Golfing gets stuck in the sand

Golf is a contemplative game. It is a sail through a quiet afternoon — mild exercise in the fresh air. The National Golf Foundation reports that 17 million fewer rounds were played in 2006 than in 2000. The big reasons: Golf costs too much money and takes too much time.

I've never played golf, but I've always liked the idea that someone, somewhere had the leisure to spend four hours on a green. And there's the environmental angle. While a fairway of carefully groomed grass is hardly a stand of old-growth trees, it is open space. It is a piece of nature that a country dog would feel at home on.

Some of the industry's woes stem from a significant overbuilding of golf courses. In the early '90s, when there were 12,000 courses, the National Golf Foundation said that a new one had to open every day over the next 10 years to meet the increasing demand for play. Over that decade, another 3,500 courses were built, while the number of golfers stagnated.

Golf could not possibly thrive in this wired age. As the Independent, a British newspaper, put it, "This is an era, particularly on Wall Street, that fetishes time spent chained to the desk, that promotes short bursts of concentrated exercise in the gym close to the office instead of hours of unwinding in the open air."

That's true. Exercise is a concentrated sweat on the treadmill. No e-mail may go unanswered for more than five minutes. If you spend 10 hours at the office, and five hours on the golf course, that leaves nine hours for the rest of your life, which should include sleeping and eating. And with weekends devoted to doing all those things you didn't have time for Monday through Friday, disappearing for seven hours (if you also include lunch at the clubhouse) can be hard to justify.

"Basically, you've got to kill a day," a golfing friend told me.

Other social trends have added to golf's decline.

Shrinking attention spans (induced by the Internet) can't handle a long, slow-moving activity. Some denizens of the online world have trouble staying with a long magazine article, never mind a book. And more Americans would prefer staring into a video screen than going outdoors. Hiking, biking and downhill skiing are also losing participants.

Then there's the "bowling alone" phenomenon. The fall-off of social interaction has turned us into solitary actors. (Outside of retirement communities, it's hard to round up others who have a free four or five hours.) People don't golf alone. Other traditional sports requiring fellow players, such as tennis and basketball, have also lost followers.

At the same time, activities you can do on your own — for example, snowboarding and skateboarding — have gained in popularity. So have memberships in gyms and health clubs.

Tiger Woods remains a star of golf, but he's been around awhile. Some advocates of the sport argue that golf needs a new star, preferably a "bad boy" who can command the attention of younger people. But somehow, one can't imagine a Dennis Rodman of golf.

Will retiring baby boomers boost the industry? Don't count on it. Any new interest in golf may save some underutilized courses. But even if boomers increase the ranks of golfers, they will undoubtedly face more demands on their time than their retired parents did. They, too, live online and may have to earn some money. They probably won't have the free hours to play the number of rounds the old timers did.

Too bad the sport has fallen on hard times. Golf is nice. Perhaps I'll even try it, when I have the time.

To find out more about Froma Harrop, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at

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