At places like Olde Homestead Golf Club, a soccer ball is helping bring people to the golf course.
Since debuting last month at the club in New Tripoli, FootGolf has accounted for 25 percent of the revenue at Olde Homestead's nine-hole facility, general manager Justin Smith said. The soccer/golf hybrid, played with a soccer ball and no clubs, appeals to kids, takes about an hour to play and — maybe most importantly — draws people who otherwise might never visit a golf course.
On Monday, Smith will meet with other golf-course operators looking for new revenue sources to counter the public's declining interest in golf. Be it gimmick or strategy, FootGolf might bring course owners something superstar players once delivered — demand.
"The whole point is to bring people to the golf course, because the traditional methods of marketing are no longer working the way they used to," said Gregg Acri, executive director of the Pennsylvania Golf Course Owners Association. "The game's not growing. It's totally stagnant."
Blame whatever you want — economics, slow play, course glut, Tiger Woods' major deflation, digital distractions, expensive drivers, bad weather or the fact that golf is damn hard — but the game is aching. Overall participation rates have fallen for five consecutive years. Fewer kids and millennials are playing, and more courses have closed than opened for eight consecutive years.
Last week, Dick's Sporting Goods laid off nearly 500 PGA professionals who helped consumers buy clubs, and its CEO said earlier this year that slow sales of golf merchandise haven't yet reached bottom.
"The fact that Dick's laid off all these people is symptomatic of the overall condition of golf in America," said Robin McCool, an accomplished amateur golfer from Center Valley who works for a country club membership firm.
To counter the trend, Olde Homestead configured a FootGolf course within its nine-hole property. It's just one of many proposals by golf's manufacturers, governing bodies and lobbying organizations to inspire participation in the game.
From encouraging nine-hole rounds to cutting larger holes on the greens to suggesting golfers play shorter courses, the game's decision-makers are trying to offer a hand. But area pros and players say they need to do more, and soon.
"A lot of these things coming up are Band-Aids on a very severe wound," McCool said. "Golf needs an overhaul, and it needs some brave initiatives."
Golf statistics paint varied pictures of participation. According to the National Golf Foundation, the number of players remained relatively static (near 25 million) from 2010-12. But the Wall Street Journal reported that participation has fallen for five consecutive years, citing figures by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.
Further, recent NGF surveys show participation among women and juniors fell 23 and 35 percent respectively over a five-year period. Another NGF survey showed participation among millennials (ages 18-34) has dropped 18-41 percent, depending on specific ages. Household income is a significant participation driver, the survey showed.
Ted Bishop, president of the PGA of America, sought to soothe the impact of those numbers earlier this year. He said course operators showed modest increases in merchandise sales, food and beverage revenue and total revenue (0.3 percent) from 2012-13, according to the PGA PerformanceTrak metrics.
But at Dick's Sporting Goods, golf sales have been slow and would continue to be, Edward Stack, chairman and CEO said in May.
Area pros said they are stocking less equipment, partly because of a product glut and because of Internet price-cutting.
"I can't necessarily blame them," Smith said. "My father owned Olde Homestead and he buys golf clubs online."
To the rescue
Many credit Tiger Woods with introducing a new generation to golf and, in the process, inspiring participation. Golf experienced a noticeable jump in numbers around 2000, when Woods was at his major championship peak. But he hasn't won a major since the 2008 U.S. Open, hit a slump a few years later and in 2009 was waylaid by scandal surrounding his multiple marital infidelities.
Woods' decline began with a concurrent economic crisis that significantly affected golf.
In 2005, the sport peaked at 30 million players, according to NGF figures. Every year since then, course closures have outpaced openings.
Locally, Center Valley, Woodbridge, Woodland Hills and Indian Creek have been shuttered in the past five years.
"In the Lehigh Valley, the [municipal courses] are always going to prevail, because they're taxpayer-funded facilities in good locations. But the others are going to have trouble. If you're an owner doing 25,000 rounds a year, how do you get your money back?"
