On a Wednesday afternoon, a reluctant wind breaks a week of intense heat.
Jay Lispi props his elbow on the pro-shop counter at Tomahawk Hills Golf Course, a Johnson County public course that, on this particular day, offers nine-hole rounds for half price. Glancing quickly at the daily register, he concludes that business is usual — and by that, he means that it’s slow.
Lispi, 60, has been the Head PGA Professional at Tomahawk Hills for 25 years. In the past 10, he’s seen the number of annual rounds fall by nearly 50 percent. Tomahawk’s sister course, Heritage Park, has fared better, but not by much.
“It’s not like the good old days,” Lispi says, his mind wandering to the late ’90s, when a generation of golfers invested their time and money in a lifetime sport of fraternity and frustration. “We’ve got a problem.”
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One that even fair weather and reduced rates have yet to fix. But Lispi is not alone.
National participation over roughly the same period fell from 30.6 million golfers in 2003 to 24.7 million in 2014, according to the National Golf Foundation. The demographic trends also are troubling, with the number of golfers ages 18 to 34 showing a 30 percent decline over the last 20 years.
Programs have begun to stem the sport’s slide by introducing thousands of students to golf, with some added pizzazz to make it alluring. And a new golf entertainment venue opened this year in Overland Park, turning the game inside out to attract even non-golfers.
Still, evidence of golf’s struggle can be stark.
Last year, the Golf Club of Kansas, an 18-hole private course bordering the Lenexa City Center, was sold out of bankruptcy and rebranded as Canyon Farms.
In Leawood, Ironhorse Golf Club has relied on supplemental city funding since 2007.
Two courses in Johnson County face redevelopment.
The proposed mixed-use redevelopment of Brookridge Golf & Fitness, which is still open in Overland Park, would include office, retail and living space, plus high-end hotels, a 3,500-seat indoor performance venue and a 650-seat movie theater. Forty acres of green space would be preserved as a park.
Residents of the area are not sold on being sentenced to 20 years of construction, however. A group of opponents asked the board to reject the rezoning. One even sang Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” at the podium at an Overland Park planning commission meeting.
Reactions to the preliminary plans for Meadowbrook Golf and Country Club, a private course in Prairie Village, are more positive.
Efforts to redevelop the 137-acre site between 91st and 95th streets have been underway for a decade.
The once-manicured fairways have faded to rough. A water hazard has turned murky. Its runoff flows beneath a felled tree. Waist-high weeds sprout in the sand traps.
But there is a distinguishable green.
Some golf pros are optimistic.
Curt Nelson, PGA master professional and general manager of the Overland Park Golf Division, which involves two public courses, said golf isn’t dying.
“I’ve seen a huge uptick in amateur golf,” Nelson said. “And our junior program is the strongest I’ve seen in 25 years.”
In August, the city hosted its 45th annual three-day junior golf tournament, where nearly 400 kids signed up.
Although Nelson doesn’t think he’ll see golf return to its prime, he sees a future for the sport.
“There were 75 million baby boomers, and there are 80 million millennials,” Nelson said. “The difference between the two is that the former didn’t have the debt load and had better jobs.
“Once millennials get their families, finances and careers in order, then we’ll start to see a resurgence.”
For Ryan Fitzpatrick, PGA professional at the Country Club of Leawood, business is anything but bad.
The private club, which was purchased by a company that introduced renovations and a more affordable membership plan, has a waiting list.
“The golf world has been quick to jump on the wagon of how horrible things are,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s a lot easier to say that everyone is struggling than to be the ones who aren’t.”
And just as there is debate about how far into the rough golf really is, there is no clear answer as to what’s causing the decline.
Among the most popular explanations are that golf is expensive, exclusive and time-consuming.
Others point to increased competition among an increasing number of courses.
“In our glory years, we would have 90,000 rounds between our two courses,” said Bill Maasen, superindendent of parks and golf courses in Johnson County. “Now there are four other courses within two miles of Tomahawk (Hills Golf Course.) It used to be one of the only shows in town.”
Some also note that golfing follows trends in the economy.
Brad Demo, executive director of the Midwest Section PGA, which serves parts of Kansas and Missouri, said negative media stories and Mother Nature have abused the game. There were 27 rain days in May. The game’s not dead yet.
And then, of course, there are the millennials, who are continually cited for being fickle, overwhelmed by a sea of entertainment choices and in need of immediate satisfaction. More definitive is the fact that the post-college crowd doesn’t have a whole lot of disposable income.
In addition, young America is growing increasingly diverse. In the 18- to 34-year-old group, the non-Caucasian population has grown by more than 60 percent, while the Caucasian population has shrunk by 18 percent.
And this matters because there is a distinct demographic attached to golf.
Millennial participation among non-Caucasians is about 7 percent, compared with 12 percent for Caucasians, according to the National Golf Foundation.
“I’ll admit, the golf pros fell asleep some years when golf was booming,” Demo said. “We forgot about our junior golfers.”
But that’s all changed in the last three years. That’s when the Midwest PGA developed an initiative called SNAG — Starting New At Golf — to grow the game.
