Photo: Unsplash/Edewaa Foster

The Slow, Inevitable Death of Golf? Or the Rise of Golf 2.0?

The sport of golf is deep in the rough. The National Golf Foundation (NGF), established in 1936, is an industry group that provides market intelligence, insights, and trends about the perception and economy of golf. Each year NGF releases a report about the state of the sport, and this year’s results confirm what most insiders already know—golf is in trouble.

The numbers aren’t good—in 2003, 30.6 million golfers played at a course; whereas, in 2014, only 24.7 million did. Worse yet, there’s been a 30% decline of golfers aged 18-34 over the last 20 years. A golf course closes about every 2 days in America, and a 2013 NGF report determined that more courses will close than open over the next few years.

Golf’s decline in popularity is seeing rippling effects for sports equipment and apparel manufacturers as well. Nike recently stated that they would no longer make golf clubs, opting to focus on apparel instead. Adidas also made an announcement that they would be entering into negotiations to sell the company’s golf division, which includes the TaylorMade brand.

Why Has Golf Participation and Interest Declined So Much Recently?

You’ll get different answers depending on who you ask (or hire). Consultants, clubhouse pros, investors, and grandpas each have different opinions.

Some say there are simply too many entertainment options that are conveniently available at a push of a button. The perceived short attention span of the “plugged-in” generation is worrisome for a game that typically lasts around five Game of Thrones episodes.

Some theories suggest shrinking disposable incomes, or that people can’t or won’t dedicate the time to play a round of golf for 4-5 hours. Or maybe it’s the rising stigma associated with clearing large swathes of natural landscapes for a water, pesticide, herbicide, and fertilizer-intensive industry like golf.

But amidst all of the debate and discussion about why golf is struggling to keep current players and attract new ones, no one is really sure how to get the sport back on path to greener days. What’s certain is that if golf is going to maintain its stake in today’s society, it needs to figure it out how to reinvent itself, and quickly. However, taking the right steps forward and finding a solution to this dilemma seems to be as elusive as a hole-in-one.

A Brief History of Golf

So where did golf come from? The sport was invented in Scotland and the first U.S. courses were opened in the 1880s. The industrial revolution’s prosperity allowed many new golfers to pick up the sport, especially during the “Roaring Twenties,” but growth was briefly halted by the Great Depression and World War II.

Golf continued to swell during the 1980s and 1990s before its peak in 2005 with 30 million players. Since then, growth rates have declined or been stagnant.

So what happened? A close examination of this period coincides with Tiger Wood’s explosive career. His legendary and record-breaking performances captured the world’s attention for nearly a decade. Then it imploded.

Tiger Woods and His Influence on Golf

From 1997 to 2008, Woods won 14 major championships. He was recognized as “Athlete of the Decade” by the Associated Press, and is considered by many to be one of the greatest to ever play the game. He inspired fans of all ages and people flocked to golf in droves in order to mimic greatness and be part of golf history.

That all ended in 2009 when details about Woods’ personal life and rampant infidelity were broadcast to the public. This revelation would prove to be one of the most devastating blows to the sport of golf.

Tiger’s immense popularity and publicity made the scandal a huge media story. His infidelity was also at odds with the integrity-centric “American success story” image that was associated with both Woods and golf.

Millions of people who adored and followed Woods were suddenly disillusioned, and young players and families abandoned Tiger Woods; in turn, many people abandoned golf along with him.

Tiger Woods was no longer the shining face of golf, a role model, nor the star salesman of the sport. Woods’ fall from grace was a huge blow to golf as the loss of its leading role model left fewer aspiring youngsters and amateurs—the people that are supposed to be the new generation of golfers.

The scandal took a major toll on Tiger Woods, too, who stepped back from golf and checked into rehab to unsuccessfully try to save his marriage. While he returned to golf just a year later, he failed to dominate, let alone win. Tiger ceased to be a Tiger.

Yet the Tiger Woods scandal is just a detail, a very well publicized one, but still just a smaller part of a bigger problem—golf’s image and what people associate to the sport.

Golf’s Image Problem

Ask a random sampling of people to describe what comes to mind when asked about golf and you’ll hear about business executives, corporate retreats, exclusive clubs, golf carts, drinking, and cigars—elements of Western, white, middle-to-upper class society.

In 2005, the countries with the most golf courses per capita were Scotland, New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, Canada, Wales, United States, Sweden, and England.

This perceived lack of diversity sheds light on another problem with golf—its less-than-perfect history, riddled with exclusionary practices and resistance to change. One of the most famous courses in the world, Augusta National Golf Club, didn’t accept African-American members until 1990 and women until 2012.

