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Golf struggles in the real world, but does well as a fantasy sport

As Tiger and Rory tee off for the Masters this week, an increasing number of fantasy sports enthusiasts are gearing up for their own battles online. And that could be the key to re-establishing golf's popularity.

Fantasy golf has become big business for fantasy sports platforms like DraftKings. The Boston-based start-up says that the number of weekly users for its golf product has grown tenfold over the last year.

The rise of the fantasy sport comes as the real-world sport is struggling. Sports equipment makers and retailers both reported declining sales of their golf products last year. By a wide margin, more courses are closing in the United States than are opening.

That growing base of fantasy users is also doling out eight times more money on the site than it did last year. Last week, DraftKings received a $250 million investment from entertainment giant Disney that could value it at around $900 million, according to The Wall Street Journal.

DraftKings declined to comment on any deal with Disney.

Tiger Woods watches a tee shot during a practice round prior to the start of the 2015 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club, April 7, 2015, in Augusta, Ga.
Getty Images
Tiger Woods watches a tee shot during a practice round prior to the start of the 2015 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club, April 7, 2015, in Augusta, Ga.

DraftKings is trying to capitalize on the rapid growth and popularity of fantasy golf by establishing its biggest competition ever, dubbed the "Masters Millionaire Maker." The competition signed up 70,000 participants and garnered more than $3 million in entry fees. Players will compete in a fantasy competition by drafting players in this year's Masters Tournament field, with the ultimate winner taking home $1 million.

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Due to the surge in demand for fantasy golf around the Masters, DraftKings announced that it will host a similar "Millionaire Maker" competition targeting this year's U.S. Open championship, to be held in June at the Chambers Bay golf course, near Seattle.

DraftKings Vice President Femi Wasserman told CNBC that the popularity of daily fantasy golf is the result of a younger demographic looking for ways to further engage in the sport, adding that technology is aiding the effort.

According to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, the average fantasy golf participant is 34 years old, making it a key market for boosting golf's popularity among younger adults. Overall, fantasy golf has increased from 2.3 million players in 2007 to 6.3 million in 2014, according Paul Charchian, president of the association.

"Interest in the game is good. Interest leading to participation is better." -Steve Mona, CEO, World Golf Foundation

Given the popularity of fantasy golf, the question is, will that translate into reality and drive players to actual golf courses for a sport that is currently struggling?

The hope is that with more people taking a financial interest in how their fantasy players perform, they'll start watching televised events, and perhaps actually play the game.

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"Interest in the game is good, interest leading to participation is better," said Steve Mona, CEO of the World Golf Foundation, an organization that promotes the sport.

The group is undertaking several studies to determine the best ways to make new golfers.

"We are very interested that people are taking to fantasy golf," he said.