Golf: Golf falls into generation gap

Paul Trow hears that the game is now too ancient for its own good
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IN 1972, a 14-year-old Nick Faldo took up golf after watching Jack Nicklaus win the Masters on television. Thus began a glorious career which has since inspired hundreds of thousands of youngsters, including his Ryder Cup partner Lee Westwood, to take up the game.

Buoyed by succession of triumphs by players from this side of the Atlantic, golf's popularity grew rapidly throughout the Eighties and early Nineties. Ten years ago, the Royal & Ancient, organisers of the Open, custodians of the rules and overlords of the amateur game, published a report calling for 700 more courses to satisfy the unprecedented demand. But a decade later, a far less encouraging picture has emerged.

The Golf Foundation, the charity responsible for developing junior golf in the United Kingdom, has revealed that the average age of Britain's golfers has risen from 41 to 45 since 1990. There has been a 40 per cent increase in golfers over 55 and, most disturbingly, a 30 per cent drop in those under 25.

Bernard Gallacher, the charity's president and a former Ryder Cup captain, described the trend as a "ticking time-bomb within the game. Unless we address this issue now in the face of growing competition from other sports, we will see golf in its homeland decline and places in future Ryder Cup teams go increasingly to players from other parts of Europe."

Whilst agreeing with Gallacher's sentiments, golf administrators are far from united in their diagnoses, citing the popularity of football, the perception that golf is still elitist, the sport's prohibitive cost and the high percentage of televised golf broadcast only on Sky.

Colin Hegarty, of the Golf Research Group, believes that golf does not promote itself well. "Three million people played last year, but we need a million more," he said. "Our research shows that five million people have a strong interest in taking up golf. But many of them think they'd never get on to a private course and are scared of being confronted by some snotty old commander or retired major of a secretary."

Perhaps the authorities need to sell golf to teenagers along similar lines as Ryan Giggs, Playstations or the Spice Girls. Sandy Jones, the executive director of the Professional Golfers' Association, said: "Maybe our slogan should be 'Golf is Cool'." He has an early opportunity to spring- clean golf's image next month during National Golf Week when PGA pros will give free lessons to 20,000 beginners at 400 facilities. The campaign, which produced 12,000 new golfers in 1997, has attracted a pounds 300,000, three- year sponsorship from British Aerospace.

"Youngsters are motivated by fashion and golf is still perceived as stuffy and old- fashioned," said Jones. "That perception's not true, but it causes a barrier. We need to double our marketing spend to bring us more into line with other sports."

Ian Peacock, the Golf Foundation's chairman, agreed. "Sports like basketball, tennis and hockey are spending much more. But there's a ground swell of support among club golfers. Maybe a voluntary levy on subscriptions and green fees might work. Our plans include introducing a golf equivalent of short tennis in primary schools, launching a web site, attracting local sponsorship and producing a video with the help of celebrities who play golf."

The Golf Foundation aim to initiate 100,000 youngsters at 350 "starter centres" over the next five years and have already raised half the pounds 1.3m they need to fund the project. The R&A are offering free entry to 16-year- olds to this year's Open at Royal Birkdale and the European tour hope to do the same at all their events.

Worthy intentions, but all, perhaps, preaching to the converted. The central, unanswered question, is how to make golf more visible to outsiders - something which especially vexes the manufacturers. Bob Clark, the Chairman of the European Golf Industry Association, said: "Older golfers have more spending power, but you're mortgaging your future if you rely on them to bring in revenue. I also worry that youngsters coming in to the game through 'starter centres' might find the exit route just as quickly. They may then struggle for access to golf and for this reason, club secretaries are important figures. Also, we in the industry would rather see golf televised to a wider audience, but the reality of business is that Sky came up with the cash."

However, Jones defended the deal, thought to be worth pounds 25m, whereby Sky has exclusive UK rights to next year's Ryder Cup and 26 European tour events each year up to and including 2000. "Golf's lack of visibility on television is exaggerated," he said. "The argument works both ways. Football's never been more popular and the kids all seem able to watch it on Sky. If they can watch football, there's no reason why they can't watch golf as well. Anyway, the BBC show more hours of golf than they've ever done."

Non-golfing 14-year-olds watching next month's Masters on the BBC, take note.

Under par: How golf is losing the age war

Average age of British golfer: 1990: 41. 1998: 45.

Number of courses: 1986: 1,800.1996: 2,200. 1998: 2,400.

Percentage of players over 55 and under 25: 1991: 21-18. 1993: 23-17. 1995: 25-15. 1997: 30-14.

Percentage of players under 18 in Europe: Sweden: 19; Spain 16; France 14; Germany, Northern Ireland and Scotland 13; Finland, Austria, Belgium and Republic of Ireland 12; Portugal 11; Norway and Switzerland 10; Wales, Luxembourg and Italy 9; Denmark 8; Netherlands and England 7.

European average: 11 per cent.

Percentage of UK citizens who have never played: 79.

Percentage of those who would like to play: 13.

Average cost of 18-hole green fee: pounds 15

Percentage of UK clubs which welcome visitors: 99.

BBC viewing figures on last day of the Open:

1990: 4.8m average, no peak figure available.

1996: 4m average, peak 6.2m.

1997: 3.6m average, peak 5m

Total hours on Sky: 1991: 100. 1996: 1,200. 1997 2,100

Total viewers on Sky: 1996: 4.5m. 1997: 7.2m

Statistics supplied by Golf Research Group, Golf Foundation, BBC and Sky.