In line behind me was a fellow who introduced himself as the local sales rep for a major golf equipment company. I asked how business is. He grimaced and said these days, its good to be with a strong brand.
I had stood in line at 7:30 a.m. to pay my green fee, just as I was now standing in line at the grocery. Good news! People need to eat; people want to play golf. Right?
If only it were so easy. Rounds per year in the United States are down 3 percent, says the National Golf Foundation. Rounds drive golf ball sales, as well as accessories such as gloves and shoes. And the weather has been marginal for yet another spring, which always crams ball sales.
Hard goods depend somewhat less on rounds and weather, but the news there isnt all wonderful either. TaylorMade-adidas had a rough first quarter, with sales dropping nearly 24 percent from the first quarter of 2002 to this latest quarter (thats 176 million Euros to 134 million. To be fair, international currency issues also depressed the numbers, not just disappointing sales). Other companies are shifting to survival mode until some clear light breaks at the end of the tunnel.
For some, its too late: Orlimar, the toast of the industry just five years ago and a two-generation family business, is closing its doors. Others plan for what they see as the inevitability of the business cycle: Cleveland Golf is buying putter maker Never Compromise, and TaylorMade is buying another custom putter company. TaylorMade is said to be on the hunt for the golf club and ball assets of Spalding Sports Worldwide as well; the parties are keeping mum about that.
So we have pockets of demand and a bad business climate in general, with preparations for the future covering a disorganized gamut. Whats it mean?
To the consumer, probably very little. People who already play golf will continue to do so, perhaps somewhat less than they have in recent years because of a perceived crimp in discretionary income and lingering effects of September 11 and the Second Iraqi War. People who dont play will continue to not play, mostly because there appears to be no impetus to change their behavior.
Therein lies the problem that has cheated industry leaders of sleep for at least six years now. How to grow the pie in a game that rewards patience while the greater part of the society demands instant gratification? Annual increases in the number of people who claim to be golfers in the United States have been negligible, so much so that the industry considers itself terminally stagnant.
Would adjusting our expectations amount to giving up? Perhaps not, if we simply adjust our perspective. The Golf 20/20 initiative, which PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem announced to the industry in 2000, seeks to make the game as popular as the National Football League by 2020. It might seem a more reasonable task to tackle if we split it into four five-year plans.
And then what we may find, after a realistic appraisal of just how many people we can bring to this game and persuade to stay, is the truth that will hurt the most:
Maybe not everyone who wants to be in the golf business can be in it. Its a hard pill, especially when you believe, as I do, that the whole nation would benefit from a deeper relationship with this game.
But the reality is, it appears this nation doesnt want it. Not now, anyway.
Im not saying that the good people who run The First Tee, LinkUp2Golf, and dozens of other excellent programs should close up shop. But I would like to hear realistic estimates of where we can expect to be in 2005, 2010, 2015 and 2020.
Then we can get busy making this game something America aspires to. And if one of golfs leaders can at least get America off the couch and, in the process, kill so-called reality television, Ill personally pay his way to Stockholm to claim the Nobel Prize he or she will so richly deserve.
Well, Ill pay it when after I get back from the grocery store, that is.