Even if it has not been headline news, the slow, steady decline of the golf industry in America has been evident — especially at the local level. Golf’s gradual stagnation and the decline in club memberships — along with revenues — had been a problem even before the country’s current economic recession.

Clubs across the nation have been hit by the trend and Rockland’s public course is no exception. Part of the reason for the decline, according to some, is the nature of golf, but another is the high cost to play the game.

The Rockland Golf Club has taken active measures to appeal to consumers and gain new membership by reducing that cost.

Beginning Feb. 1,  the Rockland Golf Club instituted a membership recruitment program to cut the cost of joining the club. The program will end July 1.

Simply put, if a returning member recruits a new member to the club, both parties receive a discount to their annual membership fees. This incentive will allow individual new members to join for $750, whereas last year’s fee was nearly $1,000. The returning club member also will pay $750 for his/her membership for 2010.

“People don’t have the money right now,” said RGC PGA Pro Keenan Flanagan. “So what we try to do is give our [existing] members a chance to recruit somebody so they can reduce their membership [fees].”

Flanagan said declining membership at the club is a serious problem and the reason for the new incentive. However, he said the issue of declining memberships and lost revenue is bigger than the RGC.

“It’s not just our golf course,” he said. “It’s every golf course.”

“The trend in the golf industry in the last six to eight years is declining membership nationwide,” said Flanagan. He added that even though private clubs have been hurt more, Rockland’s public club has experienced the damage.

According to Flanagan, the Rockland Golf Club had 571 annual members in 2001. Now it is down to about 250.

Also, according to Flanagan and his research, there are other reasons golf is declining: namely it takes too long to play an 18-hole round, it costs too much to play and it is too difficult play. “In that order,” he said.

Contrary to what one may think the most important factor for the decline is unrelated to the economy, Flanagan said. He said that golf takes a long time to play and many family-oriented men or women don’t have the time for it and their relatives.

“By the time we drive to the golf course, play a four-hour round of golf, have a couple of [beverages], and drive home it’s a six-hour day and most people between the ages of 20-40 can’t sustain that or can’t do that,” Flanagan said “To take six hours out of the day out of their only day off in the week is just unheard of.”

Another factor is that golf is a difficult game. Flanagan said that too often people try and casually play golf without realizing its true difficulty. Then, when they become overwhelmed, they become frustrated with the sport and switch to something else.

The cost to play the game, as mentioned, also is a large part as well.

“Price is always a factor,” Flanagan said, adding that to operate a course is expensive, thus the high cost of membership fees.

In 2004, a single annual membership fee for the Rockland Golf Club was $750. Those fees steadily rose by about $50 a year after that “just because the expenses of operating the golf course went up,” he said.

According to Flanagan, the price of chemicals to spray on the greens increased by 40 percent, gas prices rose, [and] “things like that to operate the golf course and keep it up to the standards these people expect. Otherwise it turns into a cow pasture.”

The recession also has had an impact on all business, even the business of golf. “The recession has definitely affected the golf industry, no question about it,” Flanagan said.

With those things in mind, the RGC did not have the ability to change the difficulty of the game or the time it takes to play, but it could alter the cost.

Like a science experiment, the club is testing a variable.

“What made us decide was that a lot of people in the Rockland area claimed they didn’t rejoin because of the price and now we are going to find out if price makes a difference,” Flanagan said.

He wants to attract new members at a lesser cost so the business can grow.

“Any business, the more people you have the more money they are going to spend,” he said. “You get them in the door they are going to rent golf carts, they are going to buy merchandise, they are going to patronize the [club’s] restaurant. You can’t do anything without people.”

Since the membership incentive program started last month, the club, at this point, has not seen tangible results. However, when asked if he has seen an increase in membership, Flanagan said he had heard “a lot of talk. A lot of people saying they are going to do it.”

Flanagan said he thinks people will wait to pay when the club opens. It is too early to tell if the incentive will work because 60 percent of the members usually do not pay until the club has actually opened for the season in March or April.

The club’s ultimate goal is to have about 500 members, but Flanagan admitted that it was a long shot for this year.

For now, Flanagan is hoping to increase membership by 20 percent each year. “If we get 40 new members that is going to be a huge success,” he said.

VillageSoup Sports Reporter Frederick Freudenberger can be reached at 207-594-4401 or by e-mail at fritz@villagesoup.com.