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Golf's Mid-Season Report Card

By John M. Ross,
Acacia Course - Bunkers
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According to the National Golf Foundation, 524 new courses were opened in the U. S. last year. (Chris Baldwin/WorldGolf.com)

The Wall Street roller-coaster, the softening economy, and scattered turbulent spring weather conditions are being blamed for the negativity clouding the reports of the first half of the game's year. But there is a ray of sunshine here and there and, as your TV weatherman will tell you, that can mean that things are going to get better.

Play has been down severely in areas hardest hit by the long periods of heavy rain and chilly May temperatures, and that spins off depressed sales in balls and equipment. And the skyrocketing cost of these items hasn't helped. Combined with the upward spiraling of green fees and club memberships, those who are feeling the economic pinch are also finding that golf is simply becoming too expensive. But there is nothing new about that.

What is surprising is the poor anticipation shown by the club makers. Instead of adjusting the price tags on their already-overpriced new technology clubs when the economy showed signs of tottering, they merely let the upward climb continue. It could be a costly blunder.

Callaway Golf, regarded by some as the industry's innovator-bellwether, already is feeling the reaction. In early June, the company had to scale down its revenue projection by 13 percent from previous forecasts, and its stock immediately went through the floor. In two days its share value nose-dived almost 30 percent.

Callaway has suffered a couple of setbacks in the marketplace, not the least of which has been the challenge to its highly touted Rule 35 ball. It poured money into the promotion for the same, and even managed to have Arnold Palmer stand up and tell the world about it. Titleist brushed the Callaway challenge aside when it brought out its Titleist Pro VI ball and solidified its claim as the game's No. 1 ball.

As anticipated, Callaway blamed some of its problems on the U.S. Golf Association, which ruled Callaway's new thin-faced ERC II driver "non-conforming," after it failed to pass the Association's tests. The ban virtually shut down the sale of the "illegal" club in the U. S., although the Royal and Ancient Club of St. Andrews permitted it to be used in its jurisdiction - the rest of the world.

The ERC II enjoyed a brisk business abroad, aided undoubtedly by sales to traveling Americans. But with the recent downturn in the economy spreading to the rest of the world, the demand for the expensive club has eased. And Callaway is feeling it on the bottom line.

When the USGA banned the IERC II, Callaway began making sounds as if it might eventually test the Association's right to interfere with its business. It eventually simmered down, but now that its cash drawer is suffering, an echo has turned up. In the past few weeks, various Callaway officials have dropped such hints. On the stronger side, one was reported as saying:

"We've been damaged by the USGA, and the damage is tangible and quantifiable."

That sounds as if the Callaway lawyers might be warming up in the bullpen!

The game's long-term prospects are considerably healthier. According to a new study from the National Golf Foundation, 524 new courses were opened in the U. S. last year. And this marked the second consecutive year that debuting courses passed the lofty 500 mark.

The big NGF study also revealed that a slight drop had been found in new courses under construction at the end of 2000. Designs for 707 layouts had been filed and construction scheduled. This is a 25 percent decrease from the previous year, something attributable to the economy. But there was better news in the new-courses-planned category. This number has jumped to 1,049, up 11 percent over 1999 totals.

And for the long-suffering publinxers, the NGF happily stressed that public-access facilities still have the upper hand in the nation's expanding golf landscape. An astonishing 87 percent of all the openings in 2000 were at daily-fee or municipal facilities.

Sam Snead celebrated his 89th birthday a few weeks ago, and one wonders what old Slammin' Sammy must think when he looks at the money winning list for today's tour. Would anyone fault him for staring off into space in a daze?

Snead has won more official tournaments than any golfer in history. The PGA Tour sets its official count at 84 events, but Sam claims it's more than 100 by his actual count. The PGA record-keeping in the early days of the tour wasn't exactly computer-like.

At any rate, his total prize money for more than four decades of play was less than $700,000. And Tiger Woods gets $2-million for merely showing up at a European Tour event.

Incidentally, Sam can still reach into the cup and pick up his ball without bending his knees. Perhaps that's better than gold.

For the golfer who has grown weary groping his way through the how-to books that promise better scores almost overnight, humorist and CBS commentator Bill Geist has a change of pace book to add to your summer reading schedule. His intriguing title, "Golf! Foreplay," is quickly amplified with "The Last American Male to Take Up Golf," and in it Geist positions himself as the last man over 50 who has never played the game.

And his hilarious investigative excursion into the widespread obsession with the game produces highly entertaining reading.

In between laughs, I was attracted to his reference to golf in the Netherlands, where novice golfers are required to take a test for driving, chipping, putting to earn a "golf ability" card. Without one, they do not have access to certain clubs or courses.

Sounds like something worth exploring in our own backyard to speed up play.

Geist, incidentally, also wrote the best-selling "Little League Confidential." His latest effort is published by Warner Books.

While touching on the matter of golf literature, I must recount a stunning surprise at a recent visit to the bookshop. A display table hawking "New Sports Books" had about 25 samples, with golf books dominating the layout - more than any other sport, baseball and football included. Incredible! There was a time, not too long ago, when we'd see two or three new golf titles a year.

And in the shop's magazine racks there were at least 14-15 golf periodicals.

Ah, a growing sport, indeed. And blessings on that!

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

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