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Golf Club Prices Are Up;

Scores Are Not Down


Published: May 24, 2005

New and technologically advanced golf balls fly farther than ever. Oversize golf drivers hit the ball straighter. Space-age materials make irons easier to swing. Ergonomically engineered putters roll the ball more precisely. Golf courses are more plentiful and maintained better. Instruction is more accessible, at public and private clubs, not to mention every night on a cable television channel devoted entirely to golf.

There is even a better golf tee, revamped to let the ball soar longer and more accurately.

The only thing in golf that has not changed is the average score for 18 holes. Neither the average weekend player nor the world's best golfers have managed to get the ball in the hole any sooner.

The average 18-hole score for the average golfer remains at about 100, as it has for decades, according to the National Golf Foundation, an industry research and consulting service.

Among more serious recreational golfers who register their scores with the United States Golf Association, the average handicap index, a scoring tool, has dropped 0.5 strokes since 2000. On the PGA Tour this year, the average score of players has risen, by 0.28 strokes, compared with the average 10 years ago.

"Maybe we're all supposed to stink at this," said David Feherty, a columnist for Golf Magazine and a commentator on CBS's golf telecasts. "It's our punishment for playing this insane game."

That the average golf score is not declining is much discussed by golf professionals, although it remains a golf-industry secret, and with good reason.

In 2002, according to the National Golf Foundation, Americans spent $4.7 billion on golf equipment, much of it on $500 drivers and $200 putters, new technology designed to help golfers find a four-and-a-quarter-inch hole with fewer swats at a 1.62 ounce ball.

But is it working?

Nancy Seitz of Pompton Plains, N.J., received a mammoth titanium driver as a Christmas present last year. The club, which she calls "the cannon," barely fits in her golf bag, its melon-sized head rising above her other clubs like Gulliver in Lilliput. After a session last week at a driving range near her home, Ms. Seitz, 58, was asked if the new club had helped her game.

"Well, I still can't hit it straight or far, but I can hit it straighter and farther," she said. "I love it."

Asked if her scores had gone down, she smiled and conceded, "Not yet."

To many in the golf business, such responses reflect the spirit of golf's eternal, mystical quest for a better score. There are more than 26 million golfers in America, and most seem to believe they are getting better. Many undoubtedly are, but the statistics say a majority is not.

Still, the interplay between hope and reality is part of the gestalt of the game.

Meanwhile, like a cosmic collection of golf jokes - or golf tips - theories on why golfers are not improving surface in all forms and delve into every realm: life pressures, psychological demons, the changing family unit, the flood of baby boomer retirees, even post-Sept. 11 effects.

The most common culprit cited, though, is the disconnect between what the average golfer seeks - the longest drives in the weekly foursome - and what the average golfer really needs, which is skill at hitting the ball deftly in the final 50 yards on most holes.

"They watch golf on TV and then they all want to hit it far, like Tiger Woods," said Dr. Bob Rotella, golf's best-known psychologist and a best-selling author. "Well, good luck. They should be going to their teacher and saying, 'I want to hit it like Fred Funk.' Physically, they are much more like him. That would make a lot more sense."

Mr. Funk is a 5-foot-8, 48-year-old PGA Tour pro who ranks first in driving accuracy and 186th in driving distance. He is also seventh on the PGA money list this season with more than $1.9 million in earnings.

"Part of the problem is that golf instruction has been incredibly one-dimensional," said Lynn Marriott, a teaching pro based in Arizona who is on Golf Magazine's list of the nation's top-100 instructors. "Most golf lessons are not golf lessons, they are golf-swing lessons. The game is still about getting it in the hole, not about having the proper backswing."
Dr. Rotella said he would like to see the pay for instructors based on how much their students' scores were lowered. Of course, instructors, who are paid by the hour or the lesson, overwhelmingly maintain that students, if they take lessons at all, refuse to take instruction that would help them the most.

"I ask every average 18-handicapper that I see to putt and chip for me," said Sal Vitale, the head golfing professional at National Golf Worx, a large driving range in northern New Jersey. "They say, 'No, that's O.K., I'm a pretty good chipper and putter.' If I convince one of them to chip for me, they're usually not very good.

 "Still, all they want is help with their swing, or nowadays, with their new driver."

One day last week, Mr. Vitale gave seven lessons and four were to students with new drivers. At his driving range, there is a small section set aside for short-game practice. In four hours during a late afternoon/evening last week, two golfers visited it. The 47 stalls used to hit full shots were a blur of constant activity.

The misguided intentions of the average golfer were not the only reason cited for the stubbornly unshrinking golf score. Experts offered many explanations, and each said the average score was likely to remain unchanged, just as it has remained unchanged since at least the 1970's.

Rick Martino, the director of instruction for the P.G.A. of America, suggested three factors had influenced scores.

"The golf courses are much harder than 20 years ago - longer, more bunkers, more water," he said. "Also, the average age of the average golfer has gone up considerably because people are living longer and baby boomers are retiring and taking up golf. But these golfers are less fit and less accomplished at the game.

"And, there are more golfers who play fewer rounds per year. If you only play two to seven times a year, what's your average score going to be?"

Bryan Jones, director of instruction at the David Glenz Golf Academy in Franklin, N.J., said golfers were not improving because they did not have the time to get better.

"It takes a lot of time and practice to master the complexities and nuances of the game," he said. "But people have overscheduled lifestyles, and if they have children, everybody is running in 10 directions. We've started teaching one-minute practice drills that people can do in the bathroom mirror." Mr. Jones had another observation: "People talk about the new ball going farther, and it does. It also goes farther sideways."

Randy Smith, another top-100 instructor, who works at the Royal Oaks Country Club in Dallas, said the members at his club had been playing less often since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"People are spending more time at home instead of playing golf," said Mr. Smith, who said the number of rounds at Royal Oaks had slipped by 12 percent since 2001.

When average golfers do play, Dr. Rotella wonders if they are thinking too much.

"First of all, golfers will change their swing based on some suggestion they overhear on the train to work," he said. "They wouldn't do something so cavalier in any other part of their life. Then, they stand over the ball with seven swing thoughts. "The tour pro is thinking of one thing: the target."

But what of the PGA pro? Why isn't his score declining?

Unquestionably, most courses on the professional tours are longer, and greens are mowed to be faster.

"We're also still walking around with the same mental demons," said Mr. Feherty, a top European Tour player before he became a broadcaster. "A 4-foot putt to win will never get any less petrifying."

Ms. Marriott said she hoped scores would eventually improve, but after 25 years as a teacher, she was not convinced that it mattered.

"People enjoy themselves whether they shoot 65 or 115," she said. "They're outside in a beautiful setting. They're happy."

Gary Mastracche, 54, from Kinnelon, N.J., was surprised to hear that the average score of the average golfer had remained unchanged for decades.

Lugging his clubs to the driving range, he stopped and said: "It leads me to the conclusion that the score is not why we play. I play all the time with my lifelong friend Pete. We hit good and bad shots. We make fun of each other. We have a great time out there.

"And it keeps us out of the bars."

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