- Associated Press - Saturday, April 23, 2016

PITTSBURGH (AP) - The headlines have been nothing short of funereal.

Golf is dead, they say. Or at least it’s in decline. You can thank the Great Recession for that. Generational change. Or blame Tiger Woods, whose spectacular rise was outdone only by his disastrous fall, mirroring the decline of golf’s popularity. Maybe, some say, the fault lies with the sport, which is too slow, too expensive, too elitist and too hard to learn.

Travis Lindsay doesn’t pay attention to those headlines, the statistics and trend lines that predict golf’s demise.

“I don’t even think about the national figures,” said Lindsay, the general manager of Birdsfoot Golf Club in South Buffalo, Armstrong County. “Last year, we’ve actually had more rounds than we’ve ever had.”

Birdsfoot, which opened as a nine-hole course in 2002, is the newest 18-hole facility in the Pittsburgh area. So perhaps the young course is accustomed to scouring for golfers. And where the recession hurt some private clubs, Birdsfoot was able to absorb players who wanted to pay per round, Lindsay said. In recent years, it also developed the St. Patrick’s Day-themed Shamrock Shootout, tournaments featuring oversized eight-inch golf holes and a beer-themed event.

Birdsfoot, Lindsay said, also prides itself on being unpretentious. Back in the day, it was a privilege for golfers to play at a golf club. Not so much anymore.

“The script’s been flipped,” he said. “The golf courses have to look at their customers and feel privileged to have them on the golf course.”

In most aspects of golf, a low number is good, but declining participation isn’t one of them.

From 2003 to 2014, golf participation dropped by 19 percent, according to National Golf Foundation figures reported in Men’s Journal, and the number of courses is shrinking. In 2014, Findlay-based retailer Dick’s Sporting Goods laid off its entire staff of nearly 500 PGA professionals.

Depending on whom you ask, the outlook in the Pittsburgh region - which plays host to the U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club in June - may be sunnier than it is elsewhere. Some local clubs, such as Highland Country Club, Churchill Valley Country Club and Rolling Hills Country Club, have shuttered, while other private facilities have become open to the public.

The Western Pennsylvania Golf Association has a record number of member clubs, but those clubs have fewer members, said executive director Terry Teasdale. In 2000, the association represented about 33,000 members, a figure that sits now at about 28,000, he said.

“There has been an overall decline,” Teasdale said. “But it hasn’t been as bad in Western Pennsylvania as it has been nationwide.”

Last year, the Tri-State Section PGA saw a 2 percent rise in participation among adult players and a 3 percent increase among juniors. The level of play has been fairly level for the last five years, said David Wright, assistant executive director and tournament director.

“All in all, with the forecast of golf being in the tank, I see a rebound and an upswing in our area, along with our association,” Wright said. “We’re probably getting back to 2005, 2006 numbers.”

Still, he acknowledged, “The numbers don’t lie. We’ve lost contact with a generation of golfers, and you saw that decline when Tiger went through his problems on the tour.”

Across the country, courses and golf associations have been experimenting with different formats, whether moving up tees or offering inexpensive lesson packs for new golfers, to address the decline.

Sometimes, these new customers aren’t even golfers - at least, not in the traditional sense. In 2014, Cabin Greens Golf Course, a nine-hole facility in South Buffalo, added foot golf, a combination of soccer and golf, to its usual offerings. The holes are shorter than golf holes, full rounds take about two hours, and players make tee times just like their golfing brethen, said Jim Bowser, who owns the course with his wife.

Bowser estimated that the course’s golf revenue has shrunk by a third in the last decade, and he hasn’t raised his prices in the last five years. Foot golf has brought in some revenue, but “it’s no gold mine.”

“It brings in soccer players I normally wouldn’t get,” he said.

Then there’s Topgolf, a golf-like game played in a bar-like atmosphere, complete with food, booze and TVs. The growing company has locations throughout the United States and United Kingdom but none in Pennsylvania.

Maybe those efforts are helping golf, or maybe it will rebound on its own. Last year, 2.2 million people took up the sport, according to the PGA, and rounds played were up for the first time since 2012. The association is also aggressively trying to build youth interest in the sport through PGA Junior League Golf and other initiatives.

With all that fluctuation, you can forgive Birdsfoot’s Lindsay for ignoring the stats. Describing the rounds played at Birdsfoot over the years, he noted that the forecast affects business as much as anything.

“I think much more about the weather than I do about the industry trends,” he said.





Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, https://www.post-gazette.com

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