Sports Outside the Beltway

Golf Declining as American Pastime

Americans Giving Up Golf America’s love affair with golf has been fading with fewer men willing to devote a huge slice of their free time to the sport, forcing club owners to scramble for new ways to hook customers.

“We have to change our mentality,” said Richard Rocchio, a public relations consultant. “The problem is time,” offered Walter Hurney, a real estate developer. “There just isn’t enough time. Men won’t spend a whole day away from their family anymore.”

William A. Gatz, owner of the Long Island National Golf Club in Riverhead, said the problem was fundamental economics: too much supply, not enough demand.

The problem was not a game of golf. It was the game of golf itself.

Over the past decade, the leisure activity most closely associated with corporate success in America has been in a kind of recession. The total number of people who play has declined or remained flat each year since 2000, dropping to about 26 million from 30 million, according to the National Golf Foundation and the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. More troubling to golf boosters, the number of people who play 25 times a year or more fell to 4.6 million in 2005 from 6.9 million in 2000, a loss of about a third. The industry now counts its core players as those who golf eight or more times a year. That number, too, has fallen, but more slowly: to 15 million in 2006 from 17.7 million in 2000, according to the National Golf Foundation.

The five men who met here at the Wind Watch Golf Club a couple of weeks ago, golf aficionados all, wondered out loud about the reasons. Was it the economy? Changing family dynamics? A glut of golf courses? A surfeit of etiquette rules — like not letting people use their cellphones for the four hours it typically takes to play a round of 18 holes?

Or was it just the four hours?


The disappearance of golfers over the past several years is part of a broader decline in outdoor activities — including tennis, swimming, hiking, biking and downhill skiing — according to a number of academic and recreation industry studies.


But golf, a sport of long-term investors — both those who buy the expensive equipment and those who build the princely estates on which it is played — has always seemed to exist in a world above the fray of shifting demographics. Not anymore.

Jim Kass, the research director of the National Golf Foundation, an industry group, said the gradual but prolonged slump in golf has defied the adage, “Once a golfer, always a golfer.” About three million golfers quit playing each year, and slightly fewer than that have been picking it up. A two-year campaign by the foundation to bring new players into the game, he said, “hasn’t shown much in the way of results.”


Surveys sponsored by the foundation have asked players what keeps them away. “The answer is usually economic,” Mr. Kass said. “No time. Two jobs. Real wages not going up. Pensions going away. Corporate cutbacks in country club memberships — all that doom and gloom stuff.”


At the meeting here, there was a consensus that changing family dynamics have had a profound effect on the sport. “Years ago, men thought nothing of spending the whole day playing golf — maybe Saturday and Sunday both,” said Mr. Rocchio, the public relations consultant, who is also the New York regional director of the National Golf Course Owners Association. “Today, he is driving his kids to their soccer games. Maybe he’s playing a round early in the morning. But he has to get back home in time for lunch.”

Steven Taylor and I managed to play nine holes just about every week when we were teaching together and had the luxury of a cheap university course within half a mile of our offices. But I’ve hardly played since leaving academia. Finding the time is difficult.

While our lifestyles are almost immeasurably more comfortable than most experienced generations ago, they’re different. We’re seldom truly off work, even on weekends or vacations; that’s the nature of the information age. We’re simply expected to be within Blackberry reach during waking hours.

It may be that the pastimes of yesteryear will simply fade away as a result of this changed consciousness.

We can find a few minutes to play video games, taking a quick mental break. But to change into golf gear, drive out to the course, hit a bucket off the practice range, and spend four hours playing 18 holes? Let alone coordinating to find a partner or three, all of whom have to be able to do these things at the same time?

While I still follow baseball, for example, I don’t have time to watch 162 two-and-a-half hour games and the passion’s not the same if you just catch a game now and again. Its appeal is the slow evolution of a long season. Even great teams will lose fifty or sixty games a year, so none of them matter all that much, but the drama is the off chance that you might see something truly special.

Football, by contrast, is an event rather than a pastime, with a relative handful of games that are action packed and crucial to the success of a season. It has long since become our most popular spectator sport.

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