Let’s cut to the chase. Has there been a precipitous drop in golf participation or is it the hand wringing of borderline operators? I promised an analysis based on fact and will proceed accordingly.
Before I start, I want to talk about professional golf: the PGA, LPGA, Champions and Web.com tours. This is not golf as far as a participation issue. It’s TV entertainment played by the most skilled golfers in the world. Take away TV and the purses would be peanuts with the PR folks desperately looking for sponsors.
As a percentage, professional golfers represent some 0.05-to-0.07 percent of all golfers, but if you read the golf magazines and listen to golf commentary and you might think that they were golf. No business model focuses on 0.05 percent of the market for decision making, yet the ruling bodies are greatly influenced by these stars and it’s almost as if the other 99.95 percent of golfers don’t count. Yes the pros are a factor in showing us the game at its highest level and yes they can be considered a positive influence. When you see the participation hard numbers, you will also see that while they’re a factor they haven’t moved the needle.
Add in the elite amateurs (another miniscule group: about 3.4 percent of golfers who play almost to a professional level) and we see more examples of an industry that focuses on the minority. Look up courses on the internet and you’ll find language such as, “Come play our 7200-yard, ultra-challenging course,” etc.
Really, if all the amateurs in the U.S. who could actually play a 7200-yard course were to play golf at the same time, there would be still be tons of empty golf courses in this country. But I digress…
This segment is about a statistical evaluation of participation. My primary database is The National Golf Foundation (NGF). The NGF is sponsored by the various facets of the golf industry and produce a variety of studies on participation. I promised facts not opinions, but others besides me have accused the NGF of painting the numbers in the best possible light. I prefer to look at the data and state the obvious.
- The NGF reports a core base of some 25 million golfers, down from 30 million in 2000.
- Some 40 percent of that total is a category called occasional golfers, who are age 6 and up who play more than once per year. In 2000, they accounted for about 9.1 million golfers. In 2012, that number grew to 11.6 million golfers.
- Then we have core golfers, who are age 6 and up who play more than eight times per year. They accounted for about 19.7 million golfers in 2000, but only 13.7 million golfers in 2012.
- I like to focus on what the NGF calls avid golfers, which are folks (age 6 and up) who play more than 25 times per year. In 2000, there were 10.2 million avid golfers, but that number dropped nearly 4 million to 6.4 million in 2012.
Why focus on avid golfers you might ask? Shouldn’t the emphasis be on getting the members of the other categories to play more? In fact, if you look at the occasional category you’ll see that it actually increased from 9.1 million in 2000 to 11.6 million in 2014. This would be an example of selective analysis, something for a cheerleader. I could point out this fact to the exclusion of all others. But when you look at the accumulated numbers, one thing is evident; there has been some success getting new players to the course, but it’s been overridden by the fact that they don’t continue playing.
I’m not going into the population factor in detail; over the years we had a significant increase as golf went up AND down. Today’s Caucasian population rate of increase is down, so overall increases come from minorities who are not inclined toward golf as a group. I could turn this data alone into a very negative assessment, but let’s just say population isn’t a positive factor.
In the marketing business this is very serious. The hard job is new customers, and when you get them and can’t keep them you have a major problem.
When I looked at the numbers in greater detail I learned that the avid category picked up the tab for some 71 percent of all golf-related expenses. So a modest increase in the avid category has greater impact than a more significant increase in the other two. If we add in the golfers who play more than eight rounds a year, we now have 94 percent of golf spending.
What about junior golf? What have all the industry sponsored programs achieved? It’s down 10 percent since 2000 and more than 20 percent since it peaked in 2005. That could be the subject of a study unto itself, but the bottom line is that it isn’t something of promise for the future. You can join the NGF for $125 a year if you want to peruse their data.
During the last 14 years there has been a variety of articles blaming weather, the economy and a variety of short-term influences. I maintain that over 14 years these influences have been mitigated.
Why are golfers leaving? In all surveys there is one dominant theme; too slow, no fun. And, for the record, too slow IS no fun.
This will evoke a response from those who say I’m ignoring cost. Not at all; I’m just focused on optimizing value. More than 145 courses closed in 2013 and the vast majority had greens fees and carts under $40. Value first, cost will follow. There was very inexpensive tennis during its decline.
There probably isn’t a reader that can’t point to one specific negative factor that is beyond my boundaries. There is the whole concept of disregarding rules and using “fixes” like 15-inch cups.
I understand the thinking behind all that, but with the overall objective of increasing participation I’ll stay focused; golf needs more avid players. We know who we want to get more involved in the game and we know why they are leaving. Let’s give the plan for bringing them back a 100 percent focused effort. If it shows no progress after a credible time period then we can go off the reservation.
The coveted FedEx Cup Top 30: Why making it to the Tour Championship really matters
This week at the BMW Championship held at Medinah Golf Club in Chicago, the top 70 players left in the FedEx Cup Playoffs are looking to seal their spot in the top 30 and get to East Lake for the Tour Championship.
