Let’s face it: Golf is too difficult, too expensive and takes too much time. Yet, once those barriers to entry are broken, chances are that you wind up with an enthusiastic golfer who can’t seem to get enough of the game.
So when golf’s powers talk about growing the game, it’s about overcoming obstacles to get new people into golf and keep them there. And no one, thus far, has found the secret formula to make that happen with any degree of effectiveness.
Golf participation in the U.S. has basically been flat since the great recession of 2008. The National Golf Foundation reported that 23.8 million people played golf on a real golf course in 2016, down 1.2 percent from the year before and the lowest number reported in the Tiger Woods era.
The game got itself in trouble in the 1990s when the NGF said that we needed to build a course a day for 10 years to meet the latent demand. When Woods emerged in the mid-90s, the great golf boom got underway. Golf was suddenly cool and everybody wanted to play.
But by the end of the decade, there were as many people leaving golf as there were new people coming to the game and we found we were badly overbuilt where golf courses were concerned. And at the turn of the century, for the first time, a significant number of golf courses started to close.
Since the 2008 recession, new golf course construction has ground to a halt and there were a number of years where more courses closed than new ones opened. People were proclaiming the death of golf.
The fact that golf needs to face eye to eye is that the game is a niche sport and is not for everyone. Those barriers for entry are considerable and not to be taken lightly. The PGA of America, the USGA and the PGA Tour have scratched their collective heads to generate new ideas to bring new people to golf.
They tried making the hole bigger. They tried Foot Golf — having kids kick a soccer ball around the golf course. They are now trying nine-hole, six-hole and three-hole loops. The First Tee is a groundbreaking program, but there’s no indication that the kids going through that program are playing golf regularly aside from First Tee activities.
The number of new golfers rose to 2.5 million in 2016, an almost 14 percent increase over 2015. Non-golfers who say they are interested in playing grew to 12.8 million, the largest segment of which are millenials – 18-to-34-year-olds.
The NGF decided to include off-course participation in its yearly report and that number is 20 million, an 11 percent increase. Most of that number can be attributed to TopGolf, which has taken off since it arrived in the U.S. and is attractive to millenials.
There are things that can be done that aren’t happening at present. First, golf needs to take care of its existing players. The number of what the NGF calls “committed” golfers – those who consider golf their favorite activity or one of several recreational pursuits – rose to 20.1 million.
If every one of those golfers played at least one more round in 2017, think of what a shot in the arm it would be for the game. That’s 20 million more rounds and if 80 percent of those rounds came from a daily-fee course at an average of $75 total expenditure per golfer – greens fees, sleeve of balls and snack bar purchases – that’s an additional $1.2 billion (yes, billion) spent on golf per year.
Secondly, all juniors 18 and younger should play for free everywhere after 2 p.m. At the very least, a junior card should cost no more than $100 per year. How many of today’s golfers grew up playing the game in the summer when their parents dropped them off at the golf course in the morning and picked them up in the afternoon.
Harold Varner III has said more than once that he couldn’t overemphasize the value that the municipal course he grew up on in Gastonia had a $100 fee for juniors for unlimited golf. He never would have played the game if not for that accommodation.
Third, take your kids to TopGolf once a week, even in the winter. Get a club in their hands in an environment that they will find fun. The video game atmosphere at TopGolf is attractive to today’s kids, which should make it easier to get them to hit golf balls and by extension, maybe get them to a real golf course.
The death of the game is highly exaggerated and there are some things about golf that are encouraging. But, as in politics, all golf is local. Get out to your favorite course – and play.