Is golf finally on the verge of a resurgence?
If statistics and conversation from the nation’s leading golf industry organizations are to be believed, it is.
Leaders of the World Golf Foundation, National Golf Foundation, United States Golf Association, PGA of America, PGA Tour and LPGA Tour all expressed a bullish view of the sport’s immediate and long-term future last month while attending The Players Championship.
By just about all measurable standards, the game has been in decline for the past decade, as evidenced by a decrease in the number of rounds played on the Grand Strand every year since 2004, according to statistics compiled by marketing cooperative Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday.
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“If you just read some things that have been written or you listen to maybe a few industry leaders here and there, you would really think the game is just dying,” said USGA executive director Mike Davis. “We as a group absolutely do not subscribe to that. We think golf certainly has its challenges, we are acknowledging those, but we think that the future of the game is very rosy.”
Few areas of the country have as much of a stake in the health of the game as the Myrtle Beach market, which has nearly 100 golf courses stretching from Georgetown to Southport, N.C., including about 90 that are open to public play. Golf Holiday statistics show the region has dropped from more than 4 million rounds annually to about 3 million rounds played.
The game has shown signs of at least stabilization in the past few years, as rounds played and the number of golfers nationwide have been largely flat following significant decreases predating the recession, according to statistics compiled by the National Golf Foundation.
Paid rounds played in Myrtle Beach have dropped no more than 2 percent annually in four of the past five years, according to Golf Holiday statistics.
Teeing up a strategy
If the sport is indeed making a turnaround, it’s not by accident.
While there has always been some level of cooperation between influential golf organizations in the U.S., industry leaders made a concerted effort late in 2013 to join forces at unprecedented levels to grow the game and ensure its future health.
Golf’s leading organizations examined all of the existing initiatives that had the potential to impact the game and embraced five programs with collective backing and resources.
They got behind The First Tee; LPGA-USGA Girls Golf; PGA Junior League Golf; Drive, Chip & Putt; and Get Golf Ready, and believe they have made great strides behind those programs in just the past 18 months.
“We view this as a long-term process, a collaborative process and a focused effort on behalf of the golf industry,” said World Golf Foundation chief executive officer Steve Mona. “All of golf's major stakeholders are combining forces to put a significant focus in this area, and this is not only about growth, this is also about ensuring the future long-term health and vitality of the game.”
LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan left the industry for about 15 years and returned in 2010 to lead the world’s top women’s pro tour. “I was floored by how much collaboration there is at this level and how much better it's really gotten in the last five or six years that I've been around,” Whan said.
According to NGF studies, the game peaked with approximately 30 million players in the pre-recession years of 2002-07. PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem attributes the drop in participation to about 25 million players more to economic factors than a nationwide decrease in interest in the game.
A popular fear in the golf industry is that the game is losing ground in the millenial generation because the group’s progressive lifestyles, short attention spans, technology-based interests and sometimes stressed finances aren’t aligned with golf’s difficulty, cost and time commitment.
But NGF research shows millenials (ages 18-34) are engaged in the game, with 6 million already playing and 12 million more at least “somewhat interested” in taking up the sport.
Golf leaders acknowledge the game has some obstacles to overcome for sustainability. It needs to improve upon: resource management, water conservation and the reduction of the environmental footprint of courses; cost of maintenance and green fees (courses spend $550,000 per year on maintenance on average according to Davis and the average round in the U.S. costs $26 according to Mona); time spent playing the game and encouraging alternatives to 18 holes (nine-hole rounds increased 13 percent in 2014 according to USGA handicap recordings); and the player experience.
“Good golf is fun golf,” Davis said.
“It's not just these [six] organizations,” Davis said. “You've got state and regional golf associations of which there's well over 100 in the United States, you’ve got the golf course superintendents, the club managers, owner-operators, the architects, the equipment manufacturers – all those play into this.”
Optimism in the industry is based on and supported by numerous statistics.
“We view the overall state of the golf industry as stable, and we view its future as encouraging, and we base that conclusion on data that was recently released by the National Golf Foundation,” Mona said.
Numbers cited from NGF research include:
▪ For the third consecutive year, participation held steady with approximately 25 million people – 24.7 million to be exact – playing at least one round of golf in 2014.
▪ 2 million people took up the game for the first time in 2014, the most since 2002.
▪ Perhaps the most encouraging statistic is latent demand. According to surveys of 40,000 Americans conducted by the Physical Activity Council – a partnership of sports associations including the NGF – 32.3 million non-golfers (defined by people who didn’t play a single round in 2014) are either “very interested” or “somewhat interested” in playing golf now, which is up 3.7 million from 2013 and continues annual increases from a base of 26.5 million in 2011.
Of that 32.3 million, 12 million are millenials. “We're very encouraged by that number,” Mona said.
▪ Baby Boomers (ages 50 to 64) account for nearly 25 percent of all golfers. Nearly 4 million Baby Boomers are expected to retire each year for the next 15 years, and the golfers among them are expected to double their play annually in retirement.
▪ There are 25 million non-golfers who participate in the game through driving ranges, Topgolf venues, simulator screen golf or miniature golf. “And we believe that this is a fertile ground for us in terms of a procession from the nontraditional game into the traditional game,” Mona said.
▪ The average number of rounds played by golfers has risen slightly in recent years to betwee 18 and 19 rounds annually, which NGF senior vice president Greg Nathan attributes to the loss of more casual golfers and retention of more committed golfers.
▪ Though rounds played in the U.S. were down 1.7 percent in 2014 compared to 2013, according to PGA PerformanceTrak, the number of rounds played based on days that facilities were open for play increased 1 percent, marking the third consecutive year of positive growth in rounds on days open. PerformanceTrak is a PGA of America report that receives monthly data from more than 2,600 golf facilities.
▪ Course closures exceeded course openings for the ninth consecutive year, which Mona termed a “market correction” that will benefit the overall health of the industry. In 2014, 175 courses closed and just 11 opened, leaving approximately 15,370 courses, with 75 percent open to the public.
Since 2002 on the Strand, 25 courses have closed while just four have opened, including two private courses and one that was built on the site of a closed course.
The trend isn’t likely to abate any time soon. National golf course supply increased 40 percent in the 20 years between 1986-2005 and has reduced just 4 percent through the decreases of the past nine years.
“We believe that … the facilities that still exist when this is complete will be very strong and able to compete in the marketplace,” Mona said.
▪ The First Tee was created in 1997 to give golf access to children who historically hadn’t had it, including inner-city youth, and it has grown from there.
The organization says more than 10.5 million kids have participated in First Tee programs since its inception and it now has 180 chapters in the U.S. and select international locations. Finchem said 34 percent of participants have been girls and 51 percent have been an ethnicity other than white, so it has promoted diversity. In addition to introducing youth to golf, it also builds character through the stressing of nine core values.
The program is in 8,500 elementary schools, and in 2014, 600 former participants played on college golf teams. “That's a program that I think the sky's the limit in terms of its overall impact,” Finchem said.
The First Tee of the Grand Strand programming is in all of the elementary schools in Georgetown County and several in Horry County, and is offered in after-school, Saturday and summer sessions.
It’s parent organization, the Carol S. Petrea Foundation based in Shallotte, N.C., oversees four First Tee chapters, involving two counties in S.C. and 11 counties in N.C., and will reach approximately 40,000 youth this year, according to founder Rusty Petrea. He said the foundation has a vision of being involved with 100,000 youth in those 13 counties by 2020 “and we’re working toward that every day.”
▪ PGA Junior League Golf, founded and supported by the PGA of America, launched as a pilot program in 2011 with teams competing in four founding markets: Atlanta, Tampa, Dallas, and San Diego. In 2014, participation doubled from 2013 with nearly 20,000 participants on approximately 1,400 teams across North America.
The co-ed initiative for children ages 7-13 features teams of at least eight players with uniforms coached by a PGA pro, giving youth an alternative to team-based sports such as basketball, baseball, softball and soccer.
Four groups of two teammates compete against twosomes from other teams in nine-hole matches with a scramble format that carries less pressure than individual stroke play, and players can be substituted every three holes. World No. 1 Rory McIlroy is the league’s global ambassador.
“Its growth has been dynamic,” said PGA of America CEO Pete Bevacqua, who expects the league to quickly reach 100,000 participants. “It’s great to see how kids rally around this team-based approach to the game. We think it's really going to drive the needle in terms of getting more boys and girls in this game.”
