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Gone With the Geeks

Golf isn't just your dad's game anymore. It's gotten positively cool. Today's linkster is younger and hipper. And he might even be dressed in Armani.

July 23, 1996|ROBERT STRAUSS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

An old figure has wandered off the course, through the rough and into the trees, out of the duchy of golf. He wears oversized plaid pants, scuffed white shoes, a shirt with loud, wide stripes and, over his heavily jowled face, a battered, brimmed hat. The wood of his driver is nicked, and he wheezes from walking the front nine.

In his stead, leaning on his/her sleek titanium driver is a well-tanned, semi-buffed figure. Wrapped trimly in designer clothes, maybe by Armani or Boss, he/she shows solid form, even while contemplating their inner golfer. The tunes in the headphones are by fellow golfaholics, Hootie and the Blowfish or perhaps Van Halen.

Yes, golf, that pastime of ill-dressed fogies and Pecksniffian elitists, is turning a hip and trendy corner as the millennium approaches. Where once it was merely the province of country-clubbers and the odd public-course hacker, the sport seems to be entering a new era of considerable cachet.

Popular movies are being made about it. Celebrities of all stripes beg to be seen at the tee. Younger folks are taking up the game. And marketers, who adore those younger consumers, are coming straight at them.

"Ten years ago, if you were on the high school golf team, you were a dork. Today, you're hip," said Brent Diamond, publisher of Inside Golf magazine, which comes from the niche sports group, Surfer Publications Inc., in San Juan Capistrano. Inside Golf, targeted to a new generation of golfers, premieres Sept. 3. "We just believe there are a lot more people interested in what you might call the total golf experience. There are many facets to that: equipment, new instruction techniques, a new sense of humor and a sort of bringing in of the youth culture."

Diamond and other upscale marketers see golfers of the '90s as thirty- or fortysomethings hoping to stay youthful, unlike their parents, who tended to settle into their middle years with a plop. At the same time, the ancient Scots game may be giving these still fast-tracking folks an interlude of something slower, calmer and reflective in their lives.

Golf is also going through something of a literary renaissance as well. "Golf Dreams," John Updike's golf stories from the New Yorker and elsewhere is being published by Knopf in September. John Feinstein's book on the Professional Golf Assn. tour, "A Good Walk Spoiled," (Little, Brown, 1995) was a recent bestseller.

In actuality, the number of Americans playing golf has remained steady at 25 million after a 50% run-up in the late 1980s.

But what happened in the '90s was that golfers became younger. The group between 12 and 17 years old playing golf increased from 1.7 million only two years ago to 2 million. Various golf organizations started to recruit youngsters with programs like Hook a Kid on Golf, which teaches inner-city kids the game, and cheaper fees for teenagers during off hours.

And then the most popular athlete in the world admitted a serious case of golf fever. "Michael Jordan dragged golf out of the gutter of geekdom," said Gary McCord, a CBS-TV golf announcer whose smart-alecky commentary is worlds away from the traditional hushed reverence. "A minority kid, or just any old kid, looks at Jordan or Charles Barkley playing golf and says, 'Wait a minute!' These are world-class athletes and they're talking about how much trouble they're having on the course. All of a sudden, maybe those old fat guys had something."

Not only is Jordan spending his daylight hours figuring out how to slam-dunk his bad lie with a seven iron, so are a lot of entertainment types. Kevin Costner, who will star in the film "Tin Cup," a golf fantasy, can't stay away from the game. "Melrose Place" hunk Jack Wagner, perhaps the best golfer in Hollywood, has gotten his handicap down to zero. (That means he's a super player.)

Teri Hatcher, TV's Lois Lane, whose image is the most downloaded on the Internet, could be Hollywood's next golf Superwoman. Clint Eastwood (16 handicap) wants to make a film out of the cult golf book "Golf in the Kingdom," and is said to want to have Sean Connery (eight handicap) star in it.

Oddly, the sport's growing appeal comes despite the rich professional golf tour, which is loaded with colorless players, the dorks of yore. The personalities with flair tend to be those on the astonishingly popular senior circuit: Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Chi-Chi Rodriguez.

Then there is that sweet swinger in the White House. The biggest problem President Clinton may have with the fall campaign is finding time to play his favorite game. Showing historical bipartisanship, Clinton asked famed golf course architect Robert Trent Jones to re-create the putting green that Republican First Duffer Dwight Eisenhower had built 50 paces outside the Oval Office. (A joke around the White House is that Clinton believes that Richard Nixon's greatest presidential sin was not Watergate, but removing Eisenhower's putting green.)

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