NATIONAL GOLF FOUNDATION
tRACKING THE IMPACTS OF COVID-19 ON THE GOLF BUSINESS
Recent NGF Perspectives - "Fortnight"
Oct. 7, 2021 | Written by: Joe Beditz, NGF's President and Chief Executive Officer
The question continues to be asked whether the current higher levels of demand, seemingly for all things golf, can be sustained. If you believe in history repeating itself, the answer is “Yes.”
To put today’s market demand in context, we looked at per capita1 wholesale sales of golf equipment over the past 20 years. While wholesale sales are not equivalent to point-in-time retail sales, both measures fairly reflect what’s being bought in the market over longer periods.
What Figure 1 may suggest is more of a long-awaited return to where things were before the global financial crisis of 2007–2008, as opposed to the setting of a ‘new’ normal. An examination of golf ball data points to the same finding. This, despite a very real attenuation of current sales due to supply chain and logistics issues.
How about supply? Here we looked at the number of golfers per 18-hole equivalent (18HEQ)2.
Figure 2 shows that the number of golfers per 18 holes appears to be returning to a balance that existed 20 years ago, when golf courses were more economically successful, as a whole, than they’d been over the past decade or so.
What does today’s environment have in common with that of 20 years ago? Quite a lot, actually. A reasonably healthy economy, for one thing, along with high consumer confidence. And household net worth among golf’s customer base is also higher than ever, just as it was back then -- this being driven by a decade-long bull market for stocks and new peaks in home values.
And there’s one other very important consideration: a decidedly positive media narrative about golf in non-endemic publications, such as Esquire, Adweek and the Wall Street Journal. It was only a short time ago that headlines blared golf was doomed. Today, pundits are raving about golf’s renaissance like they haven’t since Tiger’s heyday. We’ve assembled some of the more notable positive stories about golf, which you can read here.
For many reasons, golf has undoubtedly benefited during the pandemic. But it’s not just the pandemic that has driven demand. Let’s hope these fair winds continue to blow.
1 Units per thousand golfers.
2 Total golf holes divided by 18
Sept. 23, 2021 | Written by: Joe Beditz, NGF's President and Chief Executive Officer
Ten years ago, the PGA of America and the USGA announced a joint initiative encouraging golfers to play from tees that best suited their game. Tee It Forward was inspired by the thinking of Barney Adams, founder of Adams Golf, who argued many golfers were playing from tees that were too long given how far they hit their drives. The concept and the campaign were well received. Golf editorial support was widespread and a television PSA featuring Jack Nicklaus spoke to golfers.
Recently, NGF surveyed Core golfers and learned that 73% could recall Tee It Forward, but only 30% had actually moved up in the past 5-10 years – most of them over the age of 50. Certainly not everyone needed to make a jump, but the ones who did, and followed the campaign’s advice, have almost unanimously enjoyed the benefits. Three-quarters say their scores improved, and even more (80%) say they’ve had more fun.
It’s telling that a strong majority of Core golfers (over 80%) believe that golfers playing from inappropriate tees is a “big problem.” Our analysis would seem to support this sentiment – to a certain extent, at least – with as many as a third of core golfers (~4MM) currently playing from tees that are too long for them.
So why don’t more golfers move up? Why hasn’t a great idea like Tee It Forward caught on more than it has? Because behavioral changes in consumers and operators require a lot of time, effort and intervention. National advertising helps create needed awareness, but is insufficient to overcome the inertiae of ego, convenience and conformity, which golfers – virtually all of them – willingly admit stand in the way.
When the Tee It Forward campaign was launched, Barney Adams said that success would be a long and arduous process. He got the arduous part right. But like some other well-intentioned industry initiatives, this one was, unfortunately, too short-lived.
Still, it should be noted that some golf course operators are having success in getting their customers to play the correct tees. Cathy Harbin for one, with an age-based effort at her facility in Paris, TX, and the Longleaf Golf & Family Club in Southern Pines, NC, which created a tee system based on driving distance. Others can learn from them or come up with their own creative solutions. If you’re an operator who’s had success in getting customers to “play the right tees,” or you’re interested in trying to implement an effort, we’d love to hear from you.
