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Not much changed in that regard until the 1950s, when a second golf boom began, ignited by Dwight D. Eisenhower's putting green on the south lawn of the White House. Arnold Palmer, the charismatic son of a teaching pro, emerged in the late '50s to recast and refresh the game's country club image. Golf course construction, which had been relatively dormant for the previous 30 years, suddenly surged in the Swinging (natch) '60s, a decade in which an average of more than one golf course was opened per day, a total of 3,935 new courses in all. Purses on the PGA Tour grew as the game grew, rising from a mere $1.3 million in 1960 to $6.8 million in 1970 to $13.4 million in 1980. Nice dough, if you could get it, but not exactly the treasure of King Tut's tomb.
Then came the Easy '80s, when being a member of Deane Beman's all-exempt PGA Tour meant never having to say, "I'm hungry." Big corporate bucks, attracted to the Tour's clean-cut image, rolled in. In an era in which other sports were making headlines with steroids, cocaine, recruiting scandals, strikes, tantrums and violence, the gentlemanly game of golf—following the standards set by its superstars—remained quaintly, almost boringly, unsullied.
The upshot is that in 1990 the regular PGA Tour is playing for $45 million in purses; the 10-year-old Senior tour, for $18 million; the LPGA, for $16 million; and the newly formed Ben Hogan Tour, which was created for young golfers trying to break in to the big time, for $3 million. Those are all purses. Off the course, three of the top four money-makers among athletes in the endorsement field arc golfers: Arnold Palmer ($12.5 million in '89), Greg Norman ($10 million) and Jack Nicklaus ($7 million). The other is tennis player Boris Becker ($8 million).
Still, as the absence of a contemporary American superstar to rival Palmer suggests, the PGA Tour is more the beneficiary of the golf boom than the driving force behind it. "Right now the professional and amateur aspects of the game are on a parallel course," says Ferm. "But if the PGA Tour went down in popularity, I think the amateur game would continue to flourish. It isn't like the tennis boom of the '70s, when a lot of new players were attracted to tennis because of its health-fitness qualities and then went on to aerobics and other things. Golf has a much stronger core. Once you're hooked, you tend to stay hooked."
"Golf is a communicable addiction," says the USGA's Fay. "It's a game you can talk about, because every course and every round is different. In tennis you either play on clay or concrete or grass. But you're never going to sit around and say, 'What about that fifth court down at Harbour Town?' "
I don't mean to dump on tennis, because I cling to the hope that these newly converted golfers will—like Adam—return to the clay from which they sprang. But one of tennis's drawbacks is you have to find someone of your own caliber to play with. No one wants to take the court with a hacker, which makes tennis an awkward sport to pick up as an adult.
Golf, however, has a handicap system that transcends variations in skill. Duffy Divot can play against Tom Kite on fair and competitive terms without embarrassing himself. Fathers can play with sons, husbands with wives, senior partners with junior partners. The result is that the quality of a round of golf does not depend upon the quality of your opponent, unless you consider the opponent to be the golf course itself. Or the 14 clubs in your bag.
It is one of the secrets of golf's success that you can actually play with people you like. All because of handicaps. "Golf is just too good a game to screw up," says Golf Digest's editorial director, Nick Seitz. "Even in a bad economy it wouldn't get set back much. It would take a combination of calamities."
Cheery as that assessment may be, I am happy to report that the golf boom knows a few bounds. "There are three limiting factors to the game," says Maxwell. "One: a lack of facilities in many markets. Two: the cost of the game. Three: the time it takes to play the game." The time factor is interesting. Normally, it takes from three to four hours to play 18 holes of golf, a feature frequently touted as golf's worst. But when the NGF asked golfers their reasons for not playing more often, 73% said it was because of a lack of time, while only 12% said that the game took too much time. In other words, the fault lies not with the game but with ourselves.
The cost of playing the game is a different matter. Golf has become big business, and when big business is involved, prices have a way of going up. And up. And up. A sleeve of three golf balls that cost $3.75 a decade ago now retails for $6.75. Greens fees at some of the new signature courses that are cropping up all over the Sun Belt are routinely $65-$70 for 18 holes. A round at Pebble Beach is $175 any day of the week. Golf will never be an inexpensive form of recreation, but if current trends continue, the 32% of U.S. golfers who have household incomes of less than $30,000 will soon be priced out of the sport.