Golf is coming of age--a younger age. Baby boomers in search of new and more expensive toys have found you don't have to be old to enjoy retirement's favorite pastime.
According to the National Golf Foundation's latest survey, the average golfer is 39.4 years old--younger than ever, plays 20.2 rounds a year, has a 75% chance of being both male and younger than a senior citizen but older than a teen-ager. The figures indicate a large chunk of the nation's 20 million golfers are in their 30s, give or take a few years.
A visit to Sepulveda Golf Course in the Sepulveda Recreation Center in Van Nuys, home to three public courses, provides visual confirmation.
TV's Skins Game--in which tens of thousands of dollars are at stake with each swing--is credited with adding excitement to a game some people considered among the most boring of televised sports.
Others see it as part of a maturation process for both the boomers and the game itself.
"I used to be one of those people who made fun of golfers," said 28-year-old Keith Green of Calabasas, a real estate broker and former health club manager. "But then I found myself in a dilemma. I love team sports and played them in school, but as I got older, it became more difficult to find the time and the other bodies to play a football game or a pickup basketball game. With golf, all you need is one other guy."
Body Can't Take It
"And as you get older, the body doesn't cooperate the way it used to, and running around on a racquetball court is not as appealing as it once was," he added. "This is a sport I can play until I'm old."
Real estate developer Bob Benton, 33, of Agoura Hills uses golf for business and relaxation. He doesn't necessarily conduct business on the course, but somehow it winds up an offshoot.
"It's like those telephone commercials where they say relationships last because of the phone--here it's because of golf," Benton said. "You don't go there for business, but as you're playing, you're finding out about the other person, and it gives you confidence in that person and a foundation around which to work, a way to keep in touch. That's important in my business."
Like Benton, Green took up golf for more than the sport of it. "I thought it would be good for business," he said.
But now he also sees it as a way to vent frustration, get outdoors and be with friends. "It's such a social sport--you sit back and drink your Diet Coke or beer and, on a beautiful day, there's nothing better."
Neal Lemlein, who plays at least once a week, calls golf "a microcosm of life, offering its own challenges, its own opportunities and its own rewards."
Seconds later, he laughs at his own words. The 37-year-old advertising executive from Sherman Oaks also plays for other reasons.
"I sometimes play with prospective clients, and it's a good opportunity to meet people and talk to people in a non-business setting. But the real reason I play is that it's a total release and escape--five hours away from the phone. I find it to be peaceful and totally encompassing. For me, it's been extremely addictive."
Like many others, Lemlein was urged to play by a friend and started with a set of borrowed clubs. Now he lends his old clubs to others.
$300 Start-Up Cost
A survey of local golf shops found most golfers will spend $200 to $300 to start up, primarily purchasing such essentials as clubs, a bag and shoes.
"Most people just want something that fits correctly and don't care how much it costs," said John Nord, manager of the Roger Dunn Golf Shop in North Hollywood. "Realistically, you can get an excellent set for $300 to $400."
Nord says a good percentage of his customers are young homeowners from outlying areas who seem to be taking their new-found suburban life styles one step further.
"Some of them want the best of everything--a big bag, umbrella, balls, shoes, pants, sweaters and stuff like that," he said. "They come in and ask for particular brands they know of or have heard about."
Nord says he tries to save them money and shows them "off-brands that are as good a quality and let them make the final decision," but some people just want the best, regardless of cost.
It was a gift of golf lessons six years ago that put Patty Lynn on a course for the first time. "It's as much a mental game as a physical game," she said, "so almost anyone can play and achieve some degree of proficiency."
Today, Lynn, 34, plays on the women's mini-tour, is a pro at the Sepulveda links and teaches golf newcomers of all ages. Her students' reasons for taking a swing at the game run the gamut.
Men in their 30s take it up for athletic, professional, therapeutic and competitive reasons, Lynn says. "It's a macho thing for a lot of the guys."
But, she says, women in their 30s do it more for social, recreational and romantic reasons. "Most take it up because their husbands or boyfriends play, so it's a way to be with them. They're together on weekends, and they can go on golf vacations--it's a great way to travel."
Mary Schmidt, a public relations account executive in her early 30s, confessed: "Quite honestly, I took up golf to meet men.
"I'm a commuter and I work long hours, so I don't have time to meet men in any other place. I had watched golf on TV and had always thought the game looked interesting, and it's also mostly men playing. I thought it would be a good way to get the odds with me."
Game Got Better
Fortunately or unfortunately, she's had more success with her golf game than with the mating game.
"Darn it all--I haven't met one man," she said with a laugh, "but now I have two female friends I play with regularly, and sometimes we go down to Laguna and have lunch and play. We're all single and just want to enjoy ourselves. For us, it's now relaxation and exercise."
That, says Lynn, is what would keep her on the links even if her professional life took her elsewhere.
"It's beautiful out there," she said. "Grass and trees and lakes and birds and squirrels. What could be better?"