Water bottle in hand, Tim Atwood strode up the seventh fairway on the South course at Riverside. He lined up his putt, tapped his big red ball and watched it roll around the left side of the cup, then back down a slope past the right side of the cup. He gave a slight shrug as his ball ended up farther away from the hole than it started.

That’s foot golf for you.

Riverside’s south course closed to regular golfers in mid-October to make way for the soccer balls used by foot golfers. The late fall is a slow time of year for the golf industry. The city of Portland, which owns Riverside, has been trying to squeeze a little more business out of its turf.

Every bit of extra business helps. There are 5.7 million fewer golfers in the United States than in 2000-01, according to the National Golf Foundation.

Atwood, 28, has nothing against golf, which he plays on a semi-regular basis. But Atwood and golfers in his age group are the challenge facing the golf industry. The National Golf Foundation reports a net loss of nearly 200,000 golfers between the ages of 18 and 34.

“It’s too expensive,” Atwood says, shaking his head.

A round of foot golf at Riverside costs $6 for nine holes and $12 for 18 holes. A nine-hole round of golf costs $15 but equipment costs are higher. A set of clubs, a bag and golf balls are the bare minimum of equipment and rentals are usually no bargain.

Fewer young people buying golf equipment has caused waves in the industry.

Golf-equipment makers such as Nike and Adidas have announced stagnation or declines in sale numbers. In July, Dick’s Sporting Goods dismissed more than 500 PGA pros from its stores, including at its three stores in Maine.

Maine’s golf industry, though better suited demographically than many parts of the country, has been feeling the pinch, too. Courses are responding by offering ladies-only golf lessons, three-hole rounds and foot golf in an effort to broaden its base of support.

Baby boomers are the bedrock of Maine’s golf industry, but the clock is ticking on the root of the problem: The customers aren’t getting any younger.

“There is a graying of golf going on, not a rebirth,” said Eric Lutz, the head pro at Nonesuch River Golf Course in Scarborough. “Younger people aren’t getting into it.”

RELYING ON BABY BOOMERS

The golf industry’s heyday came during the 1990s. The sport’s popularity was tied to Tiger Woods, who dominated professional golf for 10 years.

But Tiger Mania ebbed. And so has the industry.

According to the National Golf Foundation, 14 courses opened in the United States this year while more than 150 closed. Fewer courses have opened than have closed each year for the last eight years.

Maine hasn’t been totally immune to the trend. Pleasant Hill Golf Course, a nine-hole tract in Scarborough, closed to golfers in 2007 and became an 18-hole disc golf course. A new course hasn’t opened in Maine since Sunday River Golf Club in 2005.

“A lot of golf courses created a number of baselines for themselves that were unrealistic,” said Rob Jarvis, the head pro at Bangor Municipal Golf Course and a member of the PGA New England’s Growth of the Game committee. “Call it the Tiger boom or whatever, the fact of the matter is we lose a certain percentage of golfers every year and they aren’t being replaced.”

Nancy Storey, the president of the Maine State Golf Association, says the state’s golf industry is at least temporarily sheltered from national problems.

“The baby boomers are playing plenty of golf,” Storey said. “Maine has the oldest population in the country and therefore our golf industry is going to be healthy.”

Maine is the oldest state based on median age (43.5 years) and the second-oldest based on the proportion of people 65 and older (17 percent), according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Storey said Maine’s golf industry peaked in 2002. Then the state experienced a decade-long decline before numbers stabilized in 2012. She said the number of men who play enough rounds of golf at a course to qualify for a handicap has declined 26 percent since 2006. There has been a 14 percent increase in the number of women golfers, Storey said, though that growth far from offsets the loss of men.

Jarvis, the Bangor PGA teaching pro, says the game is gravitating away from formal tournaments that the MSGA offers.

“I think travel is a big part of that,” Jarvis said. “Gas is a lot more expensive than it used to be. I know for people in my area it costs $100 to go play a tournament down south. So you have to win that tournament to pay for your costs.

“Once those people go away, they’re on to something else.”

If golf is becoming a more casual sport, Jarvis said, statewide tournament play will ebb.

CHALLENGES FOR PRIVATE COURSES

Golf industry insiders agree that Maine’s private courses face the greatest challenge.