While these private clubs are free to create their own rules and bylaws—just as Boy Scouts has policies to exclude homosexuals from membership—the rapidly changing cultural views of young people (and their spending power) has a significant impact on who thrives and who dies. As young people are more likely to avoid what they perceive as exclusionary and elitist, it is forcing many rooted golf institutions to re-examine their policies, procedures, and traditions.

Yet golf’s troubles also run deeper than a simple image problem that’s easily fixed with PR magic and marketing finesse—it’s also an economic issue. Often called a “rich man’s sport,” golf is associated with corporate success, wealth, and elitism.

The Cost of Golf

For example, if you want to try a round of golf for the first time, the cheapest way would be to play at a public course. The average green fee is $40 to play a round of 18 holes. Without your own golf clubs, which can cost thousands of dollars for a set of 14, you may be able to rent golf clubs for around $20.

You’ll also need to have your own golf balls (hopefully enough for your first time), which will cost you around $25-$35 for a dozen. There’s other optional equipment, like a golf cart rental or a golf glove, which can easily add to the overall cost. And you’ll most likely want to enjoy some food and beverage while you’re playing for the next four or more hours. The total cost to try a round of golf hovers around $100/person and can easily be higher depending on location.

Golf vs. Other Entertainment Options

Even if golf were half the price, it would still struggle to stand out in today’s world of high definition entertainment. Netflix is less than $10 a month, Amazon Prime video is $100 a year, a new Xbox One S with a PGA Tour golf game is around $350.

The same round of budget golf that occupies you for four to six hours could instead get you hundreds of hours of video entertainment from the comfort of your home. Of course, it may not be a fair comparison between watching a screen and swinging outside, but the trend of consumer preferences is clear.

Golf and the Environment

Another important consideration taken by today’s conscious consumer is the impact of their choices. Climate change is one of today’s biggest issues, and more than ever, consumers are examining how their personal choices, entertainment and elsewhere, affect the environment and society as a whole.

Golf courses are notorious for being incredibly resource intensive, each one requiring 100,000 to 1,000,000 gallons of water per year to keep fairways and putting greens the correct color. And to keep the local wildlife from consuming this world-class greenery, heaps of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers are frequently applied, each with its own environmental implications.

It’s clear that golf is in trouble. Is it destined to go the way of the dodo? Not if Golf 2.0 takes root.

What is Golf 2.0?

Golf 2.0 is the sport’s official response and remedy to combat waning attention spans, frugal leisure seekers, and overall declining rates.

Rolled out in 2012, the official plan explains that “Golf 2.0 is a targeted, focused, long-range strategic plan for the golf industry to substantially increase the number of golfers, the rounds golf played, and the revenue generated from golf over the next decade among current and potential consumers of the game.”

Its goal is to “increase the numbers of golfers from the current level of approximately 26 million to 40 million by the year 2020, while growing the relevance of golf in America.”

It proposes to do this with a multi-pronged strategy with three core tenets: retaining loyal players, attracting new players, and re-engaging those who have left.

The crucial demographics identified by Boston Consulting Group, who created Golf 2.0, are listed as:

  • Players making at least $150,000 annually
  • Occasional men and women golfers with no children
  • “Lapsed” or former golfers such as parents or retirees
  • Children and youth
  • Latino families familiar with the game but have little to no experience

One of the plan’s highest priorities is to target and re-engage the 90 million Americans that are self-described “lapsed golfers.” These are individuals who no longer play for various reasons such as not enough time, spouse or friends don’t play, or a simple loss of interest.

The plan does an excellent job of identifying the challenges—and opportunities—of today’s changing consumer trends. It realizes the need to overcome the perceived “misconception of the high cost of equipment and fees, especially among families.”

It also understands that it must attract more women as it admits that “Golf must recognize women as the most influential member of American families, as women control 73 percent of household spending.”

Additionally, innovative strategies to attract new, youthful players, are being evaluated, such as “engage with Xbox, EA Sports, and fun, technology-driven, interactive experiences they provide” in order to generate interest in playing on physical courses.

The strategies and objectives of Golf 2.0 are incredibly inclusive and diverse, and the sport is hoping that the plan succeeds in adding 14 million players to the sport in 2020 in order to generate $40 billion in consumer revenue—unprecedented numbers and a lofty goal.

Despite the most recent NGF report bearing more bad news for golf, the sport isn’t going to disappear anytime soon. It’ll take several years to realize the tangible results of Golf 2.0 and whether the sport will successfully reposition itself for future generations. Sometime around 2020, we should be able to see Golf 2.0 and what it becomes—either a stunning approach, or another slice.

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The Slow, Inevitable Death of Golf? Or the Rise of Golf 2.0?

The sport of golf is deep in the rough. The National Golf Foundation (NGF), established in 1936, is an industry group that provides market intelligence, insights, and trends about the perception and economy of golf. Each year NGF releases a report about the state of the sport, and this year’s results confirm what most insiders already know—golf is in trouble.

The numbers aren’t good—in 2003, 30.6 million golfers played at a course; whereas, in 2014, only 24.7 million did. Worse yet, there’s been a 30% decline of golfers aged 18-34 over the last 20 years. A golf course closes about every 2 days in America, and a 2013 NGF report determined that more courses will close than open over the next few years.

Golf’s decline in popularity is seeing rippling effects for sports equipment and apparel manufacturers as well. Nike recently stated that they would no longer make golf clubs, opting to focus on apparel instead. Adidas also made an announcement that they would be entering into negotiations to sell the company’s golf division, which includes the TaylorMade brand.

Why Has Golf Participation and Interest Declined So Much Recently?

You’ll get different answers depending on who you ask (or hire). Consultants, clubhouse pros, investors, and grandpas each have different opinions.

Some say there are simply too many entertainment options that are conveniently available at a push of a button. The perceived short attention span of the “plugged-in” generation is worrisome for a game that typically lasts around five Game of Thrones episodes.

Some theories suggest shrinking disposable incomes, or that people can’t or won’t dedicate the time to play a round of golf for 4-5 hours. Or maybe it’s the rising stigma associated with clearing large swathes of natural landscapes for a water, pesticide, herbicide, and fertilizer-intensive industry like golf.

But amidst all of the debate and discussion about why golf is struggling to keep current players and attract new ones, no one is really sure how to get the sport back on path to greener days. What’s certain is that if golf is going to maintain its stake in today’s society, it needs to figure it out how to reinvent itself, and quickly. However, taking the right steps forward and finding a solution to this dilemma seems to be as elusive as a hole-in-one.

A Brief History of Golf

So where did golf come from? The sport was invented in Scotland and the first U.S. courses were opened in the 1880s. The industrial revolution’s prosperity allowed many new golfers to pick up the sport, especially during the “Roaring Twenties,” but growth was briefly halted by the Great Depression and World War II.

Golf continued to swell during the 1980s and 1990s before its peak in 2005 with 30 million players. Since then, growth rates have declined or been stagnant.

So what happened? A close examination of this period coincides with Tiger Wood’s explosive career. His legendary and record-breaking performances captured the world’s attention for nearly a decade. Then it imploded.

Tiger Woods and His Influence on Golf

From 1997 to 2008, Woods won 14 major championships. He was recognized as “Athlete of the Decade” by the Associated Press, and is considered by many to be one of the greatest to ever play the game. He inspired fans of all ages and people flocked to golf in droves in order to mimic greatness and be part of golf history.

That all ended in 2009 when details about Woods’ personal life and rampant infidelity were broadcast to the public. This revelation would prove to be one of the most devastating blows to the sport of golf.

Tiger’s immense popularity and publicity made the scandal a huge media story. His infidelity was also at odds with the integrity-centric “American success story” image that was associated with both Woods and golf.

Millions of people who adored and followed Woods were suddenly disillusioned, and young players and families abandoned Tiger Woods; in turn, many people abandoned golf along with him.

Tiger Woods was no longer the shining face of golf, a role model, nor the star salesman of the sport. Woods’ fall from grace was a huge blow to golf as the loss of its leading role model left fewer aspiring youngsters and amateurs—the people that are supposed to be the new generation of golfers.

The scandal took a major toll on Tiger Woods, too, who stepped back from golf and checked into rehab to unsuccessfully try to save his marriage. While he returned to golf just a year later, he failed to dominate, let alone win. Tiger ceased to be a Tiger.

Yet the Tiger Woods scandal is just a detail, a very well publicized one, but still just a smaller part of a bigger problem—golf’s image and what people associate to the sport.

Golf’s Image Problem

Ask a random sampling of people to describe what comes to mind when asked about golf and you’ll hear about business executives, corporate retreats, exclusive clubs, golf carts, drinking, and cigars—elements of Western, white, middle-to-upper class society.

In 2005, the countries with the most golf courses per capita were Scotland, New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, Canada, Wales, United States, Sweden, and England.

This perceived lack of diversity sheds light on another problem with golf—its less-than-perfect history, riddled with exclusionary practices and resistance to change. One of the most famous courses in the world, Augusta National Golf Club, didn’t accept African-American members until 1990 and women until 2012.

