Since its peak in 2002, golf has lost nearly a quarter of its fans. That’s shocking considering how many Baby Boomers out there are set to retire or already have, leaving them with a lot more time on their hands to pursue the sport. Just last year, golf lost 1.1 million players, according to Pellucid, a company that specializes in the golf industry.
Changing golf statistics
This change can be seen in myriad ways: the closing of golf courses, for example. Last year, there were only 14 new golf courses opened, while 160 closed. According to the National Golf Foundation, that meant 2013 was year eight in a string of years in which more courses were closing than opening. Players who remain are also playing fewer rounds of golf. Although more than 450 million rounds were played in 2013, that was the lowest number since 1995.
Then there are the sporting goods companies, which depend on golf for their livelihoods. It’s no surprise that companies like Callaway Golf (owned by Adidas) reported a 34 percent drop in sales for the first quarter of 2014. Such figures extend to specialty stores like Dick’s Sporting Goods, which find themselves with a glut of golf inventory, based on dropping sales.
Golf features driving the drop
While an aging population with more time to spend on the links might suggest that golf would be gaining in popularity, several factors inherent to the sport are perhaps causing the most damage. First of all, the game is expensive. Yet, it’s always been so, so why the drop in golfers? Consider the economy. Other sports demand far less of an initial investment to pursue, and greens fees can be challenging financially each time a new golfer wants to play.
For its part, the industry recognizes that it requires a big time commitment to play 18 holes of golf. An average 18-hole game can take 4 hours on the course, plus drive time to arrive and return home. That’s a serious commitment for those with a busy schedule. In an effort to counteract that argument, several golfing associations are pushing a new campaign headlined “Time for Nine,” targeting a shorter time commitment on the part of golfers.
And while being able to play the sport for a lifetime may be an asset in the eyes of many, learning to play well is also seen as a disadvantage to many beginning golfers. It takes years to become a proficient golfer. To counteract this problem, a new version of the sport is taking hold called “Hack Golf,” in which some courses are enlarging holes to 15 inches (from 4.25) to make sinking putts easier and golf generally more satisfying.
Social media changes the game
Perhaps the biggest reason golf is losing ground, however, has to do with social media. While golf was long considered an extension of the office, once warmer weather hit, the growth of social media and tighter corporate budgets (less money for country clubs and golf memberships) means that it no longer holds the type of influence it once did. No longer do executives need to hit the links to make deals. Keeping in touch is as easy as videoconferencing, emailing, or texting. As a result, being a competent golfer is no longer a way up the corporate ladder it once was. And for many, that makes it a lot less attractive as a sport.
Is golf dead? No, but the sport will need some serious love from its biggest supporters if it is to sustain itself or even begin to grow in numbers again.