Four out of five core golfers suggest they are open to experimenting with forward tees. Let’s discuss more ways to encourage (or influence) them to act.
Sept. 9, 2021 | Written by: Joe Beditz, NGF's President and Chief Executive Officer
Did you know that 82% of countries worldwide have golf courses – from American Samoa to Zambia?
Or that there are more than 38,000 courses globally? Only 7-Eleven and Subway have more physical business locations around the world, although they reach far fewer countries.1
NGF maintains the official database of golf courses worldwide. A dedicated team verifies the operational status of all golf facilities – on a 12-month cycle within the U.S., and every 24 months globally.2 New courses in planning and under construction are also tracked.
Every two years, the R&A releases “Golf Around the World,” a publication based on the NGF database. This free report, available for digital download here, looks at the game’s global reach through the lens of worldwide supply -- both existing courses and those under development.
In 2020 golf was played in 206 of the 251 countries and dependent territories recognized by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). There’s even a 9-holer on Christmas Island, an Australian outpost in the Indian Ocean that has a local rule regarding “robber” land crabs known to take golf balls.
While golf is widely dispersed, it also remains highly concentrated, with 80% of courses in the top 10 best-supplied countries.
Home to 42% of world supply, the U.S. is far and away the global leader with 16,000+ golf courses. Japan (3,140) and the U.K. (3,101) are neck and neck in second and third place.
There’s much more in the R&A report, including which regions have the most golf courses and golf holes compared to population, the most golf courses compared to land area, and the most golf course projects in development. If you are as consumed by wanderlust as you are by golf, you’ll find it to be inspiring reading.
1 Click here to see which businesses have the most physical locations around the world.
2 Verifications are completed by phone, email and online via course websites and satellite imagery.
August 26, 2021 | Written by: Joe Beditz, NGF's President and Chief Executive Officer
Tiger Woods is one of the very best things that ever happened to golf. A quarter century ago, he turned pro, and two simple words reshaped the business of golf. We’ve been asked countless times about Tiger’s impact on golf, whether it’s in terms of participation, eyeballs or engagement. Now, 25 years later, as I sit in the Jupiter, Florida, office that once was Tiger’s, it’s the ideal time (and place) to reflect on his profound influence on the game of golf.
Tiger’s biggest impact, by far, was on golf’s public awareness.
He became ubiquitous … TV ads, magazine covers, interviews and television appearances. His wasn’t just a sports story, it was a top of the “A List” celebrity news story. Is it any surprise? How many athletes get to come out with an advertising campaign titled, ‘Hello, world” and with the power of Phil Knight and Nike behind them? Tiger became, and remained for quite a while, the most visible athlete on the planet.
The game and business of golf got to ride along on his coattails. Everybody knew who Tiger was and what sport he played. Golf thus began to enjoy a level of public awareness that hadn’t been seen since Bobby Jones went on his run between 1923 and 1930. If New York was still doing ticker tape parades they surely would have had one for Tiger, the way they did for Jones in ‘26 when he returned triumphant from St Andrews with the claret jug under his arm.
Tiger’s impact on awareness and interest in golf was reminiscent of that created by Palmer and Nicklaus. The difference was they played together as their careers overlapped. Palmer fueled the public golf boom of the 1960s, and Jack increased interest in golf throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, until his final ringing of the bell at Augusta in 1986. When Tiger burst onto the scene a long 10 years later it was him alone. The attention on Tiger and his golf was not diluted. When Nicklaus was in his heyday, it was the Jack-Arnie rivalry, or it was the ‘Big Three’ with Nicklaus, Palmer and Player. With Tiger, it was just him against the field. He didn’t have to share the limelight.
