Off course: how the US fell out of love with golf

The spacious, manicured golf courses of the US are the envy of the world. Unfortunately for their owners, they face a problem: Americans are deserting the game in their millions. Stephen Foley reports

Friday 22 February 2008 01:00

This time last year, Jimmy Cayne was one of the most respected men on Wall Street, grand fromage at the historic investment bank Bear Stearns and one of that old generation of genteel capitalists most comfortable forging their business relationships and their deals around the bridge table, in the clubhouse or over an 18-hole course. Golf destroyed him.

Bear Stearns lost tens of billions of dollars in a few days last summer, the first big casualty of the US mortgage crisis and, while his underlings rushed about in a vain attempt to shore up the firm's crumbling reputation, Mr Cayne was on the golf course. After all, that is where he would often be on a Friday, when he rarely came into the office, or after an early end to his working day, when he would be helicoptered from Wall Street to play an evening round.

That serenity – an asset, perhaps, in a bygone era – appalled investors, employees and just about every other onlooker. When his golf scores – very good ones, betraying no loss of concentration on his shot – leaked into the blogosphere, there was only going to be one outcome. Mr Cayne was put into retirement.

Much was made last summer about what Mr Cayne's golfing said about his leadership. Not so much discussed was what the incident said about golf. And yet this is a part of the leisure industry that is in simmering crisis in the US. Year after year, the number of new players is failing to match the total of those younger participants who give it up or older veterans who retire to the great clubhouse in the sky.

Club owners cannot even agree on why it is happening, let alone what to do about it but many are certain that, without a big makeover, the sport's gentle decline is only set to steepen.

Part of Mr Cayne's problem is the generations of young executives that have come after him simply cannot conceive of spending that much time on a single leisure pursuit. This is an era, particularly on Wall Street, that fetishises time spent chained to the desk, that promotes short bursts of concentrated exercise in the gym close to the office instead of hours of unwinding in the open air. Corporate memberships of a golf club are no longer a standard perk in the upper echelons of business. Eighteen holes of golf is something that retired people do.

"The corporate membership business has changed for the simple reason that corporations have changed," muses Walter Hurney, a Long Island golf club owner who is experimenting with new ways to woo a younger generation. "These days, Americans work until they drop, working sometimes 12 hours a day. For a workaholic, the golf course is torture – because you are thinking about all the things you have to do when you get back."

Mike May of the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, which tracks US citizens' participation in sports and leisure activities, has another theory for golf's decline over the course of this decade. "We now track 114 sporting activities in the US," he says. "A few decades ago, golf would have been one of say 20 major activities, but there is more going on today to capture people's time and attention, and there are still only seven days in the week and 24 hours in the day.

"Americans are choosing snowboarding, skateboarding and other things on top of traditional sports such as tennis and basketball and, of course, there has also been a surge in the numbers going to gyms and health clubs to work out.

"Golf is in a marketing battle for people's money like any other sport and it is no good just building new courses or even setting affordable rates. The industry has got to be creative in the way it markets the game."

When Tiger Woods exploded on to the professional circuit in 1996, golf had an ambassador who might encourage a whole new generation of amateur players and the sport suddenly had more free publicity than money could buy. Programmes like The First Tee sprang up to get inner-city youngsters into the sport, participation rose across the US and a rash of new golf clubs opened up but the Woods effect has run its course, it seems.

According to the National Golf Foundation, the number of people playing golf has not risen in any year since 2000, and has fallen from 30 million at the start of the decade to 26 million now. Last year, the number of rounds played fell by 0.5 per cent, with the fall being most pronounced at expensive private clubs and in the south of the US.

Club owners are hoping for another star to emerge. One even dared to hope for "a bad boy, a Dennis Rodman of golf", referring to the controversial basketball player whose self-aggrandising, swearing, and celebrity-dating antics are a million miles from the clean-cut Tiger Woods – and a million miles from the kind of behaviour that would be acceptable at the exclusive country clubs of golfing history.

However it seems that superstar players can only pep up interest for so long, and the rising numbers of golf courses up for sale this year suggests that many owners see the long-term decline persisting, at least without major changes. Many put it down to the demands of family, which have impinged on the time set aside for golf, not least because the ever-expanding working day has impinged on other potential family time.

"It has been a male-dominated sport for so many years but for the new male, it is not politically correct to be taking a whole day to play golf with your buddies," says Mr Hurney. "Friends of mine have been told they cannot play all weekend, their wives insisting: 'Saturday, you are mine.' An older generation would play, take a shower and change for a meal, even stay to play cards. But their kids cannot do that, and they don't want to spend money on a membership if they are not going to be using it that much."

If golf is to have a bright future, it must embrace the family, not act as a lure away from it. Mr Hurney's Great Rock golf club on Long Island has been trying to break down some of the "intimidation" that he says some women feel at the traditional clubhouse, and many new clubs are trying to create a broader "health spa" atmosphere that might include swimming pools and activities for children.

Other entrepreneurs are trying a variety of ways to reinvent golfing for the 21st century. The TopGolf range in Virginia is trying to woo people with radio frequency ID technology in golf balls to turn its indoor driving range into a hi-tech interactive game, almost like something you might find for the Nintendo Wii.

In Manhattan, the Chelsea Piers golfing range has long been a popular practice spot for those who cannot afford the trek out to a suburban club and who are lured by the chance to shoot a ball right out into the Hudson river. It is reaching out to families with facilities for children's parties.

There is even innovation at the upscale end of the market, with new clubs ripping up the stuffy atmosphere of their predecessors and seeking a celebrity clientele, such as at the Bridge Club in the upper-crust getaway the Hamptons, which has lured rappers, visual artists and music industry moguls to sign up for its $600,000 (£306,000) membership fee.

That might put it beyond the reach of even Wall Street's finest in these tighter economic times, and industry lobby groups at least are keenest to talk up the cheaper alternatives. "Golf's exclusive country club image has always been there," says the SGMA's Mr May, "but when you get on a public course you quickly see that not everyone has a $500 bag or a $2,000 set of clubs. However, it wouldn't hurt for golf to set up a similar programme that tennis has done in this country, offering free lessons to introduce or reintroduce people to the sport."

Golf has always gently ebbed and flowed with the economic tide, and the steepest declines this decade came in the early years when the dotcom boom gave way to a US recession but there was no rebound. In much the same way that George Bush has been dogged by jibes he presided over a "jobless recovery" from the last recession, the leisure industry appears to have suffered a golfless recovery. With a new recession apparently on the horizon, the forecast for the amateur game does not look good.

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