FootGolf is one way. It arrived at Olde Homestead during the World Cup, when soccer produced record television ratings in the U.S. But Smith began pursuing the idea over the winter, while his course was dormant under several feet of snow.
U.S. Youth Soccer has about 3 million registered players, a market FootGolf has attempted to tap since organizing a national governing body in 2011. The game is catching on at Olde Homestead, where Smith installed FootGolf greens alongside the golf greens on the facility's nine-hole course.
Last weekend, Smith reported half of the short course's revenue came from FootGolf. Now, other golf course operators are getting interested.
"Money is challenging, because costs are going up and maintenance budgets are going up," Smith said. "That's partly why we moved forward with FootGolf. It is a new opportunity for the community, it's less expensive, doesn't take as much time and offsets some of the challenges we see with regular golfers."
The golf industry has devised plenty of ideas to spur participation. Last week the USGA sponsored Play 9 Day, encouraging golfers to play nine holes. It produced a public-service announcement featuring popular young golfer Rickie Fowler to complement the promotion.
The USGA and PGA enlisted Hall of Fame golfer Jack Nicklaus to promote Play it Forward, which encourages golfers to play from shorter tee markers. By making it easier for golfers, the hope is that they won't get exasperated and give up the game.
"People don't know how hard or far they hit any of their shots," Acri said. "Therefore, they think they can hit the ball long enough to play courses from 6,800 yards. But they can't. They end up shooting a bazillion. They're unhappy and they play less. If you understand the game, and aren't so proud, you can have more fun."
HBO's "Real Sports" recently explored some new ideas such as 18-inch golf holes (more than four times larger than the standard hole) that help make the game easier and faster. It also visited a new chain of driving ranges that resemble outdoor nightclubs.
All of that might attract more players in the short term, but golf's passionate base wants a long-term solution.
McCool and Jim Muschlitz, director of golf at Southmoore Golf Club in Moore Township, said the game must focus on young players. Muschlitz has conducted junior camps for years, hosting an outpost of the LPGA-USGA Girls Golf program. To him, lessons are a shortcut to long-term interest in golf.
"For growing the game, instruction is a big, big part of it," Muschlitz said. "You try to teach golfers fundamentals but also the rules and etiquette, things that people say makes golf too difficult."
The PGA of America heavily promotes its Get Golf Ready program, which offers all ages five lessons for $99, making instruction more affordable.
A recent NGF survey said 29 million Americans are "highly interested" in playing golf but need some prodding. Among the suggestions were free practice balls at the driving range and allowing kids to play free with parents.
McCool went a step further. He has significant experience in golf both on the course — he has qualified for 16 USGA championships — and off. He is the national sales director for Evergreen Golf Member LLC, which provides country clubs with a new model of selling corporate and individual memberships.
McCool suggested not charging kids 17 and under to play golf. Public courses could set aside free tee times for kids, who would have to enroll in short rules-and-etiquette classes.
Consider it an investment in the future, McCool said.
"Golf is a little slow to change; it's a tradition-based sport," he said. "But at places like Dick's, people are out of work, all because people aren't playing as much golf as they used to. So we have to show some initiative, and we have to do it soon."
FIVE WAYS TO INCREASE PLAY
According to a recent National Golf Foundation survey, 29 million people are "highly interested" in playing golf but need a nudge. Those surveyed offered suggestions.
1. Encourage golfers to invite family or friends. More than 70 percent of those surveyed said they likely would accept an invitation.
2. Provide free driving-range balls. Beginners said they would feel more comfortable with more practice.
3. Allow kids to play free with parents. This would bring adults to the course, introduce kids to the game and increase food and beverage sales.
4. Offer affordable group lessons. The PGA of America's $99 Get Golf Ready program has been a positive.
5. Market courses better. Use social media and email deals as other businesses do.
Source: National Golf Foundation