By Matt Smith
ABU DHABI, April 29 (Reuters) - European golf will struggle to maintain its market share as people opt for alternative ways to spend their leisure time, the head of the game's governing body warned on Tuesday, urging clubs to speed up play and reduce costs to attract new players.
Golf participation in Europe fell for the first time in 20 years in 2011 and declined further in 2012, according to consultants KPMG, while the United States has also suffered a marked drop in both players and courses.
"There's so much competition for people's time these days in mature golf markets it will be pretty hard for golf to keep the market share it had of people's leisure time years ago," said Peter Dawson, chief executive of the Royal and Ancient (R&A), the body which governs golf outside the United States.
"Worldwide we're still growing but the growth will be in new countries and established countries will have to fight to keep their market share," Dawson told Reuters on the sidelines of the HSBC Golf Business Forum in Abu Dhabi.
Part of the reason for golf's decline in Europe and the United States is the increased time it takes to play a round, a problem that could ease if clubs scheduled two-ball tee times in the morning, Dawson said.
"It used to be that you could have breakfast and lunch at home and play golf in between and we have to allow some people to do that again," he said.
"Far too much investment is put into golf facilities, not on the course, but in clubhouses and the rest. If we want lots of people to come to the game it mustn't cost too much. That means the investment in facilities has to be at a moderate level."
KPMG estimates that golf participation in Europe did pick up slightly last year, but numbers in Britain and Ireland, which account for 29 percent of the continent's players and 44 percent of courses, have been continuously falling since 2007.
The slump has coincided with the end of Tiger Woods's dominance. The American remains the biggest draw in golf and has regained the number one ranking but the 38-year-old's last major win was the 2008 U.S. Open.
Nearly 20 different players have won major championships since and this diversity has actually proved detrimental to golf's profile, according to Dawson.
"Golf is a very difficult game to dominate - to become a star today with so many good players in the world is becoming harder, but we need stars badly," said Dawson.
"If we have a scenario where 50 players win one tournament each a year I think the game will struggle as compared to if we have two or three exceptional players."
Golf will return to the Olympics at 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games for the first time since 1904 and its inclusion has boosted state funding for the sport in countries where it is in its infancy.
"The Olympics provides the most wonderful vehicle to take new sports to new markets," Giles Morgan, HSBC's Global Head of Sponsorship and Events, told Reuters.
"In Asia, participation is growing. Golf has traditionally followed the middle class growth and you're seeing a middle class economic boom in places like India and China and therefore you're seeing a growth in the sport there."
A top International Olympic Committee (IOC) official on Tuesday called Rio's preparations for the games "the worst" he had ever seen and critically behind schedule, but Dawson said the city's Olympic golf course would be ready in time.
"We've been lucky that we didn't have London to consider so we've been down in Rio longer than a lot of sports trying to get this done," added Dawson.
"The pace has picked up recently. I never doubted we'd get there but I'm much more hopeful we'll get there early than I was. We're targeting it to be ready for a test event during 2015." (Editing by Ed Osmond)