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Golf's Longevity

In the last year, much has been written about the downward spiral of golf. The total number of rounds played has dropped, some television ratings have dipped, new course openings have fallen off and several equipment manufacturers have been hard hit. While the facts speak for themselves, when I look at the bigger picture, I see a bright future. Indeed, whatever has happened in the last twelve months, I believe that the trends established over the last fifteen years will ultimately push golf to even greater heights in the social and economic landscape of this country.

I'm not saying golf is immune to economic strife, just that it has a unique ability to withstand it. In my mind, that's because of golf's scope and reach—its tentacles, if you will. Anyone who has ever thrown a bag over his or her shoulder knows that the game is much more than fairways and greens. When you add up the revenue from all its various components, golf is roughly the size of the movie and music industries put together, and only slightly smaller than the total electronics and appliance market. Plain and simple, golf has a distinct and undeniably powerful position in our lives—present and future. The game has come a long way from when I used to tag along with my mother at Virginia Golf Club in Brisbane, Australia. Back then it was a pastime enjoyed by an elite few; today it's a lifestyle enjoyed by millions, still including my mother, who scored her second hole in one last summer at Pelican Waters, a course I designed in Australia.

When golf broke into the mainstream a generation ago, fierce rivalries and charismatic figures like Arnold Palmer were leading the charge. Hollywood could not have engineered a more perfect script. In fact, I distinctly remember the 1975 Masters getting me really energized about golf. I watched Jack Nicklaus roll in a forty-foot birdie putt on the sixteenth hole during the final round to give him the outright lead. He waited anxiously while Johnny Miller and Tom Weiskopf missed birdie putts on eighteen that would have forced a playoff. People still refer to it as the greatest Masters ever. That built-in drama helped transition the game into a mainstream television sport, which in turn led to a dramatic increase in participation. Fueled by an unprecedented stretch of economic prosperity, golf then became woven into the fabric of mature and growing businesses, including real estate, tourism and travel.

Today, more than any other sport or recreational activity, golf has a profound impact on the American economy, both nationally and locally. The golf course itself provides green space as part of a community's master plan. Then there's the impact of operations for the course and clubhouse, renovations, ongoing maintenance, merchandise, instruction, communications and employment of all sorts. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the PGA of America and the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America. These organizations develop business skills that last a lifetime for many Americans, but of equal importance, they instill values and standards that ultimately serve their members well as pillars of their communities.

A perfect example is Tim Rappach, the superintendent at Medalist Golf Club in Hobe Sound, Florida. Tim is very talented and has a strong work ethic, but it's what he does beyond his role as superintendent that I most admire. He is very active in the local community, particularly with schoolchildren. He has taken groups on tours of the golf course and introduced them to the flora and fauna that are native to south Florida. The kids enjoy it, and it's Tim's way of developing what he hopes will be a lifelong respect for the environment.

As for golf's supposed woes, with sales of more than $4 billion annually, the golf equipment industry still stands out as the largest in all of sport. For example, spending on golf equipment was nearly eight times greater than spending on alpine ski gear in 2000. Which business would you rather be in?No wonder ski companies such as Salomon and Rossignol moved into golf: Salomon S.A. acquired TaylorMade Golf in 1984 and Skis Rossignol S.A. purchased Cleveland Golf in 1990.

Elsewhere, the golf apparel market grew rapidly in the 1990s, and through my involvement with Greg Norman Collection, this is a field I know pretty well. As you've undoubtedly noticed, golf clothing is no longer relegated to the sporting-goods department—it has transcended the very sport from which it was born. Today's business-casual environment has brought golf into the office, and not just with a cotton pique, but rather quality fabrics and contemporary designs. Golf clothes are now seen as fashionable. Given what golf wardrobes looked like in the '60s and '70s, I don't think that's a development that many people would have predicted.

In terms of real estate, developers are increasingly tying golf facilities to residential communities for primary residences, second homes and vacation properties. An estimated fifty-six thousand golf course homes were constructed in this country in 2000. It's a proven fact that golf courses increase property values. Perhaps the greatest validation of this is the high percentage of families purchasing homes in golf course communities who are not golfers but who recognize the inherent value and resale potential of living in such an enclave.

Furthermore, golf fosters and promotes tourism and travel like no other sport. If they're not making pilgrimages to Scotland or Ireland to play the great historic courses, golfers are visiting meccas such as Hilton Head, Scottsdale or Myrtle Beach, where the concentration and variety of quality courses means more rounds with less travel time in between. No two golf courses are the same—every layout is unique, and one of the special pleasures of golf is to play as many of them as possible. Is anyone out there working on a life-list of must-play tennis courts?

Some say that in the context of the current economic climate, it may be difficult for golf to prosper. I disagree. I take a bullish view on the sport that we love—and given the core business interests of Great White Shark Enterprises, I think I'm in a unique position to do so. Golf's tentacles are simply too deep.

That having been said, I don't subscribe to the theory that the cyclical nature of the economy will heal all of the sport's wounds. There are definitely stress fractures. Golf's leaders need to build television viewership by taking advantage of the fact that unlike most other televised professional sports, golf's audience actually goes out and plays the game. It is imperative that we make more of an effort to get kids involved and harness the potential of golf's future players. Equipment manufacturers need to continue to push for genuine innovation in club performance for the masses—the only engine for growth in the pro shop.

Ultimately, whether we merely turn the corner in relatively good shape or truly take our sport to the next level will depend on how decision makers in all these golf-related industries respond to the evolving needs and desires of the modern golfer. Bottom line: There are still more than twenty-five million people playing more than five-hundred million rounds of golf each year, and I am confident the game will continue to demonstrate its resiliency. Long-term and short-term, the tentacles of golf will serve us well.

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