Golfing Surge Burdens Courses. SPORTS TRENDS

YOGI BERRA was talking about a restaurant when he came up with the famous line ``Nobody goes there anymore; it's too crowded!'' Today, however, those words could apply to thousands of overpopulated golf courses. As the game continues its explosive rate of growth, the biggest question seems to be: Where is everybody going to play?

As a recreational activity, as a spectator sport, and as an industry, golf has experienced an incredible surge in the United States throughout the 1980s. It's a trend that shows every sign of continuing through the '90s and beyond. By every statistical and economic barometer, golf has had the steepest and most consistent rate of growth of any sport.

Taking in all of its facets, the game is already a $20 billion-a-year industry in the US. At that rate, it will be twice that by the turn of the century.

There were about 17.5 million US golfers in 1985 - and 23 million-plus in 1988, notes Gordon Benson, vice-president of research of the National Golf Foundation. A 1987 study by NGF projected 30 million golfers by the year 2000, but the actual rate of increase has been ``far beyond those projections,'' Mr. Benson says. ``In fact, if we kept going at the current rate, we'd be up around 50 million by then.''

The reason commonly cited for this situation is that the ``baby boomers'' - those born in the postwar birthrate surge - are reaching an age at which higher percentages of people start playing the game.

The boom figures to continue, too, since NGF statistics show that players over 50 have the greatest impact on the game.

Historically, most golf players have been white males: That is changing, too. Percentage-wise, the largest new groups entering the game are women, blacks, and Hispanics; that fact also accounts for some of the overall increase.

Meanwhile, sales of golf equipment in the US were well over $2 billion last year. Real estate and resort operations report big profits. Revenues from the professional tour have nearly tripled in five years, to $128 million.

An example of how far things have come is the experience of the Marriott Corporation, which first ventured into golf with a money-losing course in Arizona in 1970. Marriott is now the world's largest operator of resort golf.

``At first we treated it as an amenity, like a swimming pool,'' says Roger Maxwell, Marriott's vice-president for golf operations. ``But we soon found out that golf can be a big moneymaker.''

So big that Marriott now has an investment in golf in excess of $100 million in 16 facilities in the US and Bermuda.

As for resort golf in general, the NGF says 7 million Americans took golf-related trips last year in which they spent nearly $8 billion for travel, housing, food, etc.

That's the plus side. The limiting factor is the growing gap between the number of players and the number of courses.

The same study that found all those new golfers also indicated a need for upwards of 400 new courses a year to keep up with demand - but the actual numbers have been less than half of that.

Long lineups in the pre-dawn hours are getting to be routine at many courses in the big metropolitan areas. For example, at the Knollwood Golf Club north of Los Angeles:

``On Saturdays we usually have 20 or 30 people by 4 a.m.,'' says pro John Wolgamott. ``We take two from the line and one from the phone for tee times, and usually by 5:15 the entire morning is taken up. Sunday is nearly as bad. Weekdays aren't as heavy, but we open at 6 a.m. and most of the preferred times are gone by 7.''

And that's only half the story: Those lines and phone calls are not for that day - they're for the following week!

The obvious solution is more courses, but it isn't that simple. Suitable land is scarce and expensive, and construction costs are high.

``Two things could happen if we don't have enough courses,'' says Benson. ``We could have 50 million golfers, but they would be playing fewer rounds.

``Or, we won't achieve the numbers because people will say, `It's too much of a hassle; I'll do something else.'''

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