With PGA professionals training PE teachers and the Midwest PGA Section Foundation providing the equipment, the mission is to introduce the game of golf to every elementary and middle school child living with the boundaries of the Midwest area. Almost 170,000 kids have been reached since 2012, including many in Johnson County. And, as SNAG is set to move into the Shawnee Mission school district this fall, another 20,000 will have an opportunity to play.
“We’re fighting,” said Jeff Burey, director of golf in schools for the Midwest Section PGA and a self-proclaimed golf missionary.
“I’m a product of the golf industry,” Burey said. “The game has been so good to me, and I want to share it.”
Mike Marks, a physical education teacher who uses SNAG equipment at Prairie Trail Middle School in Olathe, said the program is popular among his students.
“They eat it up,” Marks said. “The equipment is plastic, oversized and colorful. They know to put their right hand on the red dots and their left on the yellow.”
One club, fit with a kazoo, makes noise when you hold your wrist right. Another, called the snapper stick, cracks like a whip.
Marks has also been the boys golf coach at Olathe North High School for 16 years. He said team enrollment has remained pretty stable, but he hopes that when the students growing up with SNAG hit high school, he’ll see a spike.
Kevin Bandy, boys golf coach at Blue Valley West High School, typically keeps 13 to 14 kids on the team. Last year, he had few kids try out.
Bandy has also witnessed a shrinking talent pool, especially among incoming freshmen.
“We have two types of players,” Bandy said. “Kids who are golfers, they eat it, they live it. And newcomers. Lately, we’ve had more newcomers and less golfers.”
Although Blue Valley West is among the top golf teams in the state, it’s not a school where a lot of students have played on country club courses.
That would be Shawnee Mission East, where in the past 20 years, boys and girls golf coach Ermanno Ritschl has coached four state champions in the past five years. He estimates that 90 percent of the boys and 70 percent of the girls are country club players.
“The demographics of the area definitely work in our favor,” Ritschl said. “We’re very fortunate.”
Because of that, Ritschl has no shortage of players trying out. An average of 24 boys try out every year and about 16 for the girls team.
But that doesn’t apply to all Johnson County schools. In recent years, coaches at Shawnee Mission North have struggled to field more than six players.
“A lot of young people don’t see it as a good investment,” Ritschl said. But the older generation, including himself — he’ll be 70 in September — already are hooked, he said.
He was calling from upstate New York, where 25 guys have a reunion each year for the past 15 and play golf for the past 15 years at Fredonia State University.
“That’s what golf will do,” he says.
Back at Tomahawk Hills Golf Course, Matt Reese and Aaron Miller, both 36, return to the clubhouse after an 18-hole round. They’ve been friends since they were 7 years old. They met on the first day of baseball practice. But today is the first time they’ve gotten together on the course in several months.
Reese has a 1-year-old at home whom he consistently refers to as “the kid.” The kid has changed things.
“We used to take the day off work all the time and come play,” Reese said.
“I just don’t try,” Reese said, shrugging. “I have other priorities.”
But as long as he’s out, he’s getting his money’s worth.
“Playing nine holes is like kissing your sister,” Reese said.
Narrow definitions aside, there is a new golf game in town. But Topgolf, a three-decker driving range at 10611 Nall Ave., is more game than golf.
From climate-controlled bays, players hit microchipped golf balls at targets on an outfield. It’s like playing darts with a ball and club. And it’s like golf, minus the walking.
Servers bring food and drinks from the bustling bar on the main floor. And instead of quiet surroundings, Smash Mouth and similar music plays. Loudly.
The 65,000-square-foot Overland Park site, which opened in June, is one of the company’s 18 locations worldwide. And in its first couple of months, it’s been the second busiest.
David Kim, director of operations for the Overland Park location, said half of Topgolf guests describe themselves as non-golfers.
Even the company website is made to appeal to the inexperienced.
“Golf skills are definitely not required to have fun at Topgolf,” the site reads. “Our extensive food & drink menu, 200+ HDTVs and addictively fun games provide something for everyone!”
Kim said Topgolf is not in competition with the traditional sport. Instead, it’s meant to introduce golf to a larger audience.
“Golf can be intimidating and expensive,” Kim said. “If people can come in and experience the sport for $20 an hour — no equipment, no rulebook — they may just grow a passion for it and find themselves on the course.”
With extended hours — open until 12 a.m. during the week and 2 a.m. on the weekends — Topgolf makes itself accessible.
The cost: $20/hour per bay during the day or $40/hour at night — a price that can be split among up to six people.
And, when the golfers next to you are playing barefoot or, alternatively, in 4-inch heels, you get the feeling that no one is really keeping score.
“If golf is going to be rescued, courses will have to be open to elements of change,” Kim said.
He pauses, laughs and says: “I mean, I hope you never see Frisbee golf at Pebble Beach.”
But, he says, when a new generation of golfers could be driven to the game by technology, or, perhaps, Tiger Woods 2.0, temporary solutions might do the trick.
“We hope that in the next five to 10 years there will be a pro golfer that says, ‘I hit my first ball at Topgolf,’ ” Kim said. “Maybe it’s Topgolf that could save the sport.”