Frank's Place: Golf's popularity in a tailspin

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Before the earth movers came: Sylvie Russo of Penn Valley (left) and Nancy Tabas of Haverford playing a round at Valley Forge in 2004. (Inquirer File Photo)

I worry about golf. Not about how poorly I play it, but about the state of the game that a par-seeking poet once wrote "fills our souls with feelings of life."

One of the many cruelties of aging is having to watch familiar institutions, particularly those that were so powerful we couldn't imagine their demise, shrivel up and sometimes disappear.

The post office, newspapers, department stores - all are among the many civic pillars crumbling in an age when everything is available via cellphone apps. And when the significance of things once so integral to our lives is diminished, so too are we.

That's why I'm concerned about golf.

The old game itself remains as appealing as ever. What's threatening it are dark forces from beyond, particularly changing social and economic realities

All the time-saving technology that was supposed to grant us more leisure has accomplished the opposite, further cluttering busy lives. Thanks to iPhones and laptops, most Americans work more than ever. Free time has become so precious that few are willing to expend the half-a-day golf requires.

And while we're probably laboring more, most of us aren't earning more. Even avid golfers have to question whether a weekend round is worth $65, $75, or $100. Country club memberships that require, say, a $40,000 membership bond and stiff annual dues are beyond the reach of all but the wealthy.

On top of all that, there are several inherent handicaps. It's difficult to achieve even a basic level of proficiency in the game let alone a mastery; clubs, bags, shoes, and balls are costly; it's no fun to golf alone, and every year there are fewer places to play.

Consequently, no matter which metric you examine, from course closings to the PGA Tour's TV ratings, from equipment and apparel sales to participation levels, the game clearly is in trouble.

Every year since 2000, the number of U.S. golfers has declined. That total has fallen by 5 million in the last decade, to roughly 25 million. If 25 million seems like a still-substantial sum, remember that most play only once or twice annually.

In 2013 alone, 400,000 Americans gave up the game, and 150 courses closed. For each of the last nine years, far more U.S. golf courses have shut down than opened.

TaylorMade, the largest producer of equipment and apparel, reported that its sales dropped by an astonishing 28 percent in 2014. Dick's Sporting Goods, the biggest golf retailer, recently laid off all 500 of the pros it had employed in its stores. And with a weakened, often absent Tiger Woods, TV ratings for most PGA Tour events are at their lowest levels in recent memory.

It's all disconcerting to someone like me, who, after decades of raising a family, finally has time to play regularly, finally has come to appreciate the game's perversities and pleasures.

Though my skill level could charitably be characterized as devoted duffer, nothing but work and family provides more joy. There aren't too many more exhilarating feelings than standing on the first tee, with a breathtaking landscape and 18 holes of endless possibilities spread out before you like a vision of Eden.

Those endless possibilities are at the heart of the allure of golf, a game in which, Scotland's David Forgan once noted, "you can exhaust yourself but never your subject."

"The room for improvement is so vast," the late author and golf fanatic John Updike wrote, "that three lifetimes could be spent roaming the fairways, carving away at it, convinced that perfection lies just over the next rise. And that hope, perhaps, is the kindest bliss of all that golf bestows upon its devotees."

Think of the bliss - even if it's only visual as you ride past the luxurious real estate - that places such as Merion, Aronimink, and Pine Valley bestow on the Philadelphia area.

Those historic and tony clubs, of course, aren't going anywhere. Golf's problems, like those of American society, are bifurcated. The richest clubs are doing fine. The rest are struggling.

It's no different in Philadelphia, despite this area's long and rich golfing history.

A friend now lives along what used to be the 17th hole of a long-gone course we frequently played. On the site of another, homes and big-box stores are rising atop old fairways and greens. And at least two courses in our current rotation are rumored to be for sale.

Next weekend my son and I will travel to the Masters for the first time.

The in-person glimpse at Augusta National's beauty, the tournament's history, the anticipated drama, not to mention the father-son time, promise to make it a memorable trip.

As we roam the azaleas and tall pines, the colorful crowds and picturesque vistas, I imagine it will be hard to realize that the game at the heart of this unique American spectacle is in critical condition.


ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz