WHAT’S THE FUTURE FOR GOLF?
WHEN IT COMES TO THE STATE OF OUR GAME, THERE’S SOME GOOD NEWS AND SOME BAD NEWS
It’s become a common refrain in the print media, you hear people bemoaning it on radio, and even the generally positive golf commentators on television are not immune. It’s like a mantra: golf is in trouble. Club memberships are falling, golf retailers are laying off staff… if not closing down altogether… and television ratings are down.
The X Games generation is more turned on by Body Varials and Melon Grabs than cut shots and draws and if women are not formally excluded from the game they can be turned off by patriarchal club cultures promoted by chauvinistic club committees.
As theories go, golf is a middle-class game so the shrinking of the middle class in the United States and the UK is also part of the problem. Golf has grown increasingly more expensive to play, they say, so without an affluent middle class, who but the really rich can afford it?
On that count, it’s worth noting that Donald Trump, the pre-eminent owner of some of the best golf courses in the world, has said that 40 per cent of all active golfers in the US earn more than $100,000 a year, emphasising the point of view that golf is once again becoming a rich man’s game.
The Tiger Factor undoubtedly helped boost recreational golf in recent years and Tiger’s presence on the golf course lifted television ratings, too. But that’s over now and while Rory McIroy might be ‘da man of the moment’, his influence on wider participation remains to be seen. My guess is, very little outside of Ireland.
If there is a singular reason cited by those concerned for the future of golf, it is time. Who has time any more to play a full round?
Rounds take four to five hours. Add on the preparation, drive time to the course, time on the range beforehand, perhaps, and time for a drink or two afterwards. In reality, playing 18 holes of golf can occupy almost a full day.
Who can argue that golf is not in trouble when you have the people most involved in the game, from tour players to sponsors to golf course architects and owners, saying it is?
At the opening of his latest course in Vietnam, Greg Norman told Paul Myers of Golf Australia magazine that the game is in trouble because, “Many young people regard golf as boring as bat shit (while) a lot of people in golf officialdom are stuck in a box.”
Half a world away, as if it could not help itself from addressing the situation, an article on the short game with legendary coach Pete Cowan, tipster to Lee Westwood and Darren Clarke, diverted from wedge play to the state of the game.
Cowan told Worldwide Golf, a Gary Player oracle published in the Middle East: “There are too many people falling out of golf. America has lost twenty per cent of golfers in the last ten years. I would estimate that Britain has lost around thirty per cent. People just aren’t playing golf — it takes too long.”
Sponsors are concerned, too. Giles Morgan, the head of sponsorship for HSBC and its multimillion dollar investment in golf, including the Open Championship, told BBC Sport that golf is “not moving with the times.”
He added that the game was “at the crossroad at the moment”.
“There are lots of positives about golf but the world, particularly with digital communication and people’s time, has changed in the last fifteen years beyond anybody’s wildest dreams. I’m not sure golf has kept up,” he said.
Even The Economist, a most unlikely source, has taken note. Reporting on the closure of a golf course in the American state of Louisiana, a region that was a flurry of new-course activity 15 years ago, it quotes the owner of the West Monroe Golf Club lamenting loss of revenue.
One Saturday, the club’s busiest day of the week, the club took in just $200 in green fees. That’s like one foursome the entire day.
“I sometimes believe I could give golf away and they still wouldn’t come,” the owner said.
The numbers elsewhere are similar. Golf club memberships in Australia have been declining on average by 1.5 per cent per annum since 2000, according to Cameron Wade, golf development director for Golf Australia.
“A number of clubs are in financial difficulty and are exploring opportunities to merge with other clubs,” he told The Cut.
According to UK newspaper The Independent, club membership in Scotland is down 14 per cent since 2004. In England, it’s down 20 per cent over the same period.
When the British Golf Industry Association launched a PR campaign by declaring a ‘National Golf Month’ as an attempt to bring 100,000 people back to the game, only 30,000 registered.
New Zealand mirrors these trends. It’s been reported often enough that golf club membership has declined in
recent years. While 425,000 New Zealanders claim to play at least one round a year, club membership has dropped to 115,000 from its peak of 132,000 in 2001.
The US is the largest golf market in the world with 15,350 golf facilities and 25 million participants producing an annual $70 billion injection into the American economy.
Yet according to the National Golf Foundation, the organisation that monitors golf industry trends, there have been eight consecutive years where more golf courses have closed than opened.
The report detailed that net loss this way: “Since 2006, course closings have outnumbered openings after more than 4500 courses had opened over the previous 15 years. Those courses, many of which were built as part of real estate projects, shut down as the US recession led to a reduction in home sales needed to support the courses. Golf club memberships and rounds played also declined during the recession.”
Steve Mona, the CEO of the World Golf Foundation in Florida, told The Cut that while golf in the US “has not returned to its high-water mark of participation in 2005, the game has been through two recessions and been more resilient than many other industries.” He added, “As for golf course openings and closures, compression in the US golf industry is positive as supply and demand reach equilibrium.”
To be sure, Pellucid, a golf industry researcher, reports that golf course closures in the US alone averaged 137 a year over the last eight years. That led noted golf course architect Brian Curley to quip, “If golf course architecture were a publicly traded stock, it would be a penny stock right now.”
Equipment makers are certainly feeling the pinch. An article in the Washington Post entitled ‘Why America fell out of love with golf’ (as if the party is already over) reports that TaylorMade-Adidas Golf (the world’s biggest maker of golf clubs and clothes) saw sales nosedive 28 per cent last year (2014).
That same story reports, “The number of young people, aged 18 to 30, playing the game has sagged nearly 35 per cent over the last decade.”
Mark King, president of Adidas North America, is quoted, saying, “I don’t like where the game is going.”