Golf’s ultra-elevated public awareness was the headspring from which all of golf’s blessings flowed … more fans, more golfers, more golf courses, more equipment sales. As golf’s audience grew, so did the advertising and marketing dollars devoted to the game. Television ratings led to more sponsorships, which led to bigger purses and more money raised for charity. Tiger was directly responsible for much if not most of that growth. It was a fortuitus time to be in the business of conducting professional golf tournaments.
Another impact was his athleticism, his aggressive swing, his workout regimen, his overall fitness. Tiger didn’t just make golf cool, he made it athletic and because of that golf’s appeal became broader than ever. Today’s players … Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Bryson DeChambeau, Brooks Koepka … they are all following Tiger’s approach to the game.
Tiger also influenced the formation of the First Tee in 1997. His celebrity helped drive the creation of hundreds of First Tee sites and resulted in millions of kids, many of them minority and non-Caucasian, being exposed to golf and the values of the game at a young age. Again, it was awareness and interest in Tiger that drove so many kids to sign up for the First Tee. They wanted to be like Tiger, just like the kids before them wanted to ‘Be Like Mike.’ The First Tee wasn’t the only youth program to benefit. Many others, including those offered by the LPGA, the PGA of America and the USGA, were inspired by Tiger.
While Tiger definitely had a positive impact on golf participation, there’s a misperception that his influence was principally among minorities. It’s true that minorities were disproportionately influenced, but he actually influenced many more Caucasians than non-Caucasians.
Today, off-course participation is growing by double digits each year and interest in playing traditional golf on-course has never been higher. Much of this of this interest in on- and off-course participation is among non-Caucasians. So, yes, Tiger’s tale continues on. He got things started 25 years ago. Now there are others who are making golf cool, throwing logs on the fire he started.
August 12, 2021 | Written by: Joe Beditz, NGF's President and Chief Executive Officer
This could be the year golf course supply in the U.S. levels out. For about the past 15 years, total supply in the world’s biggest golf market has been slowly contracting, reflecting a ‘correction’ in response to an overbuild of golf courses over the prior 15-year period.
While we’re down a total of 1,606 18-Hole Equivalents (18HEQs) over the past 15 years, we were up a total of 3,631 18HEQs over the 15 years prior -- a net increase of 2,025 18HEQs versus 30 years ago. Take a look at the following chart historical percentage changes in supply.
Two things to notice. First, the size of the bars on the left side compared to the right. Way bigger, right? That’s why we have 2,000+ more courses than when all the new development began in earnest. Second, looking at the far right of the chart you can see the negative percent change getting smaller -- likely signaling the end stage of the current market correction.
Every year, NGF verifies, by phone or email, the operational status of every golf course in the U.S. At mid-year, our database verification team had recorded only 60 18HEQ closures, a 46% drop from last year at this time. Projecting to year-end, we will probably end up somewhere around -100 net 18HEQ. That’s about 0.7% of total supply.
The number of golf course closures in the U.S. is never going to drop to zero. Doubtful it has in the last 100 years. Regardless of industry, many small businesses close their doors every year. Some because the market has changed. Others because they misjudged the market to begin with. And still others because an economic ‘higher and best’ use exists for the property. This last reason has become more common for older golf courses located in or close to growing population centers, where there’s high demand for land parcels that can be developed. Certainly, we don’t blame these golf course owners for cashing out when presented with an attractive exit strategy. In many cases, let’s instead wish them a long and happy retirement.
Our verification process is ongoing. We’ll complete the second half of the database by the end of the year and will let you know how the final numbers shake out.
July 29, 2021 | Written by: Joe Beditz, NGF's President and Chief Executive Officer
The most frequently asked question since the beginning of the year, and even before then, was whether the elevated level of golf activity (equipment sales, rounds played, overall participation) would maintain in 2021. We’ve been hedging our answer all this time. Now, we’ve had our first real test – comparing peak season months – and the results look pretty good.
