Lexington's golf mania might have run its course

Wearing his familiar Sunday red shirt and stone-cold stare, Tiger Woods has overpowered the world's best golfers en route to 14 major championships.

When he took the world by storm with his stunning 12-shot victory in the 1997 Masters, those in and around golf declared that Woods would revolutionize the game and raise its popularity to new heights.

Many of their predictions came true. Woods continued to crush the competition like his 330-yard drives, and TV ratings soared.

The sport's future appeared so bright that the National Golf Foundation proposed one golf course per day should be built in the United States to meet the demand. With that, they expected golfers to flood the links by the millions.

Only they didn't.

Somewhere amid Woods' myriad fist-pumping and tournament-clinching putts, things didn't go as planned. Instead of the number of rounds rising as the number of eyes opened on the game, round totals per year stayed flat and even decreased in some areas.

Lexington has not been as sluggish as the rest of the nation, but its numbers are down.

“There's no doubt that we have been dropping since about 1998,” said Mike Fields, golf services manager for the Lexington-Fayette Urban County courses. “We've been pretty flat in 2005, 2006 and 2007, but since 1998, what we like to call our peak year, we've been down.”

According to the National Sporting Goods Association, golf participation in America dropped 7.7 percent from 2006 to 2007 and nearly 18 percent between 1998 and 2007.

Too many courses?

At Tates Creek, one of Lexington's most popular public golf courses, the number of rounds played has steadily declined — from a high of 56,170 in 1997 to 33,303 last year.

Aaron McDowell, Tates Creek's head pro, said a poor economy is partly to blame, but he also said the downturn in the numbers is largely because of “golf-course saturation.”

“I just think there's a lot of golf courses in the area and not enough people to play on them,” McDowell said. “The amount of golfers is getting distributed over more courses so we're not getting as many rounds.”

Where there were only a handful of public courses — such as Kearney Hill, Lakeside, Tates Creek and a few others — in the early 1990s, a hoard of newer courses are open to Lexington-area golfers now.

The opening of courses such as the Bull (Richmond), Houston Oaks (Paris) and Gibson Bay (Richmond) in the 1990s gave golfers more options. But it also brought each golf course less repeat business.

“You can only spread so many golfers around so many courses,” said Carmello Benassi, Kearney Hill's head pro since 2004.

Since 1990, 79 new golf courses have opened in Kentucky, according to Jim Kass, research director for the National Golf Foundation. But the number of courses opening every year is starting to slow, with only 23.5 courses (the foundation counts courses in 18-hole equivalents) opening in the state since 1998.

“We're not a Louisville or a New York City. We don't have the population to support a bunch of golf courses,” Benassi said. “But somehow they keep popping up.”

Overall, the number of rounds played on Lexington's public courses dropped from 191,364 in 1998 to 143,000 in 2007.

Those numbers are even more discouraging to those in the golf business when considering that the 1998 total did not include the Gay Brewer Jr. Golf Course at Picadome, which was added to the other five municipal courses in 2000.

Even private and membership courses are noticing a dip in golfers in the Lexington area.

Tim McCarthy, general manager of the University Club of Kentucky, said private clubs started to spring up because getting a tee time on a Saturday became a “hot commodity.”

Now that golfers have so many more options, the clubs are forced to trim membership dues just to get players on the course.

Fees at the University Club are down to $2,000 a year. When the course opened in 2001, a membership cost nearly triple that.

“People that can play 25-30 times a year, the membership is worth it because we have a great course and a great product,” said McCarthy, who has the tough task of filling a 36-hole course. “But the trouble is finding those people because, without them, it's tough to pay for the expenses of the golf course.”

A different breed of golfer

Fields agrees with most of his colleagues that course saturation is the reason for Lexington's dip in golf participation, but he says it's just one of many factors.

“The biggest factor in golf was 9/11,” Fields said. “The way a lot of people live their lives became different. After 9/11, spending time on the golf course was not as important as spending time with the family.”

First came the terrorist attacks on America on Sept. 11, 2001. Then came a porous economy, which began to affect the amount of golf the average-income family could play.

“When the economy is bad, you have to cut out certain things,” Fields said, “and the first of those to go is usually your recreational activities.”

Al Chrouser, Lakeside's head pro, said a new breed of golfers has also affected business. He said there are more golfers than ever, but they don't play as frequently as golfers did in the 1980s and 1990s because rounds are becoming too long and people don't have the time to play.

And although Chrouser might see more new faces, they're not the same type of “hard-core golfers” he remembers when he started out at Lakeside in 1981.

“In the '80s, we had a bunch of older golfers who were war veterans who would play rain or shine. They were tough people, tough golfers. Now they're starting to die out,” Chrouser said. “The golfers that we're getting now feel two drops of rain and ask for a rain check.”

So even though the rounds played are down, the popularity of the game might not be. National equipment sales increased 4 percent from 2006 to 2007, and sales have been on the rise since 2003, according to Larry Weindruch, spokesman for the National Sporting Goods Association.

Pat Kelly, general manager at Pro Golf of Lexington, said sales have been good this year, and he's seeing more repeat business than ever.

Plus, Fields said the Tiger Woods phenomenon has not fully materialized yet and won't until around 2020. The young golfers who were introduced to the game when Woods started winning won't truly affect the numbers until they grow up, get full-time jobs and start spending money on the game.

Fields and others in the business call that the “2020 vision.”

By then, Fields expects the courses to be packed again and tee times at a premium.

“There's definitely a light at the end of the tunnel,” Fields said.