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Golf's tumble looks to be leveling off.

With more than 30 years as a golf professional and course operator. Tim Jenkins has seen the game from a different perspective than many who caught on to golf during its Tiger Woods-era surge and subsequent decline.

People who look at golf's popularity in numbers of participants from, say 2000, see the game in steep decline over the past several years, coinciding with the financial recession that started around 2008.

Jenkins, part of the ownership of Country Club of Arkansas in Maumelle, sees the numbers a little differently. He remembers golf's popularity in the early 1990s, before Woods' emergence and hold on the golfing public, and before the national housing bubble and out-of-control course construction appeared to send golf spiraling upward, only to reverse course drastically.

"There was a time that courses started to ask the question, "Where are all my golfers?" "Jenkins said. "They starting looking at it. The question came up when the real estate boom hit its peak and golf courses were going up everywhere. That created a spike. But when the dust settled, people left the game.

"It is like the guy who sold his ski boat because he wasn't going to the lake anymore, that kind of mentality."

Golf's numbers problem was more a short-term spike and fall, as Jenkins sees it, with people mining in and out of the game in a short period. "If you lake out those years, I don't think there is a Significant change" he said of golf's popularity.

Jay Fox, the executive director of the Arkansas Slate Golf Association, says the numbers for the ASGA offer inure comtort now as to where the game is headed.

"We actually saw it level off last year." Fox said. "We had been down in membership maybe 2-3 percent in the last 8-10 years. We got up to 18,000 members at one time. We're now somewhere north of 11.000. We'd lost 100 or so golfers a year mostly to aging, not playing as much, but over the last couple of years we've seen the membership level out and our tournament golfers have come back. We've seen it even peak slightly."

It certainly wasn't just an Arkansas problem when the sudden spike began to wane. Fox said he reached out to other stale associations in recent years only to learn, as in the case of Indiana where a 44,000-member organization lost half its membership over a decade, that everybody in golf was having a hard time in the fight for the recreational dollar.

"Golf is a time consuming sport, it's difficult to play. It's not for everybody, but I don't mean that in a negative sense." Fox said. "If you play golf, you have to make a commitment to it. You can't play it pan time and excel at any real level of skill."

Jenkins meanwhile, knew the bubble of 1997-2007 couldn't last.

"When this course was built in 1996," he said of CCA, at the time owned by his former employer, I.inkscorp, "there were still seven or eight courses that hadn't been built yet in this market. We increased the supply three limes over. To meet that supply we had to have three times as many golfers as we did."

For a while, it seemed there were nearly that many new golfers, before they quickly put the clubs back up.

What that has meant is trial and tribulation for several courses in the area: the Greystone courses near Cabot closed and went through an ownership change before reopening two years ago; Foxwood in Jacksonville closed and later reopened under new ownership as Southern Oaks.

Some prominent high-dollar clubs tried creative ways to drive membership. Most recently, the owners of Stonelinks in North Little Rock put that 22-year-old course up for auction, and the buyer, Paul Sammons, reportedly will return the ground to its former status as a hayfield and/or home to cattle. Even John Daly's Lion's Den course near Dardanelle shut down when expenses continued to outstrip membership dues.

As the 21st century dawned, course builders dreamed of making big money, especially if the course was tied to a residential development. Now, 15 years later, course owners are just trying to carve out a living, Jenkins said.

Which brings us to 2015, and the hopes of the PGA and United States Golf Association to find ways to grow the game in a steadier way.

The First Tee national organization, which began in 1997 (opening in 2000 in Little Rock) is still a ways away from its first generation of graduates moving into adulthood and boosting golfing numbers, but junior golf is always a focus for growing the game. Women's golf is also being targeted and couples golf is proving popular.

"Women's golf overall is probably more popular than it's been." Jenkins said. "Juniors is growing and ladies is growing, and not so much men's golf."

Fox. who remembers being dropped off at the local golf course as a kid with 50 cents for a drink and staying all day to play, accepts that junior-age golfers have many more activities these days to occupy their time. But he's encouraged by what he's heard from Pleasant Valley Country Club, which began a Junior League program last year that involved several other courses in the area. The national PGA created the PGA Junior League program two years ago.

Chris Mayes, president of the Arkansas chapter of the PGA, has been at Pleasant Valley for 14 years. Me organized the local league, which encourages players to compete as a team, perhaps playing just a couple of holes but helping their group in competition with other clubs.

"It's initially designed for kids to be interactive with each other," Mayes said. "It's played on a shortened golf course to have more success, and is a two-person scramble format. And, although a Junior League tournament or match is a nine-hole match, it's divided into three-hole increments that are each worth I point. Normally, if you're playing golf and you have a bad three holes, you're dreading the next three hours. This does a lot of things to get kids involved in golf."

Other national initiatives for boosting golf participation that are being pushed in Arkansas include the USGA's "Tee It Forward," urging golfers to have more fun by playing from a more appropriate yardage based on handicap, which will lead to better scores and more enjoyment.

"Everybody worries about playing the forward tee markers, but everybody who finishes up there says. 'That was a lot of fun.' It gives them more opportunities for success," Mayes said.

And at the First Tee, young and older golfers alike have been introduced to Foot Golf, which is like soccer on the golf course, to add more fun to the outing. Bob 1 Henn, the superintendent at First Tee, has even devised and patented a pin for the hole that indicates when the ball has struck it, enhancing play.

"For us to get people to grow the game, we have to figure out a couple of things." Mayes said. "How do you make golf easier, because it's a sport you can play the rest of your life and have fun doing it, and how do we cut down on time? If you have something like Tee It Forward, people can have more success and more enjoyment of having better scores."

All seem to agree, returning golf to a fun sport rather than golfers trying (and mostly failing) to play the game like Tiger Woods, is what will bring the customers back out more often.

BY JIM HARRIS

Caption: GREYSTONE, IN CABOT

Caption: JAY FOX

Caption: PLEASANT VALLEY

Caption: THE RISE OF TIGER WOODS WAS KEY TO THE GOLF BOOM

Caption: YOUTH PROGRAMS LIKE FIRST TEE ARE SEEN AS VITAL TO GOLF'S FUTURE
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Comment:Golf's tumble looks to be leveling off.
Author:Harris, Jim
Publication:Arkansas Business
Geographic Code:1U7AR
Date:Mar 30, 2015
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