Tiger Woods makes comeback at the Masters. Can golf do the same?

As Tiger Woods stages his comeback at the Masters, recreational golf is trying to rebound from a long decline in revenues, golf courses, and popularity.

Chris O'Meara/AP
Tiger Woods and spectators watch his shot on the first fairway during a practice round at the Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Ga., Wednesday. While Mr. Woods tries to make his comeback at the Masters, golf is also trying to make a comeback.

While Tiger Woods tries to stage a comeback Thursday on the greens of Augusta, his sport is trying to do the same.

After a boom in the 1990s, golf is struggling.

The number of golfers and the rounds of golf they play have dropped to lows not seen in years. Golf equipment sales fell 11.6 percent from 2008 to 2009. Nearly 140 golf courses closed last year, almost three times the number of courses that opened (when counted in 18-hole increments).

The slump is not related to Mr. Woods's recent troubles. Although his presence may have a powerful impact on how many people watch golf on TV, the ├╝ber-golfer never really convinced more Americans to head for the links.

Instead, a golf-course building bubble in the 1990s has continued to hang over the industry even after two recessions.

Does 2010 mark a comeback year? Some insiders think so.

"We expect that the spring and summer will be good," says Mike Hughes, CEO of National Golf Course Owners Association, based in Charleston, S.C. "We're going to have some improvement that will probably be commensurate with the rate of economic improvement."

So far, though, that's based more on hope than reality. Through February, the number of rounds of golf played this year is down 22 percent, according to the National Golf Foundation. Even after adjusting for a drop in days that clubs were open this year, the trend was still slightly down.

The "first two months of '10 have had record lousy weather," writes Tom Stine, co-owner of Golf Datatech, a Kissimmee, Fla., research firm, in an e-mail. The "industry is hopeful for a recovery based upon pent-up demand."

"We've got to absorb this overcapacity," Mr. Hughes says. Compared with other industries, "golf actually fared quite well during this deep recession."

What's changed is that people are paying less to play their sport, squeezing golf-course revenues and causing some high-end clubs to go down-market.

"I've called it the Wal-Martification of golf," Hughes adds.

It could mark the beginning of a sustainable rebound for American golf, whether Woods roars at the Masters or not.

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