By Mark Lamport-Stokes
PONTE VEDRA BEACH Florida (Reuters) - Tiger Woods is the world's top-earning athlete and tournaments still lure blue-chip sponsors and huge TV rights but golf is losing millions of players, prompting desperate ideas to stem the tide.
In almost every part of the globe the number of players participating in the game has slumped alarmingly in the last 10 years, mainly due to the amount of time required to play a round in the high-speed digital age where attention spans appear limited.
According to the National Golf Foundation (NGF), the sport has lost five million players in the United States in the past decade and 20 percent of the 25 million golfers now active in the country are likely to quit in the next few years.
Golf, though, is responding to its own warning cries of 'Fore' by thinking outside of the time-honored traditions of the game that was invented in Scotland in the late 15th century as it faces arguably its biggest struggle for survival in the 21st.
Among the innovations: soccer balls instead of a dimpled Titleist or Callaway; golf holes with a 15-inch diameter that look more like a bucket than the traditional cup; the ability for players to clock in and out of rounds and thereby pay for as long as they are on the course.
These and other measures pioneered in the U.S. have been implemented around the world in a bid to attract people to golf who may never have considered the sport, or are simply put off by the amount of time required for 18 holes.
"There is a mindset in golf that needs to change and it's going to take probably several years for that to happen," PGA of America president Ted Bishop told Reuters.
"For the first time ever it's not wrong for us to look at our sport and say that there are two types of golf that can be played," said Bishop who owns a large golf complex in Indiana.
"One is the traditional game that we watch every weekend on television across the world and it's the same game that many amateur golfers play day-in and day-out.
"But there are a whole host of other people out there that might enjoy playing more relaxed or looser forms of the sport just to see if they enjoy it. And if they do then ultimately the goal is to try to turn those people into customary golfers."
Bishop, whose PGA of America organization represents more than 27,000 professionals, has been especially excited by the possibilities raised by 'foot golf'.
This novel concept involves a soccer ball being kicked from a set of tee markers to a green featuring a 21-inch hole. Par-three holes are between 60 and 90 yards long, par-fours range up to 150 yards and par-fives up to 250 yards.
"There are 50 million soccer players in the U.S. compared to 25 million golfers and soccer is growing at an eight percent rate per year so I view this as a great way to get a segment of the population on to my golf course," Bishop said.
Some people are still attracted to golf by the prospect of great riches.
World number one Woods, who had a big earnings drop in 2009 after a spat with his Swedish wife Elin Nordegren that ended in divorce, was back on top of the Forbes rich list of the globe's highest-paid athletes in June 2013 with the American enjoying an estimated annual income of $78.1 million, the magazine said.
But the under-35 age group has been tempted away by an increasing amount of alternative leisure activities, the bulk of which take less than an hour to complete whereas an 18-hole round of golf can often last more than five hours.
While U.S. Golf Association (USGA) president Tom O'Toole believes the figures can be misleading, he readily concedes the game's health needs urgent attention.
"Those NGF statistics don't include those who have joined the game over the past decade," he told Reuters. "We always see fluctuations of people leaving and coming into golf, as with a variety of sports.
"But the decline is in the game to some degree and of course we are concerned about the game's health. I don't think the game is particularly welcoming and we need to make it accessible to a more diverse constituency, people from all walks of life.
"We also need to put our thinking caps on and come up with well thought out strategies on how the game can be played faster," said O'Toole.
"People in this day and age want things to be quick, they don't have large expenditures of time on one endeavor."
The USGA, the game's governing body in the United States and Mexico, made this aspect of golf a priority early last year when it launched a 'Pace of Play' campaign that has already generated a high level of awareness from club to pro level.
NEED FOR CREATIVITY
O'Toole, like Bishop, believes golf has to be flexible and creative to attract more people.
"At the USGA we certainly think anything that would cause somebody to stop and undertake an exercise or endeavor that would ultimately draw them to golf is a good thing," O'Toole said.
"If it's 15-inch holes or if it's some other aspect that isn't exactly in the game that we have been governing since December 1894 in this country, that's okay.
"What's at issue here is how we drive people to golf. We think the charm of the game is a single set of rules and if we can get people to embrace the charm that we all love about golf, then we have succeeded," added O'Toole.
Fifteen-inch holes, which are more than three times the size of a regular cup, have already been used in a few experimental tournaments and exhibitions and this month TaylorMade-Adidas Golf will be exclusively installing super-sized holes at about 100 courses in the U.S. as part of a pilot scheme.
The pressing need to attract more players is being keenly felt elsewhere around the world.
Golf participation in Europe fell for the first time in 20 years in 2011 and declined further in 2012, according to consultants KPMG.
Australia is also wrestling with a drop-off, 1.48 percent a year in club membership since 2000, according to the 2011 golf census.
"We peaked at around 500,000 in the 1990s but since 2000 we've had that decline so we're sitting at around 400,000 now," Cameron Wade, participation director at Golf Australia, told Reuters.
"There have been some courses close and we've had some mergers and we'll see more of those. Only 20 percent of our participants are female. Back in the 70s that was about 30 percent so there's obviously been a shift away in that segment."
The slide in Europe is especially noticeable in Britain and Ireland, which accounts for 29 percent of the continent's players and 44 percent of the courses. Numbers there have been continuously falling since 2007.
"There's so much competition for people's time these days in mature golf markets it will be pretty hard for golf to keep the market share it had of people's leisure time years ago," said Peter Dawson, chief executive of the Royal and Ancient (R&A), the organization that governs golf outside the U.S. and Mexico.
"Worldwide we're still growing but the growth will be in new countries and established countries will have to fight to keep their market share," Dawson told Reuters at the HSBC Golf Business Forum in Abu Dhabi last month.
However, the R&A disputes the notion that making golf easier will somehow make it a more popular game.
"The sport is arguably easier for the average golfer now than it has ever been thanks to the advances in modern equipment," an R&A spokesman said in an email to Reuters.
"There have been many different innovations tried in golf over the years to make it more attractive but ultimately it's the challenge of the sport which keeps people coming back. We think making the game quicker, more accessible and more affordable is the priority."
Golf will return to the Olympics at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games for the first time since 1904 and its inclusion there has boosted state funding for the sport in many countries where it is in its infancy.
Encouragingly, the global trend of dwindling numbers in the sport is being bucked in several parts of Asia with countries like China, Japan, South Korea and India enjoying a surge in participation.
"Golf has traditionally followed the middle-class growth," Giles Morgan, HSBC's global head of sponsorship and events, told Reuters.
"You're seeing a middle-class economic boom in places like India and China and therefore you're seeing a growth in the sport there."
Morgan cited the example of Vietnam where there are 25 courses and plans for a further 65 in the coming years.
"This provides a key insight into the confidence, aspiration and appetite that abound in that market for the game of golf," he said.
According to a February report in the Singapore paper 'Today', the situation is not so rosy in the wealthy city-state where the demand for courses is being pegged back.
"Singapore has 14 private golf courses and three public golf courses, taking up 1,500 hectares of land, or about two percent of the Republic's total land area," the report read.
"In February the government said some of these courses will have to be phased out and the land be put to other uses.
"Of the nine golf clubs with leases expiring within the next 10 years, two (Keppel Club and Marina Bay Golf Club) will not have their leases renewed," said the report.
Three other courses will have their leases extended but they must surrender some of the land they now occupy.
(Additional reporting by Matt Smith in Dubai, Nick Mulvenney in Sydney, Patrick Johnston in Singapore, editing by Mike Roddy and Tony Jimenez)