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.