News-Press: Could new ideas help jump-start golf, which has seen a decline in popularity?

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While the Fort Myers Country Club is still going strong as it turns 100 Friday, the long-term future of golf doesn’t look so rosy.

In the past decade, 800 courses nationwide shut down, often for the real estate. Naples hasn’t had that happen but one no longer can find a driving range in Collier County.

Drawing millennials into the game has been hard. The National Golf Federation says the number of U.S. players dropped from an all-time high of 30 million in 2005 to 24.1 million in 2015. While the U.S. golf industry had struggled to get junior players into the game, studies have shown beginners play a few rounds, then drop the sport entirely.

Death watch: How much longer can golf survive?

While these statistics are alarming, there are levels of optimism that golf can maintain or even have a resurgence. That’s due to golf operators having an open mind to draw customers. Some of the initiatives include:

Focusing on building junior golf.
Embracing Topgolf instead of seeing it as competition.
Being open to golfers playing a fraction of 18 holes, listening to music on the course and wearing cutoff jeans.
Using the course for events other than golf.

“The smarter operators are kind of happy because there’s different things they can do,” said Steve Donahue, a writer for PGA Magazine. “They have events after hours, they have people play three or six or nine holes. Those who see golf as traditional with nine or 18 holes aren’t adapting to the times.

“And many have gone out of business.”

Junior golf
Kraig Feighery, who runs Alico Family golf, saw where instructor David Leadbetter said that to grow the game, golf courses should have 10 percent of their players being juniors.

Feighery’s site constantly has events for young players. He even worked with a school’s STEM program and invited students to learn about golf using science and math.

At Fort Myers Country Club, a year-round pass for a junior player (5-18) is $75. Many courses around town have similar deals.

There’s the PGA Drive, Chip & Putt Championships that are likened to the NFL’s Punt, Pass & Kick competition.

Junior PGA Championships to expand by hosting respective 144-player fields in 2017

Tony Covey, editor for MyGolfSpot, and John Gardner, who has been a general manager or director of golf at Gulf Harbour, Quail West, and Raptor Bay, like the PGA Jr. league where teams play four nine-hole matches in a popular two-person scramble format. This reinforces the team concept and creating a bonding environment for learning the game. Coaches can also substitute players every three holes so all the golfers can participate.

Gardner said the program has more than 36,000 players.

“It’s their answer to Optimist Baseball,” Gardner said. “We’re also seeing parts of the world, like Asia, where golf is on the cusp of a positive and strong era,” he said.

Recently, Topgolf reached an agreement with Fort Myers officials to bring its business here.

Topgolf implements food, drink, interactive games, fire pits and bands with hitting golf balls at targets, and it’s popular with college students and millennials.

Topgolf coming to Fort Myers, city says

Lamb, a traditionalist who isn’t a big fan of Topgolf, shares Feighery’s view that if it’s popular, it will bring more exposure to the sport, which could encourage more people to try it.

Donahue said Topgolf’s example has led to courses hosting events like picnics and movie nights.

“People see the golf course, say, ‘This is kind of a cool place’ and they take lessons,’” Donahue said. “Topgolf had a lot to do with it. Smart owners, they think it’s great. The owner-operator who says, ‘That’s not real golf’, they’re already out of business or they’re gonna be out.”