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Golf industry drives Florida's economic engine

Florida golf isn't just the army of northerners that descend on towns from Milton to Miami each winter, hitting every public, semi-private and resort course for precious rounds they can't get at their snow-covered homes.

Florida golf isn't the PGA Tour professionals who are in the midst of their "Florida swing" this month, having already played in South Florida and now working their way toward Clearwater, Orlando and, a few weeks after that, Ponte Vedra Beach.

Florida golf isn't a big corporate outing filling up a tee sheet at a nationally ranked track like the TPC Blue Monster at Doral, nor is it well-heeled Seminole, Isleworth and Black Diamond Ranch and their gotta-have-connections-to-play courses.

"Florida is the No. 1 golfing destination in the world. Everything that we are doing to draw people and promote our state involves golf." – Florida Gov. Rick Scott

Florida golf is actually 167,000 people, and $13.8 billion.

Big numbers, big game.

The economic engine of Florida golf is as impressive as the island-green 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass' Stadium Course, and unwavering in its truth.

Some 167,000 Floridians work in the golf industry, and $13.8 billion in economic impact is realized from the state's more than 1,100 courses, plus driving ranges and mini-golf facilities.

"Golf has a dramatic impact on our state," Florida Gov. Rick Scott said in February at a "Florida Golf Day" gathering in Tallahassee. "Florida is the No. 1 golfing destination in the world. Everything that we are doing to draw people and promote our state involves golf."

That's not political speak, either. Rounds of golf in 2011 were down 1.2 percent nationwide, but up five percent in Florida.

Florida's golf economy checked in at $7.5 billion the last time such stats were taken in 2007, which put it some $3.5 billion ahead of the state's theme parks and $3 billion ahead of the state's medical equipment and supplies manufacturing economy.

Need more proof of power? The PGA of America, the organization comprising 27,000 PGA golf professionals, is based in Palm Beach Gardens. That's appropriate considering some 13 percent of its membership – 3,500 golf professionals – are in Florida.

The PGA Tour, the organization of professional golfers that is beamed into living rooms every weekend on television, is based in Ponte Vedra Beach, with hundreds of employees helping to put on its events nationwide.

The National Golf Foundation (Jupiter), World Golf Foundation and World Golf Hall of Fame (St. Augustine) are also within the state's borders.

"If you love golf, you have to get here," Gary Player is heard saying on commercials for the World Golf Hall of Fame, though that sentiment can be taken far beyond the Hall's front doors.

You can play here, and you can make a living in the game here.

"We have a very good economic model for those whose livelihoods depend on golf," PGA of America Chief Executive Officer Joe Steranka said at the "Florida Golf Day," and the sport's variety in Florida bears that out.

For starters, of course, Florida golf is a year-round undertaking. The game can be enjoyed in many different forms, from city-owned courses to giant resorts such as PGA National Resort & Spa in Palm Beach Gardens, with five courses that host 155,000 rounds annually and a 40,000-square-foot spa. (All the exotic miniature courses along Orlando's International Drive and beyond are also considered part of the state's golf repertoire.)

To keep all those facilities running takes an army of personnel, from ones that the golfer directly interacts with (reservation agents, pro-shop staffers, the first-tee starter and the beverage-cart girl) and the ones he or she doesn't meet – like the thousands of greenskeepers who do much of their work out of sight.

"The unsung golf heroes are the superintendents and their crews," said Greg Nathan, senior vice president of the National Golf Foundation, a trade association for golf-related businesses. "They consistently have more restrictions placed on them, whether environmentally or in water restrictions, and they still are the person most responsible for the key asset – the course.

"You don't always get to shake the hand of the superintendent and say 'thanks,' but you get to enjoy the work."

Perhaps in the history of Florida golf, there has been no better time to enjoy the work. The sport, like other forms of recreation, has had to fight for its place in a market where leisure dollars are tighter, and the result is an abundance of deals and discounts – even in peak seasons and in a state where golf is king.

The engine keeps rolling along.

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Golf industry drives Florida's economic engine 03/16/12 [Last modified: Friday, March 16, 2012 11:52am]
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