GOLF HAS LONG been the leisure activity of choice in the corporate world. Now, research suggests that may be changing.

According to the National Golf Foundation, more than half of the golf facilities in the United States reported a decline in rounds played in 2003. The same organization reports that three million adult golfers quit the game every year.

The Wall Street Journal recently ran a series of articles on golf, headlined by one asking how the game can win back “the frustrated golfer.”

And golf ranked fourth in popularity, below spas, sightseeing, and snorkeling, in a recent survey of incentive qualifiers conducted by Insurance Conference Planner magazine.

What's going on? Over the last several years, particularly since September 11, many resorts have seen very significant decreases in corporate golf bookings, according to M.G. Orender, president of the PGA of America and the founding partner of Hampton Golf Inc., which operates four golf courses along the North Florida and South Georgia coasts. “Corporations were cutting the expense out of their budgets,” he says.

That said, it now it appears that “golf business is coming back,” notes Orender. “We have noticed an uptick beginning in the last quarter [of 2003]. I had a very good first quarter this year.” But the PGA president maintains that it is important for the health of the game to take a step back and assess what went wrong since the great golf boom of the 1990s.

In its article on “the frustrated golfer,” The Wall Street Journal determined that golfers are leaving the game because it's “too difficult, too time-consuming, and too expensive.” The PGA of America has come to the same conclusion, says Orender, adding that time is the factor most often mentioned as the reason players give up the game. “With the demands between job and family, playing 18 holes is difficult,” he says. “People just don't have as much time today.” In an effort to deal with that issue, as well as other problems deterring players from staying with the game, the PGA of America recently started the Play Golf America initiative, in which more than 3,400 participating golf facilities offer a variety of “grow-the-game” programs.

Helping to grow the game at the grass-roots level can only help to solidify its position in the corporate world, Orender believes. After all, he says, if golfers stop playing in their leisure time, its unlikely they will play in a corporate setting and risk embarrassing themselves by golfing poorly in front of colleagues and clients.

The good news, he continues, is that interest in the game remains high. Golf, more than ever, has “become part of our popular culture,” he notes. And Larry Rout, who edited The Wall Street Journal golf series, says “it was definitely among the reports that generated the most responses.

“It confirmed our feeling,” Rout concludes, “that golf is something our readers feel passionately about, whether they play the game or not.”