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February 06, 2009

Runners Can Save the Day - A Stimulus Plan for Our Own Backyards

Written by Dena Evans
The New York Times recently published an article detailing the plight of women involved with bankers adversely affected by the financial sector collapse.  Some are mistresses who complain of fewer trips away now that “the wife was checking the accounts.”  Others now feverishly monitor the Dow Jones Industrial Average to gauge the mood their man might be in after work.  One even pointed to her husband’s sudden and complete absence of the desire to play golf as a crucial indicator that he was coming unmoored.


These days, a lot of people are giving up golf. Almost a year ago, The Gray Lady also ran a story lamenting what appears to be a decade-long “recession” for the Royal and Ancient sport, featuring statistics from the National Golf Foundation and the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association claiming the total number of people who play has declined or remained flat each year since 2000.

Particularly in the immediate aftermath of Bernie Madoff’s wide swath of golf course negotiated financial destruction, deals and dealmakers are in short supply.  More middle and upper class men than ever before are taking an active family role, leaving less time for a half day spent on the links.   Golf has also suffered at the hand of the shrinking American attention span.   How many of us do anything on a regular basis for four or five hours straight besides sleep?

President Obama may not be considering the potential of runners to help pull the nation out of recession, but because golf’s status as a precious conduit and currency for the masters of the universe is clearly on the wane, our nation’s tough times have provided a unique opportunity for runners to make a difference.

Often with loose security, the inviting fairways of a local golf course have therefore often been the scene for mild civil disobedience.  Stanford Golf Course, for instance, has increasingly crafted such restrictive opportunities for running that a survey of the crowd watching the recent NCAA West Regional Cross Country Championships featured plenty of local yokels just out for a run on the course, figuring the morning of the race would provide exactly the cover they needed for a great run on the grass, no matter the races going on at the same time.

Beyond the day of the Stanford Invitational and the occasional opportunity to host the Regional, the golf course lies dormant far too much of the time for the taste of many community members and students, whose transgressions run the gamut from weekly night runs with headlamps (friends who will remain nameless), my father’s 60’s era moonlit hole in one on #8 “I knew I hit it well, and after searching all around the green, I finally looked in the hole and there it was,” and some ice blocking shenanigans by yours truly and a small band of willing accomplices down the slope from the 15th tee box circa 1994.   Insert your own mildly illegal golf course incident here ___________.

Stanford Golf Course is certainly not the only golf facility where others besides paying golfers can nibble at the edges to take advantage of the unique recreational opportunities.   Plenty of runners frequent local courses where greens keepers will wave or look the other way when a well-known, and firmly established as harmless runner shuffles by.  Runners eventually learn the friendly courses and times of day where a superintendent in a speeding cart is not on your tail if you even consider crossing the road toward the course.

On vacation in areas where hotels or condominium complexes have spawned golf courses of their own, I often recommend dawn running anywhere but the first hole.  People on vacation (vibrant retirement community situations or places frequented by serious weekend warriors excepted) are not inclined to get up at six in the morning – they’re on VACATION- and as long as you stay ahead of the first group, oftentimes seventeen holes of enjoyable running may await.

As the ranks of golfers contract further, public courses are lumped in with zoos, town pools, and other recreational facilities whose government provided revenue has drastically dropped, but whose services are not seen as vital enough to be prioritized for stimulus funds.  The time is now for these facilities to turn toward the constituency they have often spent resources shooing from their hallowed grounds – the trespassing runner.

How many of us, particularly in urban areas where soft ground is in short supply, wouldn’t pay a few bucks, say $2-$4, to run on the local golf course before work or at twilight?  If state parks can leave boxes for self-policing donations, why not golf courses for those wishing to run during designated “running hours?”  Or, sell running memberships for a nominal fee, so runners can carry a card with them identifying them as official affiliates of the facility.   Leave the first hour and/ or last hour of daylight for the runners on weekday mornings other than Fridays, keep a “one strike or you’re out” policy for anyone setting foot on greens, tee boxes, bunkers or grass areas under construction, perhaps have a attendant from a local running club on site in case of any problems, and let the income trickle in.

Difficult times call for creative measures.  The golf industry labels as “core players” those who only play eight or more times per year.  In 2006, the United States continued to boast 15 million of these individuals, no small figure.  However, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association, 16 million runners laced them up over 100 days in 2007.  Now that is a habit.  Running USA also reports that the average American runner is 45 years old (males) /39 years old (females), and that 79-80% of them have a college degree with nearly half earning over $100,000 annually.  Essentially, the target membership pool for golf courses is currently out for an easy six miles, and the huge building spree golf courses enjoyed in anticipation of massive baby boomer retirements has left a great need for a different way to convince those baby boomers to actually set foot on their courses.

Necessity is the mother of invention. But in 2009, never have the mothers been so busy dealing with the necessities.  No one wants to see the beautiful open spaces golf courses provide consumed by further suburban sprawl or left neglected.  It’s time to put aside pride and let us inside the fence as respectful sportsmen and sportswomen in our own right.  One’s good walk spoiled another’s greatly improved.  Maybe next time we’ll even come back with our clubs.

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