A Minnesota research partnership is taking a swing at reinvigorating the sport of golf, threatened in recent years by falling numbers of players and closing courses.

The University of Minnesota and the United States Golf Association (USGA) will conduct a five-year, $2.5 million study to evaluate the golf industry in hopes of making the game less expensive and time-consuming. They’ll look at everything from the costs players incur to turf maintenance to playing time.

Why Minnesota? According to the USGA, the state has the most golfers per capita. Golf contributes about $2.4 billion to Minnesota’s annual economy.

The U’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences; Carlson School of Management; College of Science and Engineering, and Humphrey School of Public Affairs will contribute to the project. The U’s Les Bolstad Golf Course will serve as the study’s laboratory.

The collaboration will provide new data to help create a game that is more economically and environmentally sustainable, said Rand Jerris, senior managing director of public services for the USGA.

One topic the group will address is how courses can optimize water consumption. Water usage is proving to be one of the industry’s greatest challenges as Western states in particular face more dry weather and droughts, Jerris said.

“We came to a realization given some of the challenges faced in the game … we really needed to increase our bandwidth in order to move faster,” he said.

From 1990 to 2009, a boom period for golf, Minnesota saw 147 new courses pop up across the state.

But for the past few years, the industry has struggled. Since 2006, the state has had more than 14 courses close. Edina, for example, lost its storied Fred Richards Golf Course in 2014.

The closures echo a national trend. Since 2003, about 5 million people have stopped playing golf. To make matters worse, the sport took a hit when the reputation of its best-known player, Tiger Woods, was tarnished.

Now golf organizations are moving away from age-related assumptions about golf, such as that it’s primarily a sport for baby boomers to enjoy during retirement. Instead, they’re working to attract younger players.

The partnership will look at ways to change the traditional game to help do just that, said Brian Horgan, a professor in the U’s department of Horticultural Science and Extension.

“Millennials and the younger generation of golfers might not have the same time commitment to play the game,” he said.

In addition, younger people might not be able to afford the sport.

Optimism for the future

Those who love golf are convinced it has a bright future. “We are very optimistic about the future of the game,” Jerris said. The overall number of golfers now is holding steady and the number of committed golfers has risen, he said.

About 90 percent of Minnesota’s 492 courses are public. One of them, Braemar, in Edina, is seeing positive trends. After seven years of losses, it has experienced a financial profit so far this year.

Braemar is now improving its amenities and plans on consolidating about 27 of its holes to 18 by 2017.

“We’ve had a good year,” said general manager Joe Abood.