Keeping the links alive

As the sporting world descends on Augusta, Ga., this week to watch the famed Masters tournament, there is cause for worry among golf lovers: Fewer people are taking part in the "gentleman's game."

The total number of Americans who play golf has declined or stayed flat each year since 2000, dropping from 30 million to about 26 million, according to the National Golf Foundation and the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.

In York County, tourism types are taking bolder steps to promote local courses and keep the national trend at bay. They say aggressive marketing and some attractive new venues are luring more golfers here.

The most valuable asset, not surprisingly, is good weather.

"We have a lot of people walk into the pro shop and say, 'I just moved to the area, and I'm looking for a place to play,'" said Mac Dunlap, director of golf operations at Tega Cay Golf Club. "They move from a place like Michigan where they can only play in the summertime. Down here, they can play almost every day."

The cart paths are staying busy at Carolina Lakes Golf Club in Indian Land, just east of York County. Last year, the public course hosted 24,000 rounds. It's already 1,000 rounds more than it budgeted so far this year, and that's before good weather arrives.

"For us, it hasn't even felt like an off-season," said Doug Howard, the first assistant to the golf pro.

A different story is playing out nationally. The number of people who play 25 times a year or more fell to 4.6 million in 2005 from 6.9 million in 2000, a loss of about a third, The New York Times reported.

"The man in the street will tell you that golf is booming because he sees Tiger Woods on TV," Jim Kass, research director of the National Golf Foundation, told The Times. "The reality is, while we haven't exactly tanked, the numbers have been disappointing for some time."

Less time, less patience

The reasons behind the slump are many: Higher gas prices, a sluggish economy and more courses being snatched up by developers. Then, there's a larger cultural point: Americans want faster and cheaper forms of entertainment, and golf just doesn't fit in.

The trend goes beyond golf. Participation is dropping in many outdoor activities, including tennis, swimming, hiking, biking and downhill skiing, The Times reported. But it's particularly acute in golf, arguably the most time-consuming and expensive choice.

With supply-and-demand out of whack, many courses are being sold and bulldozed. Over the past four years, South Carolina has lost 20 to 25 courses, mostly along the coast, said Happ Lathrop, director of the S.C. Golf Association.

Developers are gobbling up the land for condos and shopping centers.

"I've been at this thing for 32 years, and I've seen a whole lot gone in golf," said Lathrop.

Stepping up in York County

York County lost a course about a year ago when Crystal Lakes Golf Club in Newport closed to make way for a 300-home neighborhood.

But others have opened or made improvements, and the area now has about 10 venues. The Hale Irwin-designed Waterford Golf Club opened in 1997 along the Catawba River in eastern Rock Hill. The Tega Cay Golf Club added a conference center that can be booked for special functions. The Fort Mill Golf Club should reopen this fall after a major renovation.

Newcomers are part of the equation. The other part is tourists, and that's where courses are getting help from the county's Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Tourism officials routinely attend golf trade shows around the nation, where they try to book corporate groups, weekend pleasure-seekers and even bachelor parties.

A new focus is on luring Canadian travelers driving south to tee off in Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head. The goal is to entice them off Interstate 77, at least long enough to play a round and eat a meal.

The bureau doesn't have any numbers. Based on anecdotal evidence, the efforts are off to a promising start, said Robert Thomas, director of sports marketing.

"They're looking for a new destination to go to," said Thomas. "That's how we're kind of positioning ourselves. They have to pass our area to get to those locations. We're catching them on their way down and on their way back."

Hoping to build loyalty, more golf courses are ratcheting up customer service.

When players pull up in the parking lot at Carolina Lakes, cart guys are waiting to help unload clubs from the cars. The pro shop attendant greets them, as does the starter at the first tee and "rangers" driving around the course.

Resident pro Sean Branagan describes the key to survival this way: "We try to provide that country club experience, not at the country club prices."

The Rock Hill-York County area has an abundance of daily fee and private golf course facilities. Golfers can find reasonable rates and challenging courses all around the area.

Carolina Crossing: Off S.C. 161 on Shiloh Road between Rock Hill and York

• Type: 18-hole, par-72, semi-private

• Phone: 684-5878

• Tee times: Not required. Only soft spikes allowed.

Chester Golf Club: Off Orrs Road in Chester, three miles east off S.C. 9 toward Lancaster, directly behind Springs Catherine Plant

• Type: 18-hole, par-72, semi-private

• Phone: 581-5733

• Tee times: Required in advance. Only soft spikes are allowed.

Fort Mill Golf Club: The club is at the end of Academy Street across from Fort Mill Middle School

• Type: 18-hole, par-72, semi-private

• Phone: 547-2044

• Tee times: Required at all times

Pinetuck: South of Rock Hill off S.C. 901 on Tuxaway Drive

• Type: 18-hole, par-71, semi-private

• Phone: 327-1141

• Tee times: Required on weekends and holidays

Regent Park: 6000 Regent Parkway, off U.S. 21 near the former Heritage USA outside of Fort Mill

• Type: 18-hole, par-72, daily fee course

• Phone: 547-1300

• Tee times: Required three days in advance. A credit card is required to reserve a time.

River Hills: In the River Hills community on Lake Wylie

• Type: 18-hole, par-72, private

• Phone: 831-2249

• Tee times: Recommended two days in advance

Rock Hill Country Club: Off S.C. 72 in southeast Rock Hill

• Type: 18-hole, par-72, private

• Phone: 327-7790

• Tee times: Required at all times

Republic: Great Falls

• Type: Nine-hole, par-36, public

• Phone: 482-3300

• Tee times: None

Springfield Golf Club: Off U.S. Business 21 in Fort Mill on Steele Road

• Type: 18-hole, par-72, semi-private

• Phone: 548-3318

• Tee times: Required for groups at all times

Spring Lake: Off S.C. 5 on Spring Lake Road in York

• Type: 18-hole, par-72, semi-private

• Phone: 684-4541

• Tee times: Required Thursday through Sunday and holidays. The public can call for weekend tee times after 2 p.m. Tuesday.

Lancaster Golf Club: 1821 Springs Club Road off Airport Road, Lancaster

• Type: 18-hole, par-72, semi-private

• Phone: 285-5239

• Tee times: Required seven days a week. Nonmembers are allowed to call for weekend times on Wednesday. All other times of the week are available Monday morning.

Tega Cay Golf Club: Off S.C. 160 west of Fort Mill

• Type: 27-hole, semi-private

• Phone: 548-2918

• Tee times: Required on weekends and holidays; not required but recommended on weekdays

Waterford Golf Club: Located inside Waterford Business Park, which is located at the intersection of Dave Lyle Boulevard Extension and Waterford Parkway. The course is on Clubhouse Drive off Overview Drive.

• Type: 18-hole, par-72, semi-private

• Phone: 324-0300

• Tee times: Required one week in advance. Nonmetal spikes and proper golf attire required.

Where to play