A little more than a week after we got wind of the National Golf Foundation’s (NGF) annual golf participation report, we got word of The Wall Street Journal’s preemptive report detailing not only the NGF report but how the number of people trying golf for the first time has gone up while overall participation continues to drop. So what’s the sport doing wrong?
American golf should be growing rapidly. The sport is attracting more new players in the U.S. now than at any time since the early 2000s.
And yet, when the National Golf Foundation releases its annual participation report on Tuesday, it will show another decline in the number of people who played the game at least once in the last year.
These two contradictory trends may be the most telling indication of the state of the industry: Plenty of people are taking up the game for the first time, but very few of them are sticking with it. And according to the NGF, a leading research and consulting group, that is less an indictment of the game itself than of the operators of the country’s more than 15,000 courses.
“Golf needs to be more beginner-friendly,” said NGF chief executive Joe Beditz. “It’s like we’re running a gas station. ‘Come or don’t come. Here’s the price.’”
Roughly 2.2 million Americans aged 6 and older played golf for the first time in 2015, according to the NGF, the most since 2002. That is up from a post-recession low of 1.5 million beginners in 2011. Yet the overall number of participants still fell to 24.1 million, a marginal drop from 24.7 million in 2014 and down from a peak of 30 million in 2005.
The leak isn’t coming from the core of the industry: a group of nearly 20 million people who play golf regularly and say in surveys they are likely to continue doing so. It’s coming from the people who never make it into that group.
Nearly 90% of the people who left the game in 2015 never became regular golfers, which the NGF defines as playing at least eight times per year. Taken together, the numbers portray a business that is being handed new customers, through the sheer allure of the game, and which lacks either the ability or the interest to turn them into devoted regulars.
In an interview last week, the world’s most famous golfer echoed the NGF’s call for courses to be more welcoming to beginners.
“How do you keep them still interested in it?” Tiger Woods said. “How do you keep it fun? That’s one of the things we’re running into right now with the game of golf. It’s just stagnant. We have people come into the game but they exit the game. There’s no sustainability.”
In what seems like annual obituaries written about golf, two factors often cited are time and money. Fewer people have the time and patience to slog through a five-hour round. And a shrinking middle class doesn’t help a sport that can be expensive.
But the reality is that if golf could retain even a slight majority of the beginners it attracts each year, the sport would be growing. And in its surveys of people who quit the game, the NGF found that what really drives retention are two factors less often discussed.
One is comfort—how comfortable a beginner is both on the course and around other golfers—which is mostly a function of atmosphere. The assumption at most courses is that a person walking in is familiar with everything from the pre-round routine to the countless unspoken rules of etiquette. In fact, beginners understand little of it. People who quit often never get past feeling like an outsider in a club for insiders.
The other factor is competence. Most beginners who don’t get hooked say they never felt “shot euphoria”—the thrill of the one great shot, however rare, that keeps even the most casual duffers coming back. By contrast, they almost surely felt the humiliation of hitting their first tee shot 10 feet while the starter watches on.
“When people say, ‘Yeah, I used to golf. It costs too much. It takes too long,’ those are convenient excuses,” Beditz said. “What they can’t admit is that they failed. So they never became comfortable and they never really became competent to the point where they can enjoy it.”
Part of the problem is the way people are introduced to the game, typically through a relative or friend. New golfers are far more likely to keep playing if they start with a structured program such as Get Golf Ready, which offers five group lessons for as little as $99. The program covers everything from swing basics to etiquette, guides people onto the course and helps them find other beginners to play with. But Beditz said such programs aren’t marketed well enough.
Another problem is that the typical golf course is not set up for beginners to ease their way in. It’s akin to a ski resort without a bunny hill or a swimming pool without a shallow end. There is the course: 18 holes, often designed with the avid player in mind. And there is the driving range and practice green: easy enough to futz around on but also boring. There is nothing in between.
In his first U.S. course design, the recently opened Bluejack National outside of Houston, Woods sought to change that. The club includes a casual golf area called the Playgrounds, with 10 holes ranging in length from 35 to 108 yards. There are lights for night play, speakers for music and no set structure. Members can play however many holes they want, in whichever order they want.
The full-length course at Bluejack also takes a fairly radical approach. There is only one cut of grass—no rough. And the brush under the pine trees lining every hole has been cleared, making it virtually impossible to lose a ball unless it lands in a water hazard.
Michael Abbott, one of the course’s developers, said that reducing the time golfers spend looking for their ball has enabled them to finish nine holes in as little as 70 minutes.
“Everyone is afraid of making their courses too easy,” Abbott said. “Well I don’t know if anybody heard, but they’re really hard right now, so what’s wrong with a little easier? It’s supposed to be fun, right?”
Woods said he believes the Bluejack model could be replicated at many existing courses. The playability there is largely a function of grooming. And the Playgrounds occupies only about six acres. However, Woods said, “it depends on the devotion of the golf course and the area. How devoted are they to growing the game of golf?”
The incentives should be strong enough. Aside from the rise in beginners, the NGF will report Tuesday that 37.4 million non-golfers are at least somewhat interested in playing golf now, based on broader sports participation surveys conducted by the Physical Activity Council. The question is how many of them will ever play golf regularly.
“There has to be an embrace of these people, and it has to happen at the golf course. That’s our front door,” Beditz said. “All of the preaching by guys like me will do absolutely no good if 15,000 golf courses are not managed better.”