Last week, Golf Datatech released its latest report showing rounds played up 0.4% nationally for June and +23% YTD. More importantly, at least to NGF, is that year-to-date rounds are still running 19% ahead of the 2017-19 average. [SEE FIGURE 1]
Something else we noticed in the latest data – a return to more normal weather-induced variances. Rounds were down in regions experiencing above average rainfall, and up in areas with below average precipitation. Also of note, year-to-date rounds at public courses are up 26%, versus 13% at private clubs. This is a reversal from last year when rounds gains at private clubs exceeded those at public courses. For more detail, click here.
One industry CEO I talked to last week noted that it would be great if rounds just continued to match last year. I agree. In fact, if we continue to ‘just’ match last year’s banner summer and fall, we’ll end the year up 9% over 2020 and +24% over the 2017-19 (pre-Covid) period. Wouldn’t that be something.
Another way we keep our eye on U.S. demand for rounds is by monitoring Google search indices. Going back more than a dozen years, the variance in monthly searches for golf balls has been pretty closely aligned with actual rounds played. Right now, search popularity for golf balls sits slightly below 2020, while still running well ahead of 2019. Will this be the trend that rounds played follows in July? [SEE FIGURE 2]
The further we get into the year, the tougher it is for us to continue hedging our answer about the sustainability of golf’s surge. July is just about in the books and August will bring the summer months to a close. At that point, we should have a pretty solid feel for how the year is going to turn out.
July 15, 2021 | Written by: Joe Beditz, NGF's President and Chief Executive Officer
Golf equipment sales: a mid-year update.
The surge in equipment sales that began last May is showing no signs of letting up. Through June, year-to-date combined golf club and ball wholesale dollar sales are up 77% over last year and 35% over 2019.
All this equipment is not gathering dust on store shelves. Retailers we’ve talked to tell us that sell through has been very good and inventories are not getting bloated.
At the same time, equipment shipments appear to have resumed a more normal seasonal pattern, albeit at higher volume, which can be seen in the following graph comparing YTD sales for 2019, 2020 and 2021.
As we’ve said before, these next few summer months will be the bellwether for golf in 2021. So far, the signs are very encouraging.
July 1, 2021 | Written by: Joe Beditz, NGF's President and Chief Executive Officer
When the iOS App store opened in 2008 – less than a month after Tiger’s dramatic U.S. Open playoff win at Torrey Pines – 500 applications were available for Apple Users to download. Today, they have their pick of about 2 million apps, while Android users have 2.8MM available through the Google Play store.
Consumer spending in mobile apps hit a record $64.9B during the first half of 2021 – a 25% YoY increase – based on preliminary data from app store intelligence firm Sensor Tower. While there’s no doubt the pandemic contributed to this growth, it’s clear that companies are investing more and more in apps. Most are a business in themselves, but they can also be a vital connector for those looking to enhance their brand value, improve the customer experience and drive sales.
Lest you think the golf industry isn’t along for the ride, take a look at not only the hundreds of golf-centric apps now available, but the way they’re being embraced. More than three quarters (78%) of Core golfers now indicate they have at least one golf-specific app on their phone, up from 37% a decade ago and 56% in 2018. These aren’t just the young person’s domain either, with almost two-thirds of Core golfers age 65-and-older using them today.
Among golfers who have golf apps, the average count is 3.5 (I can tell that you one golf nut here at NGF has more than 25!), and the use cases vary, from reserving tee times, tracking scores and round statistics, playing virtual golf, reading news about the game, or chasing improvement through instruction and swing analysis.
June 17, 2021 | Written by: Joe Beditz, NGF's President and Chief Executive Officer
You often hear golf referred to as the game of a lifetime. But is it?
Unlike virtually every other sport, golf participation actually holds steady across the ages. See the below graphic, which shows that while skiing and tennis start off with slightly-higher participation rates, by the time people reach their 50s it’s no contest. Golf wins hands down.
As the Baby Boomers continue to reach retirement age, the size of golf’s 65+ cohort expands in tandem. By a lot – up 50% to 4.8MM over just the past four years. And with 10,000 Boomers turning 65 every single day, that number will continue to grow for the next ten years or so.
