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Of course, not everyone accepts the NGF's figures. "Those numbers present an inflated view of what's going on," cautions Dave Ferm, publisher of Golf Digest. "Our research shows there are 15 to 16 million golfers who play 10 times a year and a hard core of seven to eight million who play 25 rounds or more. I'd say the market is growing at a healthy three-to four percent a year, but I haven't used the word 'boom' in the five years I've been here. Because where there's a boom, eventually there's going to be a bust, and I don't think that's going to happen in golf."
Roger Maxwell agrees. Maxwell is head of Marriott Corporation's newly formed golf division, which owns 15 golf facilities in the U.S. "It's a media-driven boom rather than reality," Maxwell says. "We saw a nine percent growth in rounds played at our facilities in 1989 as compared with 1988—nice numbers, but not boom numbers. If you want to talk about boom numbers, then you have to talk about Europe."
That isn't at all what I want to talk about. I want to talk about how to divert this passion for golf. I want to talk about a bowling boom. But no. Marriott wants to talk about Europe, where the number of golfers has increased a whopping 242% in the past 16 years.
Mind you, the total number of golfers in Europe, some 2.5 million persons, is the approximate equivalent of the number of golfers in California. But the rate of growth, particularly on the Continent, dwarfs anything that is happening in the States. Five countries—Finland, Austria, Sweden, Belgium and Norway—boasted between 20% and 30% increases in numbers of golfers between 1988 and 1989, and golf course construction is almost keeping pace. In Norway, which has only 12 courses, there are 28 more under construction—a 133% improvement. "The big boom began in 1986," says Anna Donnestad, general secretary of the Norwegian Golf Federation. "I believe we owe a lot to the exposure of golf on television, particularly all the golf that is shown on cable TV. And the Swedish golf boom has been contagious in Norway."
Sweden may soon be a pipeline for international golf stars, as it has been for years in tennis. Liselotte Neumann, has already won the 1988 U.S. Women's Open, and Magnus Persson is an emerging factor on the European men's tour. Sweden has a modest number of courses now (207), but 101 more are being built, and Volvo has become the European PGA Tour's chief sponsor, committing some $17 million over five years. France, where golf is slowly starting to shed its image as an upper-class game, has 253 golf courses on the drawing board. And the British Isles, the birthplace of the game and home to 2,300 of Europe's 3,500 golf courses, has been challenged by the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews to build 691 more courses by the year 2000 in order to meet the growing demand.
But why now? And why golf? Certainly the success of Europe's top players in international competition during the '80s has a lot to do with the sport's increased popularity there. Nick Faldo and Sandy Lyle of Great Britain, Seve Ballesteros of Spain and Bern-hard Langer of West Germany have won four of the last six titles at the Masters and the British Open. Europe's Ryder Cup victories in 1985 and '87 and its Cup-saving halve in '89 received an enormous amount of media attention across the Atlantic.
The golf explosion in Europe is fueled by some of the same factors that have led to its growth in the U.S.—an economy that has remained healthy for a number of years, the sport's squeaky-clean image, increased television coverage, corporate involvement and a maturing population that has more leisure and disposable income than ever before. In the U.S., golfers who are 50 years and older make up only 25% of the golf population, but they accounted for 51% of the 487 million rounds played in 1988. That's an annual average of 43 rounds per senior—triple the number of rounds averaged by younger golfers. And with early retirement becoming a fact of American life, there is little hope that the trend will abate.
Try as one may, it is nearly impossible to find a convincing voice in the wilderness predicting that, like Trivial Pursuit, hot pants and lamb-chop sideburns, the golf boom is just a worldwide fad.
"Everything in this world is cyclical," says David Fay, executive director of the United States Golf Association (USGA). "But unless we have another Depression, the game's in pretty good shape."
A Depression. Hmm. Now that's an idea. Harsh medicine, to be sure, but these are desperate times. And it's a tried-and-true cure: It took the Depression to put a screeching halt to America's first golf boom, a 15-year stretch during which the number of U.S. golf courses more than quadrupled, from a mere 1,200 in 1916 to 5,700 in'31.