- Golf suffering a decline in popularity in its traditional heartlands of the U.S. and UK
- 400,000 left the sport over past year in U.S., according to the NGF
- New ideas and initiatives introduced to change its fortunes
- "We have to evolve and continually modernize," TaylorMade CEO says
(CNN)While the professional game of golf gears up for 2015 in rude health, at grassroots level the sport finds itself in the rough.
With more prize money on offer for the stars than ever before -- 97 players won over $1 million on the PGA Tour last year -- and lucrative sponsorship deals, golf can rest safe in the knowledge that the future is bright for those competing at its top end.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, however, the sport stands at a crossroads, with recent years having brought about a major slump in popularity in its traditional heartlands of the U.S. and the UK and Ireland.
As golf continues to hemorrhage players, the steps it chooses to take next could prove crucial in turning its fortunes around.
Some 400,000 people reportedly left the sport in the past year in the U.S., although the National Golf Foundation (NGF) states: "The numbers quoted don't reconcile with NGF data and they're not something that we reported or would report."
NGF results do show that the sport in the U.S. has lost five million players in the last decade, with 20% of the existing 25 million golfers poised to quit in the next few years.
To compound that depressing statistic, the number of newcomers to the game in the U.S. fell by 20% last year, while according to Sport England, the amount of 16-25-year-olds playing the game regularly almost halved in England between 2009-10 and 2012-13.
Whether it is courses closing, merchandise sales falling or job losses on the rise, golf is being hit hard at grassroots level for its failure to attract new faces and keep hold of older ones.
But why are numbers falling and is a re-brand of sorts needed to rectify the decline?
As with any pastime or hobby, time and money are two key factors, as the game's greatest player, Jack Nicklaus, acknowledges.
"I'd like to play a game that can take place in three hours, I'd quite like to play a game that I can get some reasonable gratification out of very quickly and something that is not going to cost me an arm and a leg," Nicklaus told CNN.
The 18-time major champion's words reflect the mood of the wider public, many of whom are still struggling from the effects of the economic downturn and live in a world that offers an ever-increasing number of cheaper and less time-consuming alternatives.
To put it bluntly, the traditional concept of 18-hole golf is struggling to find its place in modern day lives.
Meanwhile, as would-be golfers continue to turn elsewhere to get their fix, the younger generation -- the very future of the sport -- have more distractions than ever in a world where technology holds sway.
"It's Twitter, cell phones, video games -- these are the activities that kids are involved in," former player-turned-