Smaller numbers are the aim in golf, a sport in which the lowest score wins.

But with fewer people playing a game that can take five hours for 18 holes -- a trend that began on Long Island and nationwide more than a decade ago -- some of the most prominent people in golf are worried.

Now the game's greatest player says it is time for a new number: 12.

Jack Nicklaus, the all-time major championship record holder, said casual non-tournament rounds should be 12 holes instead of 18. On Long Island, the breeding ground for American golf's tradition and innovation since the 19th century, he has gotten people's attention.

"Since 2006, we've lost 20 percent of the women in the game and we've lost 20 percent of the juniors in the game," Nicklaus said last week at his tournament, the Memorial, at Muirfield. "If you're the CEO of a corporation and have those numbers, you say, 'What do I do?' "

Nicklaus has requested that his courses -- Muirfield Village Golf Club in Ohio and the Bear's Club in Florida -- print up score cards for 12-hole rounds, which would encourage people to play just 12 holes.

"My seniors are loving it," Nicklaus said.

Ticket to recovery?

But can a switch to 12 holes resurrect an industry hit by the recession, stifled by the demands of busy lives and threatened by the young generation's taste for faster sports?

"Golf is expensive and it takes a lot of time," said Steve Smith, executive director of the Long Island Golf Association. "There are reasons why young people don't take up the game and why people stop playing. I think there might be something to what Nicklaus is talking about."

The thinking is shorter rounds could make golf more fun. More people might play, improving the industry's health. Then again, part of golf's appeal is that it's basically the same game that was imported more than a century ago from the 18 holes of St. Andrews in Scotland. Switching from 18 to 12 holes would mean tampering with tradition, upending ingrained habits and dealing with logistical problems. Most golf courses are designed so the 18th hole ends near the clubhouse. The 12th hole often ends far away, and would require a long hike back.

"When you're brought up with 18 holes, it's in your system," said Jeff Lamarita, of Garden City, after he finished playing a full round at Bethpage Black, site of the 2002 and 2009 U.S. Opens.

Jack Caliolo, president of Nassau Country Club, can see both sides. "It's tough for people to make the commitment that's necessary for 18 holes," he said. "I wonder how committed or interested people are in the sport if they're trying to save an hour. If you're a basketball player, you don't quit after three quarters."

The challenge for golf, industry experts say, is that the final buzzer might be closer than anyone realizes.

"We are not blessed with a backlog of golfers waiting to get out and play," said Charlie Robson, executive director of the Metropolitan PGA and Garden City Golf Club member.

No statistics are kept on how much golf is played at the Island's private clubs, privately owned public courses and municipal courses. But the National Golf Foundation estimated that there was a 2.3 percent drop in 2010 from 2009 in the number of rounds played in the United States. In a report released this week from The National Golf Foundation, a survey of 40,000 Americans showed a decline of golfers age 6-plus from 27.1 million in 2009 to 26.1 million in 2010.

The report showed other alarming numbers: 14.9 percent of men played golf in 2010, while only 3.7 percent of women played. The participation rate for those 6-17 years old was only 5 percent, 9.6 percent of whom are actual golfers.

Tough times on LI

On Long Island since 2009, the Links at Shirley closed, Woodcrest Country Club in Syosset shut down before it was bought at auction and reopened as Woodside Acres, and North Shore Country Club in Glen Head was headed toward extinction before developer and golf enthusiast Donald Zucker bought it. More courses would likely have closed had there been a better market for the property, said Mark Hissey, head of Melville-based golf consulting firm Hissey Golf Consultants.

Two courses, the public-access Tallgrass Golf Club in Shoreham and the private Muttontown Club, have hired private outside firms to run their operations and steer them through the rough economic climate. Some clubs, such as Middle Bay Country Club, have cut dues to compete for a shrinking pool of prospective members.

Profit margins are thin. The average revenue for public courses in 2009 was $1,457,700, and average expenses for the same courses amounted to $1,274,800, according to the NGF survey. Courses took in and spent about 5.7 percent less that year than in 2008.

Revenue from membership at Long Island private clubs has risen slightly over the past four years, according to a report for the Long Island Golf Association by accounting firm Condon, O'Meara, McGinty & Donnelly LLP. But maintenance and payroll expenses also have gone up, according to the same report. The long term still is a concern.

"It takes too much time to play golf," said Joe Rehor, head pro at Bethpage State Park. "I see it with my son-in-law. He's got two kids at home and he can't play golf. He's got [youth] lacrosse, he's got concerts, he's got this and that. He's got no time for golf. If you want to introduce new players to the game, you can't make it so time-consuming."

Switching to 12 holes would also help entice more women to play, said Jackie Meli-Rizzo, president of the Long Island Chapter of the Executive Women's Golf Association.

"Twelve holes would be . . . perfect," Meli-Rizzo said. "All of our leagues are supported by women who work until 3, 4 or 5 o'clock." With 750 active members in 14 leagues, her chapter is one of the most successful in the country because its nine-hole matches fit into the golfers' schedules. Twelve holes would be better, she said.

But others aren't so sure. "It will probably go the way of indoor lacrosse. It might be a nice idea, but it really is not going to take off," said Peter Quick, a Nassau Country Club board member and member at the Meadow Brook and Sebonack Golf Clubs.

Not all of the next generation is turned off. "I love the competition. I love that in golf, you're playing against yourself and against the course, not against other people," said Annie Park, 16, of Levittown, who two weeks ago qualified for the U.S. Women's Public Links Championship in Oregon later this month.

Right now, no Long Island clubs have plans for formal 12-hole courses. But Robson approves of the discussion. "We'd rather have people playing golf for 12 holes than playing on an Xbox and thinking that that's what golf is all about," he said.

With Art Spander

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