By Erik Matuszewski
The big picture view of golf has been understandably clouded by the crisis at hand: Thousands of courses in various parts of the country are still temporarily shut down due to the coronavirus, memorable golf trips to incredible getaway destinations are on hold, and operations often look quite different in places where the game goes on.
But where did golf stand before COVID-19 and how might it emerge?
The recent “Golf Industry Report” from the National Golf Foundation, which looks back on the game’s key indicators from 2019, suggests reason for significant optimism despite the unsettled nature of, well, pretty much everything right now.
Given its allure to participants of all ages, golf is one of the most popular participation sports in the U.S. and leads the way when it comes to pay-to-play outside activities. And the indoor (or partially indoor) forms of the game that have been springing up have only enhanced interest and engagement. When it comes to the number of traditional golfers—those of us who tee it up on a golf course—the NGF’s annual report shows significant stability, with a robust 24.3 million Americans having played in 2019. That’s quite a bit more golfers nationwide than the entire population in states like Florida, New York, or Pennsylvania.
Yes, that total golfer number may be lower than it was in its peak in the early 2000s, when the popularity of Tiger Woods, a wealth of new courses, and a robust economy prompted an influx of “let’s-give-this-a-whirl” participants who met the criteria to be considered golfers but didn’t play that much and weren’t that committed to the game long term. It’s noteworthy that there’s actually a drop in the average number of rounds played per golfer in the early 2000s specifically attributable to this group of uncommitted golfers who didn’t really move the needle within the industry in any demonstrable way.
Today, golf is seeing more stability, with the number of traditional golfers holding steady now at about 24 million for six years running. Those hard numbers may fly in the face of ill-informed anecdotes one might hear at a dinner party or in a local news story, which often like to wrongly use the recent trend of golf course closures as an indicator for the game’s health. The reality is that the U.S. has more golf courses than Starbucks or McDonald’s locations—over 16,000 in all. For perspective, only one other country in the world even has more than 3,000 golf courses.
The ongoing correction that the U.S. golf course market is experiencing, with annual closures outweighing new facility openings, is the natural result of an overbuild that saw more than 4,500 new courses added to the mix over a 20-year window from 1986 through 2005. Again, for the sake of perspective, that’s more new golf courses added to the U.S. supply during just that two-decade span than were built over the past hundreds of years collectively in England, Scotland, and Ireland.
While participants may come and go every year, we know that true golfers tend to be a passionate bunch. And the NGF research bears that out, with the number of dedicated golfers—those who account for more than 90 percent of the industry’s rounds-played and spending—continuing to hover at around 20 million strong. When you start adding in those who thus far have only tried hitting golf balls at off-course locations like driving ranges or golf-entertainment venues like Topgolf, the overall participation pool climbs to 34.2 million. And studies bear out that first getting a golf club in someone’s hands at a fun, non-intimidating place like Topgolf or its imitators only boosts interest in getting out to an actual course.
Again, golf is a game that spans generations. There are more kids today involved in junior golf programming than ever before and the result is a far more diverse mix—both in gender and ethnicity—in the 17-and-under segment. At the other end of the spectrum, boomers are booming. The number of golfers age 65 and older is increasing and will continue to do so in the coming years as almost 10,000 Baby Boomers per day cross that age threshold.
That said, the game’s largest golfer base is actually found in the 18–34 age range. Young adults today comprise almost 25 percent of the traditional golfer pool—a statistic that surprises some and only increases when it comes to off-course forms of the game.
Anyone who regularly plays golf knows the fervor the game elicits. The latest facts and figures certainly back that up. But there also remains untapped potential, with 15.7 million Americans who have either never played golf or didn’t in the past year saying they’re “very interested” in playing. NGF researchers refer to this measure as “latent demand.”
The current crisis has reshaped priorities for many, whether it’s finding ways to get outside, stay active or spend their free time. Golf has demonstrated that it can provide all those things when conducted safely and responsibly, whether that’s now or in the future. The game entered the COVID-19 world in a good place and, while it may look a bit different from an operational standpoint, it’s also well-positioned to weather and emerge from this crisis. The latest numbers just back that up.