Not only does getting into the top 30 mean a chance at winning the FedEx Cup and a cool $15 million bonus for winning the event, but heading into the 2020 season, being in the top 30 comes with some big perks. This top 30 threshold allows players the opportunity to build their schedules around the biggest event in golf.
Let’s take a look at what punching a ticket to East Lake really gets you
- An automatic invitation into every major in 2020: The Masters, PGA Championship, US Open, and The Open Championship. For many players qualifying for these events, especially The Masters in a lifelong dream.
- Invitation to all the WGC Events: There are only a few event on tour that get you an automatic paycheck and FedEx Cup points. Being eligible for the WGCs shows that you are a world-class player, and with these events on the schedule, you don’t have to worry about qualifying through world rankings.
- Invitation to all limited field events: This includes the Genesis Invitational (formerly Genesis Open / LA Open), The Arnold Palmer Invitational, The Memorial, and The Players Championship.
If a player was to play every one of the qualified events that would put them at 12 events for the season—to maintain a card for the next year a player has to play in at least 15 events. If you conclude that many of these are also winners and will play in the Tournament of Champions in Hawaii that would put the players at 13 events.
This is why being in the top 30 is such a vital line in the proverbial sand—it gives these top players the ability to pick and choose their schedules for the 2019/2020 season without the stress of worrying about what events they are in. Although not to the same extent, this is also why every cutoff is so crucial for each player, whether it be the PGA Tour top 125, PGA Tour 125-150, or those players that gained their cards through the Korn Ferry Tour. Every dollar and every point earned accumulates towards playing opportunities for the next season!
WRX Q&A: NewClub’s Matt Considine
A friend of a friend pointed me to NewClub’s website. Having never heard anything about the effort previously, my first impression of NewClub was a product of its homepage, which looks something like (OK, exactly like) this.
“Sounds great,” I thought. “But what the heck does all of this mean practically?”
To get the answer to that question, I got in touch with founder and CEO Matt Considine, who was kind enough to answer a few questions about the venture.
GolfWRX: Let’s start with a little bit about your background in golf…
Matt Considine: As Lebron likes to say “I’m just a kid from Akron” and like many Midwestern kids, I’ve loved playing games with my friends, especially the game of golf. I grew up working and playing at area clubs, munis, and driving ranges. I always had a club in my hands — my mom will attest to all the divots in her carpet and repaired windows in our house. My first internship in college was with IMG Sports in Cleveland and that was my first formal introduction to the golf industry.
WRX: How did arrive at the concept for NewClub?
MC: Golf societies have been around since 1744, so I’m not sure I can take credit for conceiving anything. We took an old idea and made it new again, something that would mesh with the life of a modern golfer.
The first time I was introduced to a golf society was in 2005, and I haven’t been able to shake the concept since. Like many people I’ve talked to, I was burnt out and frustrated with golf, so I quit my college team and shipped off that summer to study at University College Cork in Ireland for 9 months.
I left to get away from golf but it was my experiences in Ireland that introduced me to a whole new way of enjoying the game. After getting laughed off Cork’s Hurling team (Ireland’s native sport) they found out I could play a little bit of golf and offered me a spot on the club team (league rules permitted one American per squad). My dad shipped my clubs over and I was back in business. Because their University teams operated on a lean budget, we would play matches against local societies and clubs in between the college matches to keep the competition sharp. It was those matches and people I met that taught me a whole new way to look at, appreciate, and enjoy the game of golf. It was a miraculous blessing looking back on it now.
Fast forward 10 years, I was living in Chicago working in business development for a technology company. I kept meeting people who were self-proclaimed “golfers,” but not playing much golf. So a small group of friends took a trip over to Scotland where we had an especially enlightening experience playing the Old Course and hanging out at The New Golf Club of St. Andrews after our match.
It was our experience there that was the final spark that NewClub needed. We enjoyed our lunch while The New Golf Club members file through the entrance, four golfers at a time to reminisce about their game on one of the seven links courses available to them through the St. Andrews Links Trust and their golf society membership.
We met teachers, bankers, architects, grocers, police officers, accountants, and fishermen. We heard stories about legendary members like Tom Morris and Sandy Herd. The New Golf Club of St. Andrews is a magical place where any golfer in their community, anyone in good standing with a passion for the game could make their golfing home.
When I returned to Chicago from that second pilgrimage in May of 2015, I decided it was time to start enjoying golf again. Just like the way I used to as a kid, the way those clubs and societies did in Ireland, and the way those members did at The New Golf Club of St. Andrews. That summer I started a standing game every Saturday at any compelling course I could find and my golf society was born. Then in 2017, we made NewClub official with 50 founding members and 5 clubs in Chicago willing to host the society.
WRX: What’s happened since launch and where you are now?
MC: The society has grown to over 300 members and we have relationships with over 50 private clubs and golf courses that we find fun and compelling places to play the game. We have standing tee times every Wednesday to Sunday throughout the golf season and host five tournaments and three trips every year. Next Spring, we have our first NewClub trip scheduled to back to Scotland.
We’ve also introduced an ambassador program for people from all around the country. It’s been amazing how many people we’ve met who are eager for something like this in their own community, a golf society that they can genuinely be proud of.
