State of golf in 2009 is 2008's story of year

IAN HUTCHINSON, TORONTO SUN

, Last Updated: 5:53 PM ET

It's customary at this time of the calendar for media to consider the story of the year, which, for purposes of this space, means we contemplate golf, a game that saw Tiger Woods, Michelle Wie, Annika Sorenstam, Padraig Harrington, Paul Azinger and others earn their fair share of headlines.

All could be legitimate contenders, but in my mind the story of the year for 2008 is the state of golf in 2009.

How, you are wondering, can next year have anything to do with this year? It does because of the economy.

The fact is, many of the economic factors that will affect golf next year began to sprout up this year, and there is no sense of what's ahead.

The other day, I heard a news report that the Bank of Canada stated that if the economy gets much worse, people could start losing their homes. Really? Who would have thought it?

So, first, let's lead with some good scenarios for '09, when Tiger returns from his injury, which should help ratings, and Wie, assuming she's back in form and committed to do so, plays her first full season on the LPGA Tour.

There are concerns though, that even these two stars can't solve all of the problems facing golf.

The LPGA Tour recently released a tentative 2009 schedule that has three fewer tournaments than this season and about $5 million US less in prize money. And even the selling power of Tiger couldn't stop General Motors from ending his longtime endorsement deal, perhaps a preview that even the mighty PGA Tour isn't immune to sponsors pulling out.

While it may be tough to get past Tiger and the tours, recreation is a huge aspect of golf in the U.S., which has one of the highest per capita participation rates in the world.

The U.S. has been dealing with this economic turmoil for quite some time, but the worsening economic news of '08 is now hitting Canada, where some thought we would escape what is now a worldwide recession.

Much of the bad news has come in recent weeks, with uncertainty about financial bailouts for automakers, jobless numbers and the epiphany that folks could lose their homes. The question on the minds of many in the golf industry is how will it affect their customers' mood?

While it's widely accepted that golfers keep playing even in tough times, is that enough to assume things won't change in 2009? The smart operators already are considering promotions and strategies to keep golfers and tournaments coming out, but corporate golf could be another casualty.

The tough times could mean a change in thinking, with more emphasis on affordable executive courses instead of high-end prestige courses, which may be forced to lower their green fees.

Who knows, good times may happen in the spring after President-elect Barack Obama settles into the White House and all of this nonsense going on in Parliament is resolved. But don't hold your breath; even the most optimistic predictions say the economy won't improve until late '09 at the earliest.

It's more likely golf -- whether it's at the tour level or the course level -- will have new challenges to face in '09. Those concerns and the uncertainty ahead are very real right now. That's what makes 2009 the story of the year in 2008.

THE SHORT GAME

Stephanie Sherlock of Barrie and Nick Taylor of Abbotsford, B.C., are the top female and male amateur golfers in the year-end National Order of Merit standings, released by the Royal Canadian Golf Association. Sherlock, who also plays for the University of Denver, won the Sunbelt Conference Championship and a CN Canadian Women's Tour event. She also finished second at the Royale Cup Canadian women's amateur championship, tied for fifth at the NCAA Division 1 finals and was named a Division I all-American for the second consecutive season. Sherlock, 21, also was a member of the Canadian team that finished fourth at the world amateur team championships in Australia. Taylor qualified for the U.S. Open and the RBC Canadian Open, as well as finishing runner-up in individual play at the NCAA Division 1 finals and world amateur team championships.


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