Many private clubs in Maine file as nonprofits for tax purposes. According to Internal Revenue Service tax filings, Purpoodock Club in Cape Elizabeth has lost money in three recent years.

In 2010 – after reporting a profit of $117,802 for 2009 – Purpoodock reported a net loss of $55,727. In 2011, the club reported a loss of $27,955. And in 2012 the club said it lost $80,023.

The reports show revenue dropped from $1,715,140 in 2009 to $1,548,412 in 2012. Purpoodock also had $1,263,294 in assets at the end of 2009, which dropped to $1,099,589 at the end of 2012.

Purpoodock General Manager Ken Young says 2014 was a “strong year” for the club. Still, Young said, Purpoodock and other private clubs face challenges. Younger generations aren’t drawn to country clubs.

“I think, in general, people (in their 30s) view clubs very differently than my generation,” he said. “I’m a baby boomer. People used to join clubs for a reason. The club used to be the best food and the best golf in town. We need to provide that quality again.

“If you’re going to charge people to have access to your restaurant, the food must be excellent. We live in Portland. People already have world-class options.”

Despite the generational challenge, Storey said Maine’s golf industry is well-positioned to survive the drop in business at private clubs because there are only a dozen in the state. Those courses may have to adapt by hosting private functions or opening a few tee times to non-members, she said. Private courses such as the Bath Golf Club, The Woodlands and Purpoodock are listed as wedding venues on TheKnot.com, a wedding planning website.

The events could be a lifesaver for private golf courses.

“I think golf is going to be healthy here,” Storey said. “If you look around the country, private courses are the ones that are suffering. And our private courses are mostly doing well. Most of our courses do private events and that helps keep them going.”

LOOKING FOR NEW CUSTOMERS

Dick DiPhilippo, 78, used to be the type of golfer who was a mainstay of Maine’s golf industry. His first membership at Portland’s Riverside Golf Course came in 1949. A membership for the whole year cost $29 in 1949. A weekend round of golf at Riverside costs $30 in 2014.

“I used to play a lot but I don’t have the stamina anymore,” he said.

DiPhilippo said he doesn’t play as much these days but he still tries to get out once a week. But he’s seen friends and acquaintances from his generation ebb away from the game not because they physically can’t play but they have fiscal issues in retirement.

“It’s kind of expensive,” DiPhilippo said. “A lot of senior citizens are on a fixed income. A lot of ’em can’t afford it.”

DiPhilippo won’t keep playing forever. But Atwood, the Riverside foot golfer, might be a source of salvation for the golf industry. Atwood wore soccer warmup pants and a sweatshirt as he traversed Riverside’s foot-golf course on a perfect late-fall day.

“This is a cool idea for getting people out here,” he said, “but the primary idea is (for the course) to make money and not interfere with regular golf.”

The foot golf holes at Riverside are placed off to the side of greens or are dug into the rough on the side of a fairway. If a soccer ball should end up on a green, players are asked to pick up their ball and place it elsewhere.

Riverside golf pro Ryan Scott has been surprised by the popularity of foot golf. He says the course brought in about 200 foot golfers a weekend this fall. Not bad for a course that normally closes after Columbus Day.

“Golf is down, obviously, and this is a way to fill slots that aren’t already taken,” Scott said. “Golf is still our primary business and we don’t want to do anything to take away from that. But this is just finding a new use for a course that’s normally closed at this time of year.”

As for regular golf, Riverside and the city-owned course in Bangor have seen an uptick in the number of rounds played. Riverside had 12,146 rounds on its 18-hole north course from Jan. 1 to Aug. 10 – a 10 percent increase over the same period in 2013, according to city records.

But Riverside’s membership dropped from 400 in 2013 to 320 in 2014. And it had a jump of 621 late-day rounds in 2014 as the course offered a special rate for golfers starting at 6:30 p.m.

Like Riverside’s foot-golf alternative, other courses are trying to attract new customers.

Bangor’s Jarvis and Nonesuch’s Lutz tout the success of First Tee programs at their courses, which aim to bring young golfers into the game.

Will those golfers stick around to sustain the game as baby boomers give up the game? That’s the hope.

“I think you’ll find courses that put forth the effort for good progress are going to be fine,” Jarvis said.