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Old New The Great Divide

Golf Might Be More Popular Than Ever, but There Is Still a Battle Raging Within the Sport

July 19, 2001|GEOFF SHACKELFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The most recognized athlete in the world is a golfer rewriting record books. Television ratings, the new status barometer in sports, are higher than ever for the PGA Tour. High-tech equipment has made hitting a golf ball easier and more fun for 26 million golfers. And with about 41 million more wanting to take up golf, the future seems bright.

Modern golf seems so much better than the pre-Tiger Woods version, in fact, that maybe it should be called X-Golf. Maybe New Golf?

New Golf, though, is not without its problems and there is a faction unexcited about New Golf's prospects.

These "Old Golf" folks insist that playing by one set of rules maintains the game's integrity and allows golfers to remain the only self-policing athletes in the world.

Long before Woods arrived, Old Golfers warned that the golf ball would one day travel too far, stripping everyday golf of intriguing shotmaking while leaving some classic tournament venues without room to grow.

Old Golfers argue that a longer ball combines with high-tech shafts and club heads to change how everyday courses are built. Longer courses require more grass to maintain, take more time to play and provide less interesting challenges. This is why Old

Golf does not understand the allure of the many new 7,300-yard "signature" designs that charge $150 for six hours of searching for lost balls.

New Golf reminds Old Golf of tennis in the late 1970s and early '80s. They had charismatic stars, plenty of media coverage and xciting major championship showdowns. Corporate America paid handsomely to be part of it.

Tennis responded with as many events as it could squeeze into a schedule. High-tech equipment arrived in the form of oversized graphite rackets, supposedly making recreational tennis more popular. Meanwhile, the professional game changed from a blend of strategy, control and shotmaking, to a power sport.

New Golf bears a striking resemblance. It has widespread appeal, thanks to Woods. New technology supposedly makes golf easier for the average player. Strategy and thought have given way to power in the professional game. "Country-club-for-a-day" courses are popping up, making the game more accessible.

But is New Golf growing? Is it as progressive and interesting as we've been told? Is technology stimulating millions of new participants while improving the professional game? Or is New Golf beginning to repeat the mistakes made by tennis?

Old Golf grew steadily from 3.5 million players in 1950 to 26.4 million in 1998. Golfers had help on rules and handicaps from the U.S. Golf Assn., while technology advanced reasonably and, mostly, affordably.

According to the National Golf Foundation, however, New Golf has dropped to 26 million. About 3 million people a year are taking up the game, but another 3 million are giving it up. About 41 million more--many of them former players--think about playing but choose not to, citing the time commitment, the struggle to learn the game and the cost.

Many Old Golfers learned the the sport and the rules as caddies, or by tagging along when their parents played. High school and college golfers had playing privileges at private courses.

In New Golf, caddie programs cut into cart revenues. And it is a liability for courses to allow "spectators," so kids can rarely tag along. High school and college teams are not welcome at most private courses unless the schools want to buy transferable memberships.

Old Golf was never fast, but . . .

New Golf didn't blink when the 2000 PGA Championship was interrupted in the first round because of darkness. Major championship rounds can take nearly six hours, even when the golfers are averaging around par in benign conditions.

Old Golf registered adequate television ratings but survived with its devoted "demographic." The Senior PGA Tour caught on during the late 1980s and proved that over-50 stars could still play great golf. The LPGA Tour always struggled for acceptance but still produced its legends and inspired female golfers.

New Golf registers big ratings--when Tiger is in contention. But ratings are plummeting for the mostly tape-delayed Senior Tour, with at least seven events in danger of folding. The LPGA tour has future Hall of Famers Karie Webb and Annika Sorenstam in their prime. Yet, when Sorenstam was en route to her historic 59 earlier this year, ESPN switched to a men's quarterfinal tennis match.

What will happen to the Senior and LPGA Tours when Commissioner Tim Finchem's expensive new television and sponsorship deals influence sponsors to devote all of their resources to the PGA Tour?

Bold, even eccentric course architecture was fun to discuss in Old Golf. Multiple options for playing a hole were considered interesting, as long as the riskier avenue rewarded the intelligent, precise player. The occasional hazard in the middle of a fairway presented an intriguing challenge.

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