AUGUSTA, Ga. - The sport of golf is healthy beyond anyone's imagination, which is abundantly clear at Augusta National during Masters week. Still, even at this milk-and-honey promised land, people realize that there is a different story when it comes to the game of golf.
Yes, the sport and the game are in separate worlds. While the pro tour is flourishing, American courses are folding. According to the National Golf Foundation, 2013 marked the eighth consecutive year more American courses closed than opened. That pattern played out on Long Island, as this season began without two public courses, Calverton Links and Great Rock Golf Club in Wading River.
Local golf officials are not sure if both are closed permanently. South Bay Country Club in Oceanside, which struggled back to life last year after severe damage from superstorm Sandy, also has not opened but is expected to begin its season next month.
Throughout the country, there are either too many courses or too few golfers or both, and people here at the Masters have noticed.
"What we see is that television golf and tournament golf are definitely on the up. It's popular, it's positive, it's great to watch. All of that. I think the junior side is pretty good now. Very good, actually," said Nick Faldo, the three-time Masters champion who is the lead analyst for CBS. "I know the numbers in the middle are flat, or declining."
Rory McIlroy, answering a question about whether the sport benefits from having a dominant star like Tiger Woods, said: "Participation in golf is down 13 percent. There are a few things that need to be done for golf to be played more again, in terms of the general public."
What industry experts here are unsure of is what exactly they should try. Masters chairman Billy Payne said yesterday that Augusta National, one of the most exclusive clubs in the world, sees it as part of its mission to make the game grow among the rank and file. He cited the reception from youngsters participating Sunday in the inaugural Drive, Chip and Putt final, which he called, "One of the most powerful days of my life."
Lanny Wadkins, a former PGA champion and TV analyst, thought the contest was a good idea, but added that golf should be made to be "quicker and a little less expensive."
Faldo cited modern time factors and backed more nine-hole rounds. "We've got to lose the stigma. It's OK to go to the golf course and play nine. I do it all the time. I don't have five hours or six hours. I've got to race and pick up my daughter or something. I will go in, warm up, play nine holes and I'm more than happy with that," he said.
Billy Horschel, 27, a first-time Masters participant who said he gets criticized for being too demonstrative on the course, fell in love with the game by just hitting balls around the property at home with his dad. He thinks the industry needs to loosen up.
"It would be nice to see more people play," he said. "We live in a different world, where emotion is not a bad thing. For things to improve you have to change a couple things, be uncomfortable and change what the norm is. That's my personal opinion. If we can just make this game more fun . . . "