Retirement age golfers contribute significantly to the golf economy:
- Playing almost 2x more rounds annually vs. all other adult golfers (32 vs. 17, on average)
- Spend more on golf, on average, than all other age cohorts
The most important takeaway: when we create a committed golfer during adolescence or early adulthood, we usually create a golfer for life. And the participation numbers lead us to believe that the lifelong value of a customer is greater in golf than any other sport or activity. By a mile. So, let’s continue playing the long game and converting early interest into commitment. The economic impact will be cumulative, not to mention the lasting joy the game delivers.
A friend of mine was telling me about a golfing buddy in his mid-80s who is constantly bemoaning the condition of his game. His favorite line: “Ever since I turned 80 my game has gone downhill.” Imagine that.
For an overview on the age 65+ golfer segment, members can click here.
June 3, 2021 | Written by: Joe Beditz, NGF's President and Chief Executive Officer
June is Women’s Golf Month. Launched in 2005 by the PGA of America with the support of the LPGA and the NGCOA, it’s a month-long celebration and promotion of women in golf.
The month started with a bang (or should I say bell), with Women’s Golf Day founder Elisa Gaudet, along with Callaway Golf and Topgolf ringing the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange. This year, Women’s Golf Day saw close to 1,000 golf facilities around the world hosting a variety of golf events involving tens of thousands of women who play the game or want to. I spoke to Ms. Gaudet this week as she was preparing for a round of golf at Pebble Beach, a reward she decided to provide herself after their most successful Women’s Golf Day ever.
Just seven years ago, in 2014, the proportion of all golf participants (on/off-course combined) who were women was 27%. Since then, the volume of female participants has grown by 43% -- from 8 million on and off-course to now almost 11.5 million, positively shifting the female/male ratio to 31:69. And yet, most of that growth has happened away from the course – the number of females (age 6+) playing on-course is up only 300K over that same seven-year timeframe (+5%).
Fortunately, the female/male balance on-course seems certain to shift in the future, as more than a third of 6- to 17-year-old players are now female, up (incredibly) from 14% back in 1986, when we first began measuring golf participation on an annual basis. That’s better representation than every other age group by a significant margin. And yet the opportunity for growth is still there among adults. Among the 17 million Americans who express the highest level of interest in taking up the “green grass” game, 37% are women – more than 50% higher than their actual proportion on-course today.
That’s six million prospective women golfers who promotions like Women’s Golf Month and Women’s Golf Day aim to activate. But getting new golfers from the couch to the course is just the first step. NGF’s research has repeatedly shown that unless we provide an improved beginning golfer experience our conversion rate from “trial” to “commitment” will remain far below what it could be.
Beginners generally walk away from golf for two main reasons. One, because they never get comfortable around the golf course or other golfers. And, two, because they don’t feel they play well enough to enjoy the game, nor do they experience enough “shot euphoria” (which is especially true for lapsed females).
Back to Elisa Gaudet. I asked who she was playing Pebble with and she said, “I don’t know. Whoever they pair me with. I’m a single.” Wow. Hats off. Imagine creating legions of women golfers like Elisa who have the level of comfort and confidence needed to face one of the toughest tests in golf, in the presence of strangers, probably men.
No. Not strangers. Not men. Fellow golfers.
May 20, 2021 | Written by: Joe Beditz, NGF's President and Chief Executive Officer
Given the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs this week, I thought a hockey analogy might be appropriate. What, you say? Consider that the golf year, like a hockey game, really has three distinct periods:
- January-April (in the books)
- May-August (underway)
The four-month periods that bookend the calendar are important, no question, but the current “summer stretch” of May through August is usually make-it-or-break-it for the golf business each year. Almost half of annual golf rounds are played during these months, and the weather in the Northeast and West North Central regions can – and usually does – have a big impact on results.