There are four teams on the Strand: two representing River Oaks Golf Club and the Myrtle Beach Junior Golf Foundation, and one each from Wachesaw Plantation and The Dunes Golf and Beach Club. The regular season ends in July, then an area all-star team will travel to state competitions.
▪ LPGA-USGA Girls Golf, which provides a less intimidating all-girl learning environment, was founded in 1989 but was an isolated program until recent years. Since 2010, the program has grown from 5,000 participants ages 6-17 to an estimated 50,000 in 300 communities around the country.
Although centered around golf, LPGA-USGA Girls Golf also works on improving life skills specific to young girls, including self-esteem, leadership, confidence and perseverance.
“Numerous studies have proven that girls do better not only learning in a girls-only environment, but the retention rate is significant,” said Whan, who said 40 current LPGA Tour members were introduced to the game in a Girls Golf program. “We believe it’s got significant upside beyond that.”
The program is administered through a partnership between the LPGA Foundation and USGA and has several ambassadors playing on the LPGA Tour. It has been offered on the Strand but isn’t currently.
▪ Drive, Chip & Putt is a competition in its third year. It is supported by the PGA, USGA and Augusta National Golf Club, which hosts the national finals the Sunday before the Masters Tournament.
The grassroots program for boys and girls ages 7-15 has 255 local qualifiers in all 50 states this year, followed by 50 sub-regionals, 10 regionals and the 80-player championship at Augusta National, which is broadcast live on Golf Channel. Without providing specific numbers, Augusta National director of communications Steve Ethun said the program nearly doubled its participants in the second year.
A local DC&P qualifier will be held at Legends Resort on July 21.
▪ Get Golf Ready is an adult-targeted introductory program offering five lessons from PGA of America or LPGA teaching professionals for $99. According to Bevacqua, roughly 100,000 people went through the program in 2014, and 62 percent of them were women. Bevacqua said research shows that 86 percent of the people who go through Get Golf Ready stay in the game. Several pros and courses on the Strand offer the program.
“I think what deserves attention is that all these organization and associations are working together on these programs,” said Golf Holiday president Bill Golden, an NGF board member. “That’s very encouraging. Certainly the foundation has been built with all these programs to foster growth.”
Finchem said the PGA Tour is committed to supporting the five programs with commercial spots during its tournament telecasts, and more initiatives are likely to receive the collective support of industry leaders.
“We will pay attention to other programs that emerge,” Mona said. “We'll keep our eye on those, and those could possibly become part of this mix in the future.”
Reasons for optimism
According to studies and statistics compiled by the National Golf Foundation and other golf-related organizations:
▪ There are 24.7 million U.S. residents who played at least one round of golf in 2014, which is on par with the past three years.
▪ There are 32.3 million non-golfers who are either “very interested” or “somewhat interested” in playing golf now, and 12 million are millenials between the ages of 18 and 34.
▪ Baby Boomers (ages 50 to 64) account for nearly 25 percent of all golfers. Nearly 4 million are expected to retire each year for the next 15 years, and based on recent history, the golfers among them are expected to play about twice as much in retirement.
▪ The First Tee has had more than 10.5 million participants since its inception in 1997. The Carol S. Petrea Foundation, which oversees four First Tee chapters including The First Tee of the Grand Strand, will reach approximately 40,000 youth in 13 Carolinas counties in 2015.
▪ Participation in PGA Junior League Golf doubled from 2013 to 2014 to nearly 20,000 participants on approximately 1,400 teams across North America.
▪ Since 2010, LPGA-USGA Girls Golf has grown from 5,000 participants ages 6-17 to an estimated 50,000 in 300 communities.
▪ The third annual Drive, Chip & Putt competition will have 255 local qualifiers encompassing all 50 states and culminate with the final at Augusta National Golf Club broadcast live on Golf Channel.
▪ The introductory Get Golf Ready initiative targeting adults had approximately 100,000 participants in 2014.
The golf participation and latent demand numbers cited by NGF are attained through a Physical Activity Council survey of 40,000 Americans ages 6 and older every year regarding their participation in more than 100 sports and fitness activities, including golf.