SBJ/May 4 - 10, 1998/No Topic Name

Courting a different crowd

Maybe not exactly on par with the X Games, golf definitely is moving from its polyester and plaid roots to where it’s hip.

At least that’s how Steve Hamblin, executive director of the Georgia-based American Junior Golf Association, describes the youth wave he hopes will lift the game to new levels of participation. So far, there is cause for optimism.

In 1997, the AJGA saw its membership climb to 4,200, an enrollment increase of 10 percent compared with 1996.

"Our annual enrollment increase is typically around 3 percent," Hamblin said. "It used to be that six or seven kids would come out for high school golf. Now 60 kids come out."

But even Hamblin is hesitant to call the increased enrollment in junior golf membership a boom.

"While there is a great resurgence, nobody knows how long it is going to last," he said.

Flat growth in the total number of players notwithstanding, golf industry giants are betting that golf will attract legions of younger players. According to Jim Baugh, chief executive officer of Wilson Sporting Goods Inc, whose Wilson junior club line includes a Michael Jordan set, only companies with established brand names would thrive.

"Especially with kids, any of the top companies are companies that have strong brand identities," Baugh said.

Nike is well into its five-year, $40 million deal with Tiger Woods that features advertising campaigns aimed directly at golfers under the age 35.

You won’t see Tiger Woods teeing it up in dull sweaters. He wears bold, bright colors, mostly in red and black, as Nike works to draw in younger buyers. Equipment manufacturer Taylor Made Inc, owned by Nike rival Adidas, has 28 year old Ernie Els under contract to boost its market share among young golfers, while other fashion brands, such as Hugo Boss, Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren, also have zeroed in on the golf apparel industry.

Wilson, who is beginning a major push to increase its market share in golf, has in the past six moths introduced three sets of clubs targeted at junior players. The company also is selling a new set of fat-shafted irons marketed toward the average golfer.

Even as the golf industry targets younger players, there remains a major hurdle: cost.

Nationally, the average weekday round of golf with a cart is $37.50, lunch at the turn not included. Add to that the average price of clubs, balls and other equipment, and the typical golfer has to spend more than $1,000 to make it to the first tee.

According to the National Golf Foundation, an occasional player who plays one to six times a year will spend on average $180 on playing fees and equipment. A regular golfer who plays up to 25 rounds a year spends $17,700.

Cost is driving another niche in the golf industry: the rise of the high-end daily-fee courses marketed to the golfer not willing – or able – to pay the freight to join a country club. These new public courses promise all the amenities and services of a private club, but a lower cost – a one-day country club experience.

"People are working a greater number of hours and therefore don’t have the time to play enough rounds to equal or surpass monthly dues or initiation fees," said Rich Katz, marketing vice president of Billy Casper Golf Management Inc, a Virginia-based company that manages 18 public and private courses nationwide. "Country clubs will always exist because of social prestige and privilege, but high-end public courses offer all things to all people."

Today, more than 70 percent of the nation’s courses are public, with two-thirds of all annual rounds played at public courses. But public doesn’t necessarily mean cheap.

The average cost for a weekend round, including cart, for a new course in 1997 was $57. That creates a gargantuan marketing problem, especially in an industry looking to attract younger players.

"Everyone is battling for the same cause: making golf affordable and accessible," PGA of America spokesman Julius Mason said. "For us, we’re putting a lot of time and energy into junior golf."

In conjunction with the US Golf Association, the LPGA and Tiger Woods Foundation, the PGA has developed The First Tee program targeting young inner-city golfers by building facilities for free play in inner cities beginning this spring. The goal is not only to introduce golf to a different demographic, but also to encourage steady participation.

"Making golf more affordable and accessible for junior golfers from all walks of life is The First Tee’s goal," Jim Awtry, PGA of America chief executive officer, said in a statement announcing the construction of The First Tee course to be built in Louisville, KY.

The PGA, USGA and LPGA also hold clinics and programs each year for younger golfers, but finding places for young golfers to play is critical.

"You can hold all the clinics in the world, but you’ve got to have access," Hamblin said.

And even if golf manages to attract more beginners, Baugh points out that golf needs to address problems that make it difficult to convert beginning golfers into serious players.

"Everyone is jumping after the juniors market, but my question is will the juniors continue to play?" he said. "I don’t know that golf has the infrastructure in place to guide new players. There are factors like cost, time of play, time of play, the frustration level and etiquette. Will new players continue to play for five or six years?"

Along with juniors, women represent a potentially lucrative market for golf to grow.

According to the National Golf Foundation, more than one-third of all beginning golfers is women. However, women game, a discouraging sign for the industry as it looks to build.

"If golf is going to attract participants, we have to have the means to get them coming back," NGF spokeswoman Judy Thompson said. "An awful lot of courses haven’t been too excited having a bunch of beginners slowing down play while chopping up the course."

Not helping the cause is the lingering sense that golf is a sport for the privileged.

"The barriers are breaking down and private clubs are on the wane, but it all takes time," Thompson said. "But there is a perception that golf is still a rich old gentleman’s game."

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