While these private clubs are free to create their own rules and bylaws—just as Boy Scouts has policies to exclude homosexuals from membership—the rapidly changing cultural views of young people (and their spending power) has a significant impact on who thrives and who dies. As young people are more likely to avoid what they perceive as exclusionary and elitist, it is forcing many rooted golf institutions to re-examine their policies, procedures, and traditions.

Yet golf’s troubles also run deeper than a simple image problem that’s easily fixed with PR magic and marketing finesse—it’s also an economic issue. Often called a “rich man’s sport,” golf is associated with corporate success, wealth, and elitism.

The Cost of Golf

For example, if you want to try a round of golf for the first time, the cheapest way would be to play at a public course. The average green fee is $40 to play a round of 18 holes. Without your own golf clubs, which can cost thousands of dollars for a set of 14, you may be able to rent golf clubs for around $20.

You’ll also need to have your own golf balls (hopefully enough for your first time), which will cost you around $25-$35 for a dozen. There’s other optional equipment, like a golf cart rental or a golf glove, which can easily add to the overall cost. And you’ll most likely want to enjoy some food and beverage while you’re playing for the next four or more hours. The total cost to try a round of golf hovers around $100/person and can easily be higher depending on location.

Golf vs. Other Entertainment Options

Even if golf were half the price, it would still struggle to stand out in today’s world of high definition entertainment. Netflix is less than $10 a month, Amazon Prime video is $100 a year, a new Xbox One S with a PGA Tour golf game is around $350.

The same round of budget golf that occupies you for four to six hours could instead get you hundreds of hours of video entertainment from the comfort of your home. Of course, it may not be a fair comparison between watching a screen and swinging outside, but the trend of consumer preferences is clear.

Golf and the Environment

Another important consideration taken by today’s conscious consumer is the impact of their choices. Climate change is one of today’s biggest issues, and more than ever, consumers are examining how their personal choices, entertainment and elsewhere, affect the environment and society as a whole.

Golf courses are notorious for being incredibly resource intensive, each one requiring 100,000 to 1,000,000 gallons of water per year to keep fairways and putting greens the correct color. And to keep the local wildlife from consuming this world-class greenery, heaps of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers are frequently applied, each with its own environmental implications.

It’s clear that golf is in trouble. Is it destined to go the way of the dodo? Not if Golf 2.0 takes root.

What is Golf 2.0?

Golf 2.0 is the sport’s official response and remedy to combat waning attention spans, frugal leisure seekers, and overall declining rates.

Rolled out in 2012, the official plan explains that “Golf 2.0 is a targeted, focused, long-range strategic plan for the golf industry to substantially increase the number of golfers, the rounds golf played, and the revenue generated from golf over the next decade among current and potential consumers of the game.”

Its goal is to “increase the numbers of golfers from the current level of approximately 26 million to 40 million by the year 2020, while growing the relevance of golf in America.”

It proposes to do this with a multi-pronged strategy with three core tenets: retaining loyal players, attracting new players, and re-engaging those who have left.

The crucial demographics identified by Boston Consulting Group, who created Golf 2.0, are listed as:

  • Players making at least $150,000 annually
  • Occasional men and women golfers with no children
  • “Lapsed” or former golfers such as parents or retirees
  • Children and youth
  • Latino families familiar with the game but have little to no experience

One of the plan’s highest priorities is to target and re-engage the 90 million Americans that are self-described “lapsed golfers.” These are individuals who no longer play for various reasons such as not enough time, spouse or friends don’t play, or a simple loss of interest.

The plan does an excellent job of identifying the challenges—and opportunities—of today’s changing consumer trends. It realizes the need to overcome the perceived “misconception of the high cost of equipment and fees, especially among families.”

It also understands that it must attract more women as it admits that “Golf must recognize women as the most influential member of American families, as women control 73 percent of household spending.”

Additionally, innovative strategies to attract new, youthful players, are being evaluated, such as “engage with Xbox, EA Sports, and fun, technology-driven, interactive experiences they provide” in order to generate interest in playing on physical courses.

The strategies and objectives of Golf 2.0 are incredibly inclusive and diverse, and the sport is hoping that the plan succeeds in adding 14 million players to the sport in 2020 in order to generate $40 billion in consumer revenue—unprecedented numbers and a lofty goal.

Despite the most recent NGF report bearing more bad news for golf, the sport isn’t going to disappear anytime soon. It’ll take several years to realize the tangible results of Golf 2.0 and whether the sport will successfully reposition itself for future generations. Sometime around 2020, we should be able to see Golf 2.0 and what it becomes—either a stunning approach, or another slice.

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