Why are we playing less golf?

For those of you who follow my blog, it’s no surprise that I’m trying to identify why golf participation is down and the number of golf facilities is shrinking.  We’ve talked about the loss of about 1,000 golf courses nationwide, about the game’s culture and apparent inability to attract the “3 M’s” and about the traditionally given reasons (cost, time and difficulty) for golf’s decline in participation.

One thing that is puzzling to me is why so many people seemingly leave the game.  Just last week, I had an exchange with an old friend which included inviting him to play a round.  This particular individual was quite a player, having qualified multiple times for the US Amateur, once making match play and winning numerous local and college events.  He responded by telling me that he was playing his second round of the year in a few days in a scramble outing and that he hadn’t played a round on his own ball in 5 years.

A look at National Golf Foundation (NGF) statistics shows a drop in the number of golfers nationwide from 25.7 million to 23.8 million from 2011 to 2016, indicating retention is critical to the future health of the game, and golf course facilities in particular.  With 2016 showing the biggest net loss yet of golf facilities (nearly 200) it stands to reason that the lag in course closures behind participation will result in more closures in the near future.

What are the reasons for this?  NGF projects increased interest from “latent demand” and off-course facilities (like TopGolf, driving ranges and activity centers) and paints a positive picture from that and there is even a new partnership between ClubCorp and TopGolf designed to convert that latent demand into traditional golfers. The question still remains as to why those who should have more time (and money) to play aren’t participating enthusiastically.  More importantly, how do we get them back in the game and participating regularly?

A couple months ago and then just a few weeks ago, Jay Karen, CEO of the National Golf Course Owners Association (NGCOA) drew an interesting analogy to golf in two particularly relevant posts comparing the marketing challenges of golf facilities to that of bookstores and gas stations (linked).  Not only does Jay highlight the concept of “buying local” but also the idea that golf courses need to diversify their product, similar to what I discussed here in April about using real estate assets more effectively and using the same example in Virginia.

I have long concluded that in order to promote growth golf needs to think “outside the box”.  Like the old saying “all politics is local” so are golf markets and what works one place may be different than another.  The national statistics and averages we so often discuss are helpful, but to understand the future of any golf facility is to understand it’s history, its competitive market and its existing and potential members/customers.  Each is different.  The golf course or club not only has to offer golf and other golf related activities like tournaments and learning opportunities, but it has appeal to the whole family as well as the corporate executive, who now has to decide on his own if he wants to pay the dues required as corporations increasingly eschew that perk.  The club needs more non-golf activities providing recreational value both economically and time-wise.  Otherwise, the family doesn’t join.

Why are we playing less golf?  My biggest reasons are listed below:

  • Family Dynamics – Modern day Dads are more involved with family activities;
  • Social Stigmas – The game has not embraced the “3 M’s” in a way that will encourage participation.  The environment isn’t welcoming to new/non-golfers and can often be intimidating or hostile to the new or beginning golfer.  Additionally, golf is not perceived as “healthy” when compared to other (often cheaper) activities like cycling, hiking, skiing and other sports.  I believe the golf cart has contributed to that perception;
  • Learning Opportunities – Yes, there are lots of golf instructors and tech to go along with it, but the learning curve is steep and free introductory clinics can be hard to find;
  • Gratification – As Jack Nicklaus said “I’d like to play a game that can take place in three hours,” Nicklaus told CNN in January. “I’d quite like to play a game that I can get some reasonable gratification out of very quickly — and something that is not going to cost me an arm and a leg.” Mr. Nicklaus’ argument mirrors the traditional reasons of time, money and difficulty, but points out a fundamental element of modern society, instant gratification. In an era where we are all connected and instantly receive news, information and other communications, we also expect the thrill immediately.  Golf doesn’t provide that and takes time to learn.  It does provide the thrills, but can also beat you up;
  • Cost – One cannot ignore that the cost of golf, especially for the entire family, can be steep.  However, it isn’t typically prohibitive and there are many cost-effective offerings in many instances where one can go play a nice municipal course for $20-$50.  With millennials typically willing to spend on entertainment and the cost of a round of golf usually being less than other forms of entertainment (concert, ballgame, etc.) this isn’t always the primary issue.