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 19th Hole Episode 170: Grassroots golf and Darius Rucker
Host Michael Williams talks about the benefits of grassroots golf programs in growing the game. Also features a reboot of his exclusive interview with Hootie and the Blowfish.
The Wedge Guy: Have a ‘Plan B’
One of the things that I think is very interesting and fun about this game is that there are a number of ways to play every hole you encounter. And sometimes a hole offers “better” ways to play it than you might think. Let me explain with a couple of experiences from my own golf life.
ONE. In my thirties and forties, I played at a club outside of San Antonio – Fair Oaks Ranch. The 18th hole was a tough par 4 with a very small landing area and a gaping bunker at about 175 out. The skinny fairway left of that bunker wasn’t more than 15 yards wide, and there was a little mott of trees on the green side of the bunker that you would have to carry with your mid-iron bunker approach. Tough, to say the least.
That hole drove most of us nuts, and double bogeys were more common than birdies, for sure. Par was always a great score and bogey wasn’t “bad” at all.
So, one day it hit me that if I hit 4-wood off the tee, I would have an elevated fairway look at the green from about 200-210, giving me another soft 4-wood or 3-iron to the green, and the fairway was about 40 yards wide back there. Being a good long club player, I began to play the hole that way. Doubles disappeared entirely, pars became the norm and I even made the occasional birdie. Hmm.
TWO. At my recent club, the ninth hole just didn’t fit my eye or my game. I play a fade off the tee most of the time and turning over a draw was just not reliable for me at the time. That ninth is a dogleg left, with a bunker on the right side of the fairway that runs from about 160-125 from the green, right where the prime driving area is. What makes this hole so tough for me is that the prevailing wind is left to right, and trees just 60-100 yards off the tee keep me from starting the ball out left and letting it ride the breeze. This is another one where birdies are rare for me there, and bogies and doubles way too frequent. So, it dawned on me one day, finally, that I could hit 4-wood right at that bunker and not get to it, leaving me a 5- or 6-iron into the green, rather than the short iron the rare proper drive would leave me. So, that became my new strategy on that hole. I’m a good mid-iron player, so I’m fine with that, and that damn fairway bunker never caught me again.
THREE. My new club puts a premium on accurate wedge play. Most of the shorter holes have the smallest greens I’ve ever seen, so distance control with your wedge approaches is critical. And I find that reasonably full-swing wedges are easier to control distance than those awkward 60- to 80-yard partial swings. So, I’ve learned to put a premium on club selection off the tee on those holes to leave my approach shots in the 85-115 range, so that I can “dial in” my approach shotmaking.
My point in all this is that sometimes a hole gets under your skin or just doesn’t set up well for your game. When that happens, design yourself a Plan ‘B,’ and change the way you play it, at least for a while. Quite often you will find a solution to a problem and your scores and attitude will improve.
Club Junkie: Mizuno T-22 wedge and Cuater Moneymaker shoes review!
Mizuno’s new T-22 wedges are forged from the same 1025 carbon steel with boron as the irons, giving them an extremely soft feel. Very versatile, the sole grinds allow for hitting any shot your heart desires.
The Cuater Moneymaker shoes might be some of the most comfortable I have worn in years. Tons of cushioning, exceptional traction all over the course, and they are even waterproof!
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