The rise of a young, Nike-christened Tiger Woods in the late 1990s turned a stodgy gentlemen's game into something fun and fashionable. Droves of viewers tuned in...

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The rise of a young, Nike-christened Tiger Woods in the late 1990s turned a stodgy gentlemen’s game into something fun and fashionable.

Droves of viewers tuned in. Inspired hackers headed for the tee box. Real-estate developers, betting on forecasts of boundless interest in the sport, couldn’t carve out new golf courses fast enough.

But they duffed it.

With so many baby boomers approaching retirement, who would have envisioned fewer golfers on the course? But the number of golf rounds played each year has tumbled, and participation in the sport has hit a plateau.

Course managers blame a squeeze on household income and leisure time. They point to corporate cutbacks and the elimination of tax breaks for country-club memberships.

“The industry’s just kind of flat-lined,” said Scotte Rorabaugh, executive director of the Northern Ohio Golf Association. “You’ve got golf courses fighting to get people in the door.”

Fewer golfers can afford to burn the four to five hours it takes to play a round. Longer work hours are chewing up time once spent on the course. On a recent weekday morning at Hilliard Lakes Golf Club in Westlake, Ohio, two golfers asked if they could squeeze in three holes before work.

With groceries and other bills rising, fewer households can spare the $20 to $120 it costs to play.

“You’re putting 18 holes in your gas tank instead of spending it on the golf course now,” said Doug Smith, head golf pro and general manager at Astorhurst Country Club in Walton Hills, Ohio.

An Ohio State Parks representative said corporate outings are way down. Some course operators say league play carries them through the week, but not like it used to be, when more companies sponsored employee golf leagues.

“The big companies are gone,” said Gary Hackle, general manager of St. Denis Golf Club in Chardon, “and a lot of the perks went with it.”

Privately owned courses and country clubs don’t usually disclose memberships or the number of golfers they entertain each year. But data from industry trade groups and several publicly funded local courses reveal that, even accounting for weather fluctuations, people are playing less golf.

“The late ’90s were the golden years,” said Tom Porter, who runs Forest Hills Golf Course in Elyria. “I don’t know if we’ll ever see that again.”

Some private country clubs have turned to trolling for members with aggressive advertising campaigns on radio, cable TV and in newspapers. That once was unheard of.

In 2000, 398 golf courses — more than one per day — opened in the United States, according to the National Golf Foundation. By 2007, that number had shrunk to 113, and course closures now outnumber openings.

In 2001, 32 courses closed, compared with 267 over the last two years.

Jim Kass, research director for the National Golf Foundation, said more closures reflect an owner’s choice to cash out and sell to a real-estate developer, not business failures.

Several public and private courses have begun offering one-time fees that allow golfers to play as many times as they want throughout the season — a more economical option for serious players.

And some courses haven’t raised greens fees in two to three years.

It’s still not enough to entice Jeff Ulery, 42, of Cleveland, back to the links. The former salesman, who forked over $2,100 for a new set of clubs just a few years ago, used to play two to three times a month for business.

And now?

“Never,” said Ulery, who now runs his own window-cleaning company and has no time to play. “I haven’t used those clubs in two years.”