balls up the cyclone fences.

Same problems, same solutions. In a "time poor" society it should be a no-brainer to the governing bodies of both associations that a solution to this nagging problem must be addressed. It is a "product development" issue that must be corrected.

The United States Tennis Association is counting on an ambitious marketing effort called "tennis welcome centers" to drive people to tennis facilities. However, will just getting them there be the final answer? I think not, at least not completely, tennis and golf need programs (product) to suit the consumer and at the same time solve the time issue.

Golf, in their recent 12 million dollar marketing campaign, has encouraged facility directors to be a little more innovative and make an effort to overcome the time and health problem. I think the weekends of the "little wife" staying at home while husbands spend the day at the golf course, and the late afternoon at the bar and grill, may be over for the average middle class consumer.

But to grow the game and increase participation, surveys are telling us to look outside the "traditional" and service the less-skilled public, a public who is longing for recreation, but can not afford expensive golf or tennis fees or poor programming.

Same problems, same solutions. The Wall Street Journal, in an article by James P. Streba put it this way: Nearly three million of the 26 million adult golfers in the U.S. quit each year, says the National Golf Foundation, an industry research group. Why? Health, job and family obligations, and other spare-time attractions are some of the reasons. But underlying those, dropouts say in surveys, is this: The game is too difficult, too time-consuming and too expensive.

"It is so difficult that about two-thirds of those who try the game quit because they don't think they will ever be able to play respectably," says Ron Drapeau, chairman of Callaway Golf Co.

In reality, the conflict in growing the game, golf or tennis, is a continuous debate - struggle may be a better word - on the purity of the game as the USGA and USTA see it, and how the golf and tennis industry want it to grow.

Same problems, same solutions. The USTA and USGA traditionally have "protected" their respective games by introducing every age and skill level, young and old, to the very rules and formats that are played at the highest level of professional golf and tennis. Needless to say, America's major sports (baseball, football and basketball) would never think of introducing their games to the very young or less skilled adults, using major league parameters. The logical progression of time played and rules followed, in relation to age and skill level, is elementary in promoting major sports participation to our general population. Is it no wonder our most popular youth sports were invented in the United States? Let's take the challenge and popularize Golf and Tennis the American way!

Special Note: The good news is, thanks to ambitious USGA and USTA leaders, our associations, much like major sports, are making an effort by introducing a logical, innovative progression of user friendly, competitive events. Look for these suggestions in my next article.