Golf in the United States is experiencing a decline in participation. In 2005, according to the National Golf Foundation, there were 30 million golfers. Now there are less than 25 million. In the US there are now 15,204 golf facilities (per NGF) and this is down from a high of 16,052 less than 10 years ago. These figures are old news. The question is why?
While golf is often regarded as an elitist sport in many countries, in Scotland, where golf was invented, it has been enjoyed by people of all classes, in what has traditionally been an egalitarian society. Council golf courses have low fees and are dotted throughout the country. In all, Scotland has about 550 beautiful and spectacular golf courses. Thousands of international tourists travel to Scotland each year on golfing holidays. Nearly all golf courses in Scotland are open to the general public. Conversely, golf in the US has been described by President-Elect Trump (an owner of 18 upscale golf facilities) as “aspirational” and that not everybody should have access.
While many daily-fee, resort and private clubs have relaxed their rules to some degree, often those clubs perceived to be at the top of the “food chain” have not, opting to focus on tradition. It sometimes seems like the greatest praise a club can get these days is that it’s a “fun place”. Shouldn’t all clubs be “fun”? Isn’t that the objective of playing any game?
Why is golf declining? According to an article in The Economist from 2015 there are three primary reasons:
- Golf’s pace may no longer fit in with modern lifestyles. It can take more than four hours to play a full round of 18 holes. And disappearing to the golf course for half the weekend is not always considered family friendly.
- While golf may have managed to shake off some of its elitist image, America’s troubled economy is once more making it a pursuit of the wealthy. Middle and lower-income golfers have seen their incomes shrink, hurting membership numbers at middle-market clubs. Some public courses have been closed by local governments making spending cuts.
- Golf has become harder to play. Since the 1990s golf-course designers have taken to building longer, tougher courses in order to put golfers and their equipment to the test. The sport’s growing difficulty and its 200-page rulebook make it a tough sell to new players.
Not only are the game’s rules sometimes so complicated that it takes a lawyer (or call to the USGA) to figure them out, but recently the USGA and R & A made two changes that seem to fly in the face of golf being more fun. A player is no longer able to count scores played solo toward a handicap, which contradicts the game’s claim as a pursuit of honor. After 30+ years of use the anchored putter, which helped many enjoy the game was outlawed. Displays of emotion (positive or negative) are frowned upon and some behaviors considered perfectly acceptable elsewhere are eschewed at the golf course or club.
No doubt, golf is a game of (often very cool) traditions. The question raised is where do we compromise those traditions in the interest of making golf more fun and the economic health of the game? Which traditions are most important. Is it important for the game to grow, or should it be “aspirational”? Clearly, much leadership in golf comes through the upscale private clubs, the USGA, Augusta National and the R & A. The millenial or blue collar guy watching golf on TV may well be turned off by the preponderance of navy (or green) blazers and striped ties and the funerial pace of play often out front at major televised golf events. The many rules at some private clubs relating to cell phone use, attire and playing customs, combined with the often onerous (especially to the casual, recreational player) procedures for play can be turnoffs to the younger and less experienced golfers, particularly among women and minorities the game needs to grow.
In an attempt to revitalize and broaden golf’s appeal, faster, easier versions of the sport are being invented. Foot golf, a hybrid of football and golf and top golf, which involves hitting golf balls onto huge, colored targets in outdoor sports bars, are two experiments. TopGolf is a resounding success. The introduction recently of golf boards, a motorized skateboard that transports a player and his clubs around the course is also an effort to attract a new breed to the game. The golf establishment should look at what the future holds. It could be cell phones, more casual attire or push carts (which are already at many top clubs). The bottom line is that if young people, women and minorities don’t perceive golf as “FUN”, they’ll find other forms of recreation and golf won’t grow.
Given the obstacles to growth golf faces in the modern society, defaulting to the age old reasons of “it takes too much time” and “it costs too much money” and the failed responses isn’t working. It’s time for those of us in the game to take a look in the mirror. It seems as though the enemy may be us.