There are a lot of puns that could be employed – golf is off-course, stuck in the rough, sub-par – but here’s what you really need to know: the better part of 10,000 golfers have quit the sport over the course of one year, in Scotland, of all places. And while pro tournaments continue to rake in big economic dividends for cities, it’s obvious the sport needs beginners if it is to continue to grow.
Play at the U.S. has been stale, to say the least. Golf rounds recorded by the National Golf Foundation (NGF) trended down throughout the year, with the exceptions of a few spikes here and there, and a few times when no gain or loss was recorded.
Equally worrisome is the fact that the number of places to play golf is going down. The American City Business Journals noted that between 2005 and 2015 — the most-recent reporting years available — the number of golf courses and country clubs tumbled by 5 percent, falling to 6,242 from 6,541 a decade earlier. Over the same span, the number of people employed by courses and country clubs in those 449 counties fell by 3 percent to just over 226,377 workers.
NGF also reported the number of 18-hole-equivalent golf facilities in the United States dropped again in 2016, falling nationally by a net 171 facilities.
According to NGF, however, the contraction is actually representative of a continued correction in the industry, following an unsustainable 20-year period of growth in which the U.S. golf market added more than 4,000 new facilities and increased overall supply by 44 percent. (A textbook example of one company that jumped on – and then quickly off – the golf bandwagon, Nike, is discussed here.)
The industry has worked to address the problem with a number of initiatives. Many are aimed at growing youth participation; however, others, such as Get Golf Ready, targets adults in the United States who have never played golf or who have minimal experience in the game. Additionally, USGA’s PLAY9™ program works to raise awareness of the nine-hole round as a way to keep playing golf without investing as much time.
It appears some headway is being made. Last year, Forbes noted there had been an increase in individuals taking up the game, as well as in the overall participant base.
“Golf welcomed a record number of first-time players in 2017, with the 2.6 million beginners eclipsing the numbers set when Tiger Woods was in his prime and drawing a wealth of newcomers to the game around the turn of the century,” the article noted.
The NGF’s Golf Industry Report showed that golf’s on-course participant base remained stable at 23.8 million golfers, including 20 million core players, a segment of the market that represents about 82% of those who play but accounts for approximately 95% of all rounds-played and spending in an $84 billion industry.
Worth noting is the fact that the NGF’s definition of participation looks beyond traditional on-course golf and also factors in off-course engagement, which tracks those who swing a golf club at facilities like Topgolf, indoor simulators and driving ranges. In fact, an estimated 21 million people hit golf balls at off-course locations.
The NGF continues to try to stress affordability and accessibility – two things that, quite frankly, have not been typically associated with golf, which still has an image of a country club sport for wealthy individuals. However, says the NGF, the most recent count of 2,497 municipal facilities marks an all-time high for the industry.
The biggest market for golf at the moment appears to be Millennials, who make up more than 6 million of the current golf population. And this group, having found golf, appears to be sticking with it. One reason for this could be their strong belief in the value of networking – and with organizations like The City Tour working to connect young professionals with one another in a golf setting, the sport continues to grow.
The sport’s image, however, as the domain of older white men, however, does stand in its way of evolving – and even NGF President Joe Beditz is aware of that.
In a recent address, Beditz noted that golf’s biggest risk is that golf “is not evolving on pace with changing cultural tastes and we are not taking full advantage of tremendous interest in the game. The real risk is complacency and taking participation in golf for granted.
For hundreds of years golf has always been incredibly compelling to some people – think of them as those who are willing to play in the rain. Are you in that group? Or are you a less serious, fair weather golfer? Most golfers, believe it or not, fall into the latter category. They don’t play in the rain, which metaphorically represents any unwelcoming aspects of the game.
People don’t have to golf. If they aren’t comfortable, they won’t golf. If they don’t feel welcome, they won’t golf. Those are the real risks.”
He wasn't the only one to voice this idea, either. Seth Waugh, the PGA's CEO noted in a recent address, "Over the last 25 years, we've done a lot to try to kill golf. We've made it too hard, too expensive and taking too long. The one thing we haven't done is make it too fun."