WRX: Anything more about what members are saying and what the feedback is been like?
MC: In a lot of ways, we’ve set up this really unique society golf experiment, so we’re not afraid to try new things and see how people respond. Our members have been incredibly helpful with feedback. We’ve been listening a lot, watching how they use the mobile app, how they play their golf, learning about things they need, things they don’t. It all has helped us get to where we are now.
Overall, we’ve found that people have enjoyed the access and discovery of new and exciting courses, but the more pleasant surprise has been how much our members enjoy meeting new people and playing with each other. Nobody ever thinks (or admits) that they need golf buddies. But what we’ve found is that people are far more likely to play a round if they know they’ll be playing with someone they actually want to play with.
We’ve also learned that match play is very unappreciated in our country. Members love the matches, and match play is one of our core principles at NewClub.
WRX: What’s next for NewClub?
MC: We have plans for our second market launch in 2020 and will continue to grow our ambassador program to show us the road ahead. People are starting to stand up and say “this is how I want to experience golf,” so we know there is a serious need out there and we want to make sure we are meeting the demand by growing in the right way.
WRX: What do prospective members need to know?
MC: We have a really straightforward and proprietary application process on our website. Every prospective member needs to complete the application before being considered for membership. We look for applicants who possess a high quality of character, passion, and respect for the game of golf, and always leave the course in better shape than they found it.
Slow play is all about the numbers
If you gather round, children, I’ll let you in on a secret: slow play is all about the numbers. Which numbers? The competitive ones. If you compete at golf, no matter the level, you care about the numbers you post for a hole, a round, or an entire tournament. Those numbers cause you to care about the prize at the end of the competition, be it a handshake, $$$$, a trophy, or some other bauble. Multiply the amount that you care, times the number of golfers in your group, your flight, the tournament, and the slowness of golf increases by that exponent.
That’s it. You don’t have to read any farther to understand the premise of this opinion piece. If you continue, though, I promise to share a nice anecdotal story about a round of golf I played recently—a round of golf on a packed golf course, that took a twosome exactly three hours and 10 minutes to complete, holing all putts.
I teach and coach at a Buffalo-area high school. One of my former golfers, in town for a few August days, asked if we could play the Grover Cleveland Golf Course while he was about. Grover is a special place for me: I grew up sneaking on during the 1970s. It hosted the 1912 U.S. Open when it was the Country Club of Buffalo. I returned to play it with Tom Coyne this spring, becoming a member of #CitizensOfACCA in the process.
Since my former golfer’s name is Alex, we’ll call him Alex, to avoid confusion. Alex and I teed off at 1:30 on a busy, sunny Wednesday afternoon in August. Ahead of us were a few foursomes; behind us, a few more. There may have been money games in either place, or Directors’ Cup matches, but to us, it was no matter. We teed it high and let it fly. I caught up on Alex’ four years in college, and his plans for the upcoming year. I shared with him the comings and goings of life at school, which teachers had left since his graduation, and how many classrooms had new occupants. It was barroom stuff, picnic-table conversation, water-cooler gossip. Nothing of dense matter nor substance, but pertinent and enjoyable, all the same.
To the golf. Neither one of us looked at the other for permission to hit. Whoever was away, at any given moment, mattered not a bit. He hit and I hit, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes within an instant of the other. We reached the putting surface and we putted. Same pattern, same patter. Since my high school golfers will need to choose flagstick in or out this year, we putted with it in. Only once did it impact our roll: a pounded putt’s pace was slowed by the metal shaft. Score one for Bryson and the flagstick-in premise!
Grover tips out around 5,600 yards. After the U.S. Open and the US Public Links were contested there, a healthy portion of land was given away to the Veteran’s Administration, and sorely-needed hospital was constructed at the confluence of Bailey, Lebrun, and Winspear Avenues. It’s an interesting track, as it now and forever is the only course to have hosted both the Open and the Publinx; since the latter no longer exists, this fact won’t change. It remains the only course to have played a par-6 hole in U.S. Open competition. 480 of those 620 yards still remain, the eighth hole along Bailey Avenue. It’s not a long course, it doesn’t have unmanageable water hazards (unless it rains a lot, and the blocked aquifer backs up) and the bunkering is not, in the least, intimidating.
Here’s the rub: Alex and I both shot 75 or better. We’re not certain what we shot, because we weren’t concerned with score. We were out for a day of reminiscence, camaraderie, and recreation. We golfed our balls, as they say in some environs, for the sheer delight of golfing our balls. Alex is tall, and hits this beautiful, high draw that scrapes the belly of the clouds. I hit what my golfing buddies call a power push. It gets out there a surprising distance, but in no way mimics Alex’ trace. We have the entire course covered, from left to right and back again.
On the 14th tee, I checked my phone and it was 3:40. I commented, “Holy smokes, we are at two hours for 13 holes.” We neither quickened nor slowed our pace. We tapped in on 18, right around 4:40, and shook hands. I know what he’s been up to. He understands why I still have a day job, and 18 holes of golf were played—because we both cared and didn’t care.
There you have it, children. Off with you, now. To the golf course. Play like you don’t care.
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