Tiger Would-Be's: Golf's popularity grows, especially among the younger set.

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When Patie Reilly of Grey Advertising was planning her media buys for client Chivas Regal, she bought the back cover of the premier issue of Maximum Golf. The magazine, launched in June, targets a cooler, younger audience than the serious golfers who favor publications such as Golf Digest. With Maximum Golf, Reilly believed she could reach the affluent, young males Chivas wants to convert into Scotch sippers.

As Reilly knows, golfers - and especially avid golfers - are an enticing marketing demographic. According to the National Golf Foundation, the average household income of golfers last year was $68,209, compared with $51,855 for the average U.S. household in 1998, the most recent year Census data is available. Devoted golfers, those who play 25 or more rounds per year, rake in even more of the green, an average of $70,254 per household, despite all that time they spend on the greens. Golfers are now even more appealing to marketers because of the game's growing popularity with younger players and its special appeal to affluent males, which makes it a unique marketing opportunity.

There are other sports favored by the well-heeled, but golf reigns supreme. While there are 3 million sailing aficionados in the U.S. who earn over $75,000 a year, and 8.3 million skiers in the same tax bracket, there are over 17.3 million golfers in this category, according to the 1999 Mendelsohn Affluent Study. Golfers even outnumber tennis players and runners in this income segment, of which there are 7.9 million and 13.1 million, respectively.

So where are all these duffers with dough? Using data from Simmons Market Research Bureau and Mediamark Research Inc., we created a profile of variables that indicated a person was likely to be an ardent golfer - someone who plays every chance they get, as Simmons defines it. The variables include such factors as owning a vacation home, household incomes over $50,000, holding graduate degrees, married couples, men age 25 to 34, and men over age 65 - 11 in all - which indicate a significantly increased probability of avid golf participation. For example, men age 65 and over are 76 percent more likely than the general population to play golf whenever they can. Using software from Easy Analytics Inc., we were able to divide the 3,141 U.S. counties into quartiles displaying the greatest and least probability of finding high concentrations of dedicated golfers within each county.

Avid golf participation tends to be greatest in certain areas of the East North Central, West North Central, mid-Atlantic, New England, Pacific and Mountain states, as well as Florida; participation is lowest in the South. "Generally, golf participation increases as latitude increases," says Jim Kass, research director of the National Golf Foundation. Part of this is historical and cultural, as golf has always been more popular in these areas, according to Tom Doyle, research director of the National Sporting Goods Association. "People in those areas get cabin fever in the winter and want to get out during the warm months," he says. "They have an outdoorsy bent, while it's too hot in the South." Although we couldn't include an "outdoorsy" variable in our map, our 11 factors did reflect this longtime trend.

Examining some individual counties, we can see how our factors unearthed the geography of the golfing population. You'd be hard pressed to find many eager golfers in Shannon, South Dakota, according to our map, and a call to the county auditor's office reveals there are no courses in the county. Only 176 households here earn over $50,000 a year (while 1,109 make less than $15,000), there is a small Caucasian population, and a limited number of professional and executive/management workers. Much of this can be explained by the fact that it's a Native American reservation.

Conversely, a county like Litchfield, Connecticut is likely to be home to a high concentration of avid golfers. Nearly 18,000 Litchfield residents own a vacation home, placing it in the top 50 counties in the country. In the town of Litchfield, within the larger county, there are only 9,000 residents, but two golf courses (one public, one private), with a third course opening 15 miles away. Rich Bredice, the pro at the public course for the past 20 years, says, "Golf is very popular here, so I'm pretty busy on the weekends - and without question the number of players, especially younger ones, has increased over the past 10 years." For marketers wanting to reach the golfing demographic, Litchfield is a hole-in-one.

But money is not the only reason to find the golfing demographic special. While golf in general has grown in popularity - 26.4 million played the sport in 1999, up 8.7 percent from 1994 - more younger players are hitting the links and adding a hip, youthful spin to a traditional game. The number of junior golfers, those 12- to 17-years-old, has grown 19.5 percent since 1994, to over 2 million. While there has been a slight dip in this number since 1997 (the year of Tiger Woods' Masters victory), this remains an impressive growth rate. Junior golfers who have stayed with the game are increasingly enthusiastic, playing 33.8 million rounds last year, up from 20.9 million rounds in 1994, the highest growth rate of any segment tracked by the NGF. Additionally, for the first period in history, there are more golfers under the age of 40 than over, with 47.7 percent falling into the highly desirable 18 to 39 age group.

One company attempting to leverage the growing popularity of golf is Cutter & Buck, a well-known golfing apparel company. With its knickers and tops long sold in pro shops, the company is launching an expansion to create a larger sportswear brand, using its golfing heritage as the foundation. "Golf will give our fashion brand an emotional context, and more and more people are attracted to the sport and lifestyle," notes Harvey Jones, Cutter & Buck's CEO.

For marketers looking to reach men, golfers are an outstanding target, as men comprise 80.6 percent of all golfers and 84.1 percent of avid golfers. "Advertisers are attracted to us because we have the affluent, male audience, which is increasingly difficult to get a message to," says David Manougian, chief marketing officer of the Golf Channel. Only a few sports, such as wrestling or football have higher percentages of male participants, according to the National Sporting Goods Association.

Generations X and Y have created their own updated version of the sport: extreme golf, which is played on summertime ski slopes. Introduced last year, a second tournament season is currently being played, with the September championship, the UX Open, to be broadcast on ESPN2. Just finishing may be par for the course.

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