`GOLF' AND `GOLF DIGEST' VIE TO LEAD HOT

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The leading golf magazines are taking new swings at each other as competition heats up in the booming category.

Times Mirror Magazines' Golf Magazine passed its archrival in ad pages in the first four months of this year and is boasting about being the "new leader" in the field.

That's a claim circulation leader Golf Digest, published by The New York Times Co. Magazine Group, is disputing as it prepares to unveil a major redesign.

UPSTARTS ABOUND

A number of newcomers and up-and-comers also are vying for the attention of readers and advertisers, drawn by the growth of the $15 billion-plus golf industry. The titles include Golf & Travel, Golf Digest Woman, Golf for Women and Travel & Leisure Golf.

Others, though, are dropping out. Petersen Publishing Co. sold Golfing to Times Mirror earlier this year; Times Mirror folded the magazine into Golf Magazine.

Golf Digest's redesign, via designers Walter Bernard, Nancy Eising and Milton Glaser, is being introduced with an unusual double cover on the June issue that shows the old and new logos and looks.

"We've been a leader in the business for so many years, and we've continued to reinvest in the product to keep pace with growing markets," said Golf Digest Publisher Tom Brown. "We're hoping to provide an even better product for core readers and attract newer readers with a magazine that has a fresher, bolder look."

6 MIL AVID GOLFERS

According to the National Golf Foundation's 1997 statistics, the U.S. has 6 million avid golfers, defined as those who play more than 25 rounds of golf a year. The National Golf Foundation also found that last year golf as a sport grew for the first time since 1991.

"There has been a lot of interest in golf because the media were playing the game up so much, about how it was becoming the sport of the '90s and the celebrities that were jumping into the game," said Golf Magazine Publisher Jim Kahn. "But from '91 to '96, the sport really didn't grow that much at all. 1997 was the first time golf had 11% growth in participation."

Because golf is hot, he added, "a lot of non-endemic accounts have shown interest," a reference to mainstream marketers of non-golf-related products and services. "We've really been targeting those for the last four or five years. While we can't walk away from our roots, the equipment, the real growth has come from non-endemic."

Golf Magazine saw ad pages hit 539 for the first four months of this year, a healthy 27% increase from the same period last year, according to Publishers Information Bureau. By comparison, Golf Digest's pages fell 9.1% to 431. That's a reversal from full-year 1997, when Golf Digest's 1,400 ad pages handily beat Golf Magazine's 1,172.

STRONG GROWTH

Mr. Kahn said Golf Magazine has seen strong growth from automotive, business-to-business, liquor and pharmaceutical marketers.

Mr. Brown said those categories also were strong for Golf Digest, but that pages were down because some advertisers moved their schedules to later in the year.

Mr. Kahn said that "if current trends continue, we will certainly be the ad page leader for the year. . . . But Golf Digest just redesigned, and we don't know what effect that will have on the advertising community. We're cautiously optimistic about maintaining the lead."

Golf Digest is still the circulation leader at 1.53 million, according to Audit Bureau of Circulations figures for the last half of '97. Golf Magazine is second at 1.3 million.

The rest of the category players tend to have circulations of less than 400,000. One exception is Sports Illustrated's SI Golf Plus, a selectively bound section that reaches more than 550,000 SI subscribers 42 times a year.

SI Golf Plus, much like its parent title, concentrates on news from the pro golf tours.

"We've basically mirrored the successful formula of regular SI, to give the story behind the story of the event over the weekend," said Publishing Director Don Mahoney.

SOME LEFT OUT

Smaller circulation golf titles tend to be left out of the media plans of larger advertisers looking for efficiencies, said Scott Steiner, VP-assistant media director, McCann-Erickson Worldwide, New York.

"We look at the smaller books, but they tend to skew a little older than the bigger consumer titles, or the reach is not comparable," he said. "We have generally very well-known, national advertisers looking for reach. It all gets back to tying into what added value the bigger books can offer. The smaller books don't have the capabilities beyond what is available between their covers. But the larger magazines offer other opportunities that go way beyond the pages of the magazines."

He cited examples such as marketing through golf schools, hosting tournaments for clients and publishing promotional booklets.

DON'T DISMISS SMALL RIVALS

But the big books shouldn't dismiss their smaller rivals, said one media buyer.

"As the field gets more crowded, it will be interesting to see what happens to the leading contenders at the top of the heap," said Ira Tampowski, exec VP-director of media services at FerrellCalvillo Marketing, New York. "As major players come into the field, we'll have to see if the sport can sustain a number of different titles and where the growth will be."

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