Golf’s Social Conscience and its Impact on Economics

The game of golf in America has evolved into many things.  Traditionally a game for the elite, country club set, the American landscape was dotted with approximately 6,600 golf courses in 1960, of which about half were private.  In 2016, according to the National Golf Foundation, there were approximately 15,000 courses, about 25% of which were private clubs. Though the relative portion of private golf is declining, there are still a similar number of private clubs as existed in 1960 with a considerably greater # of public-access facilities (3,200 vs. 11,000).

To many, golf is still perceived as an elitist pursuit.  The current president has stated that he believes golf should be “aspirational”.  In order for the game to grow and thrive its appeal needs to broaden.  In Scotland, where the game was born, golf is much more of an “every man’s” pursuit.  Women are welcome on the links, dogs accompany their masters “round the course” and teenagers sometimes date at the town putting green.  In the US minorities are still scarce at most courses,  and women and juniors are often restricted in their access, especially at some of the more traditional private clubs.  According to a 2015 World Golf Foundation Report, approximately 20% of the golfing population were women and approximately 20%of the golfing population were minorities.  In 2010, approximately 51% of the US population were women while roughly 30% were minorities (Black, Latino, Hispanic).  Obviously, golf has not succeeded in promoting gender or racial diversity, which has limited growth.  Further, possibly because of this inequity millennials, who are more inclined to seek diversity have shown indifference to the game.  On the other hand, there is some indication that the percentage of junior girls has experienced growth in recent years, indicating success of the junior golf initiatives.  The WGF report also indicated that only 13.45% of competitive amateur golfers represented minorities.

Why all these statistics?  What they show is that golf needs to diversify socially or risk the economic extinction some have predicted.  How can we make golf “look like society”?  There’s a very large market out there of potential golfers that just want to feel welcome.  TopGolf recognizes it and has built into their culture a branding that seems to embrace a broader segment of the population and inject more fun into the equation than how most people perceive golf.  Golf has traditionally been known for having too many rules, especially at the most prominent private clubs that seem to be representing the game’s image to the broader population.  When I wrote about golf’s culture a few months back, some examples of these rules were highlighted.

The question now is how do we turn golf around so the economics work? First, we need to understand where we came from.  In George B. Kirsch’s book Golf in America he notably states:

“In the long run, the advent of municipal golf courses was the most critical factor in the democratization of American golf. Beginning in the mid-1890s, crusaders for golf for the people struggled mightily to convince public officials and skeptical citizens and taxpayers that the new Scottish game was not simply a pastime for the idle rich and that towns and cities should provide courses for the masses. The crowds of white, middle-class men and women who trekked to the first public links before World War I (many of whom arrived before sunrise on holidays and weekends) proved that golf was far more than a passing fad. Youth from a variety of lower-class urban ethnic and racial groups gained their first exposure to golf through their work as caddies on both public and private courses.”

This clearly indicates that during golf’s infancy in America that golf was the exclusive domain of the aristocracy.  The rise of municipal golf helped change this but the game has clearly clung to its roots at some levels for far too long.  The expansion of a strong middle class contributed greatly to golf’s growth between the 1890’s and 1930’s along with the later evolution of population from the city to the suburbs, where most golf courses are located.  Today, in 2017 we have migration back to the cities, a shrinking middle class and a need for golf to embrace and encourage not only minorities and women, but also the “millennials” who often live in the cities and find time a challenge to playing golf, along with the typical reasons cited for golf’s decline in participation, cost and difficulty.  With millennials often marrying later in age than before, the move to the suburbs and access to golf facilities occurs later. By then golf is often no longer a priority. As society evolves, golf needs to evolve with it.

Therefore, golf requires a social conscience.  There was considerable hope in the 1990’s during the ascension of Tiger Woods.  Unfortunately, as we all know that hit some “speed bumps” and there haven’t been any minorities to take the baton.  Millennials have been attracted to new stars like Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas & Rickie Fowler and it is critical to attract these groups, which (with the inclusion of women) I call the “3 M’s”, but facilities and attitudes need to be modified to accommodate them.  Though few clubs maintain policies of exclusion anymore, most courses and clubs are dominated by white males of ever increasing age, typically in their 50’s and older, and adhering to traditional dress codes which leave little room for diversity.  More clubs need child care facilities, fitness and other activities that give golf access to the whole family and make leaving the city for a half day palatable.

There are numerous demographic factors creating headwinds for golf’s growth today.  That being said, the game has developed a deep and storied history for community involvement.  Just last year, in 2016 the PGA Tour alone donated $166 million to charitable causes.  The many local charities that benefit in a variety of ways from golf events accounted for $3.9 Billion from 12 million participants and each event raised an average of $26,400, according to “We Are Golf”.  Unfortunately, that hasn’t always translated into the groups that benefit from taking up the game.

Economically, golf has taken a beating.  Not only have we lost over 1,000 golf facilities in the US since 2005, but revenues have declined on a per course basis and many companies have either exited the golf market space or reduced their position, such as Nike and Dick’s.  Even some golf courses and clubs have chosen to either reject or charge fees for high school and college golf teams (the game’s future) to use their courses.  Of course, there are the many rules that some clubs have that discourage the “3 M’s” from participating.  The courses that are thriving are being innovative, eliminating obstacles and creating and fostering welcoming environments.   How does Golf reverse the trend while maintaining the best and most cherished of its traditions?  Below are a few of my recommendations, for what they’re worth:

  • FREE introductory golf days with professional lessons
  • Relaxed dress codes (not NONE)
  • Less rules (cell phones, etc.)
  • Festive atmosphere (music, F & B on course, etc.)
  • Events – couple golf with watching football games, baseball, golf tournaments, etc., onsite concerts at night
  • FREE golf for kids with parents
  • More access for high school and college teams (the game’s future) at clubs and courses

The game of golf has terrific “fundamentals”.  It’s social, takes place outdoors in a beautiful environment, is a source of exercise and isn’t as expensive as many other forms of recreation and entertainment.  It’s critical for the health of the game to get the word out to an evolving society.  Golf’s traditions are special and to be cherished, however some of them are hindering its economics.  Traditions can evolve as well.  Golf has been a terrific vehicle for community activism and charity, but if the decline in golfers and golf courses continues those opportunities will dry up.  In order for courses to be financially successful, the audience needs to be expanded.  Embracing and attracting new groups from our changing society means understanding modern lifestyle. Golf needs a social conscience that reflects groups not previously a big part of the golf landscape.  As our population changes, so must golf to maintain sound economics and enable the next generation to enjoy the game of a lifetime.