The annual PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando is geared to promoting golf as a recreational activity worthy of one’s time and money. However, since The Great Recession ended in ‘09, the overall health of the sport is now facing an uncertain future. Globally, America has the most players and number of courses, but in both categories, there has been a marked decrease.
In 2005, golf participation peaked at 30 million players in America. That total has fallen to just under 24 million, according to the National Golf Foundation. New golf course construction in the States has essentially ended - with closures the predominant storyline. Even high income locations such as the New York City metro area, which previously seemed immune from such situations, is seeing equity-owned private clubs shutter doors permanently. The closures have not abated and continue to accelerate.
Much of the reasons centre on an over-exuberant surge in course construction during the 1990’s. Residential real estate, in tandem with ill-considered golf projects, went superhot simply because of speculation driven impulses. In summary, supply still exceeds demand to play. Cost cutting to entice players to play daily fee and resort facilities has only fuelled more closures, as courses seeking to stay ahead are actually falling further behind financially through escalating discounting.
Baby boomers, born after World War II through to 1964, have served as golf’s most active and loyal players. This segment provided the financial underpinnings for course construction, equipment, apparel and other specialty purchases. As this group ages out, there is no guarantee younger generations will mirror habits of predecessors. The leading organisations that annually gather in Orlando either did not see or turned a blind eye to the storm clouds on the horizon early on. Many continued to publicly express unbridled optimism, when a more sober analysis would have confirmed the obvious. Some simply opined golf was simply experiencing a cyclical swing with few seeing the more obvious conclusion that a far deeper and unclear long term paradigm shift is underway.
Leisure time, as defined now in the 21st century is a far different matter than when golf took root in the late 19th century. The sport grew as a mechanism to escape from the day-to-day nature of ordinary life. People willingly opted to schedule significant chunks of personal time to enjoy the game and relish the outdoors provided by Mother Nature.
Today’s world encourages speed, cramming more and more into the 24-hour cycle. Brevity is the gearbox and those driving the recreational vehicle of the 21st century do not want to be idling time away when much of the world is anchored in an incessant “go” mentality. The bigger question remains: can golf really “go” in such a frenetic climate?
The focus in golf is now multi-targeted and very specific. Foremost, getting Millennials, those born after 1982, to adopt a game many view as the pastime of grandfathers and fathers. Beyond the issue of time is the inherent difficulty of the game, with quality teaching failing to make its way to the broader masses. The cost of equipment has also proved prohibitive for many. Full sets of clubs today are routinely at the four digit level.
Women still constitute no more than 25% of total players in America. Amazingly, in Germany, a country with little history in the sport, the women’s participation rate is over 50%. Throughout golf’s ascension in the 20th century the country club served as a bastion for white male supremacy. Old time country clubs fostered elitism, some promoting chauvinism and engendering outright hostility to anyone outside its orbit. The key for 21st century country clubs is somehow demonstrating relevance in today’s far more egalitarian world - centred on how best to embrace shared family connections.
Introducing people to golf is happening on several fronts. The rise of Top Golf, the new high tech driving range model, has been quite impressive. But the longer term question remains - do people go to Top Golf for a desire to play golf, or is it nothing more than a means to socialise and party with friends? Can Top Golf be the bridge bringing new entrants into traditional golf? 60% of the people who come to Top Golf never picked up a club prior to a first visit. Concurrently, several First Tee programmes have been successful in introducing minorities to the sport, but will such interest continue into adulthood?
Golf is now in the Summer Olympics so the added exposure does provide a platform for many different countries to take the game more seriously and invest in their own respective programmes. The promise is exciting but difficult to say with any certainty.
There is positive news with Tiger Woods returning to competition fulltime on the PGA TOUR, but will it matter to a wider audience beyond core golfers? Interestingly, when Woods launched his pro career in 1996 it seemed golf would jettison to heights never seen. Now, more than 20 years later, the golf world faces a daunting prospect. Can a game dating back centuries fit into a hip sleek ultra-fast world? Where attention spans are shorter and the desire to attain instant gratification is paramount.
The issue is not whether golf has turned a corner - it has. The bigger concern is if the game is swift enough to adapt a number of improvements which excite new players, while still maintaining central core elements that have been mainstays for many, many years. That delicate balancing act is a clear test because the answers are still being sorted out. The road ahead for golf is not a clear or certain. It will be determined on whether the game is adaptable to clearly changing times and audiences. It is very possible that golf can retreat in returning as a game for only the deepest of pockets. The stakes are indeed that high.