I can live with the golf boom, now that it's upon us, a thriving, Tee-Clogging, par 3-choking reality. I have a certain amount of charity in my heart. But just because 24.7 million American men, women and children have discovered the joys of chasing a little white ball into field, flora and forest (not to mention sand, water and gronkle); just because a nation has stuffed its tennis rackets and Softball mitts into the attic to make room in the hall closet for the tempered steel irons that cost $600 in 1988 and have already been rendered passé by some graphite-titanium-shafted weapons endorsed by Jumbo or Seve or Jack—that doesn't mean I have to like it.
Not to be elitist, but I can remember when golfing wasn't cool. It wasn't that long ago, and I miss those days of solitude. I miss seeing my friends rolling their eyes and telling me how borrrring golf was as they grabbed their tennis rackets and aimed their tanned, taut bodies toward the courts.
I can remember a time when you could show up at the first tee unannounced on a weekday and have the whole course to yourself. It was like walking in your own kingdom. You could play two, three, four balls from the fairway for practice and never hold anyone up. Forget Sansabelts; you could play 18 holes sansapants, if you were so inclined, without offending a form of life higher than a gopher.
There was a time when there were no course "rangers" riding around in golf carts, keeping an eye on things; no cart paths, for that matter, carving cement swaths through the course, waiting to play moon ball with errant approach shots. The only carts were those little pull carts that cost $1 to rent and tipped over whenever you stopped, spilling the old Wilson Staffs out of the bag. Irons not only didn't have square grooves, they often had no grooves at all, since it was a badge of honor to play with a set of clubs that had been struck in the sweet spot so many times that the grooves had gone smooth as slate.
And when you did happen to come upon other golfers, they waved you through with a smile because there was no one in front of them and no one behind you, and nobody was in any particular rush anyway.
That was before the golf boom. Which is why in my most fiendish hours I find myself plotting, Grinchlike, How to put an end to it.
It's the one thing about the golf boom I can't figure out. All the rest—when it began, who's driving it, who's profiting, who's getting hurt, whatever happened to the booms of soccer, hockey and tennis—I've got a handle on. Some of that stuff I know in my bones (not to mention my cartilage, ligaments and tendons, none of which function at previous standards), and some of it I know because I've been reading material sent to me by the National Golf Foundation (NGF). Like the fact that at 38.6 years of age I am .5 of a year older than the average American golfer. That's not the kind of thing anyone knows in his bones, or is especially happy to find out, since golfers are traditionally being perceived as overweight old men. Miller Barber. Now there's a man who is the average age and weight of a golfer, according to my bones. But no. The NGF tells me that baby boomers and women have been taking to the fairways in record numbers, altering the demographics of golf.
Only you're not blaming this one on the baby boomers. Uh-uh. We've been blamed for every boom from hula hoops to oat bran, but you're not hanging the golf boom on us. Everyone's in on it. The twenty-something crowd. Retirees. Women. Blue-collar types. They're all lacing up their Foot-Joys and stepping out to the nearest links, shelling out an average of $522 a head, or some $12.9 billion a year in the U.S. market alone—up 45% from the $8.9 billion U.S. golfers spent four years ago.
You want numbers? The NGF has numbers. Between 1970 and '75, when tennis was booming, the number of golfers in the U.S. went from 11.2 to 13 million, a 16% increase and an average of 360,000 new golfers a year. (The NGF considers anyone who has played one round in the previous 12 months a golfer.) In the most recent five-year period surveyed, 1984-88, the number of golfers in the U.S. rose from 17 to 24.7 million, a 45% increase and an average of 1.54 million new golfers a year. In total, then, there are 121% more golfers today than there were 20 years ago.
Great, swell, wonderful. But all those new bodies are playing on only 27% more courses. The U.S. had 10,848 golf courses in 1970, and at the start of 1990, that number had risen to 13,738. Even if the growth rate of the game slows to a modest 2% (down from 7%, 7.8% and 5.5% in each of the last three years), it means there will be 30 million American golfers by the end of the decade. To keep up with demand, the NGF is calling for the construction of 400 new courses a year until the year 2000.