Last year, of course, was an exception extraordinaire. Rounds and equipment sales plummeted early in the year (especially April), shot up in the summer, and extended into the fall. The big question that arose late last year and has carried into 2021 is whether golf will continue to ride this wave of demand.
Here’s how the scoreboard looks:
Rounds played and equipment sales in the first period are up considerably over 2020 – no surprise as just over half of golf courses were closed for some length of time during golf’s first third in 2020. Rounds were up 24% YTD through March – a number that will climb for sure because April 2021 rounds will crush April 2020. Wholesale equipment shipments are way up over 2020 too, but are also 25% ahead of 2019. The chart below illustrates these increases (we’ll know definitively about rounds in a few days).
So will this performance last into golf’s most important middle period? Can’t tell yet, but indicators seem positive. Among them, Google searches for golf balls remain up over 2019 (chart below).
Unlike the Stanley Cup, by the end of golf’s second period we’ll have a pretty good idea for how rounds played and equipment sales will turn out in 2021, at least directionally. For the Stanley Cup, you’ll have to wait for the horn at the end of the third period.
(Or longer ... did you know that last year’s champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning, played 216 minutes of overtime on their way to capturing the Cup, which is almost 150 more minutes than the average of all other champions since the league switched to its current playoff format in 1986? That amount of overtime would equal about 15 extra holes at this week’s PGA Championship.)
May 6, 2021 | Written by: Joe Beditz, NGF's President and Chief Executive Officer
It's now common knowledge that rounds played surged in 2020, and most know we’re off to a good start this year.
We’ve noted previously that on-course participation experienced its biggest net increase in 17 years. Off-course participation, meanwhile, continued its impressive run in 2020 by more than doubling the noteworthy gain that was seen on-course.
NGF estimates there were just over 24 million off-course participants last year; just shy of the number of on-course golfers.
Twelve point something …
Golf’s overall participation base in the U.S. – combining on- and off-course players – rose 8% in 2020 to 36.9 million. This leaves us with three closely-sized and mutually-exclusive groups of Americans (age 6+):
- 12.6M who played only on-course golf (average age 50 / 29% female)
- 12.2M who played on AND off-course golf (average age 42 / 21% female)
- 12.1M who played only off-course golf (average age 31 / 45% female)
As you can see in the above chart, the total number of off-course golfers (Topgolf, ranges, simulators, etc.) has just about matched the number who play on a course. And it won’t be long before traditional, “green grass” participants are out-numbered. Very likely this year.
This is good news for golf. Our research tells us that the approachable, non-intimidating environments of Topgolf, and venues like it, help to cultivate interest in the traditional game. Course operators in proximity to these golf entertainment venues should be doubling down on their marketing and player development investments, as there are an increasing number of customer prospects being generated right in their backyards.
April 22, 2021 | Written by: David Lorentz, NGF's Chief Research Officer
The comeback of commercial aviation is underway in the U.S., which no doubt bodes well for many in the golf business. Despite an increased willingness to trundle down the open highways last year, golfers made far fewer trips in 2020 (at least 50% fewer, we now estimate), which impacted resorts and businesses – far and wide – that cater to the needs of travelers.
Passenger throughput at domestic airports currently sits at 57% of 2019 levels (using 7-day rolling data). This is up from 45% at the beginning of March and 37% at the beginning of February. The trend is expected to continue alongside the increasing incidence of vaccinations, and the rolling back of pandemic restrictions. At the moment, it seems the rebounding is especially evident at smaller, outdoor-vacation-oriented airports vs. big-city hubs[] – suggestive of a “get away but stay safe” mentality that will likely permeate for some time, and should benefit many golf properties.
This return to the friendly skies means more golf trips and more destinations back in the consideration set. Core golfers, on average, are now expecting 1.8 golf trips in 2021, which rivals reported counts in recent, non-pandemic years. As for where, the ones who’ve already taken a golf trip in 2021 ventured 40% farther, on average, than golf travelers did last year (600 miles vs. 425, as the crow flies), while trips planned for the rest of the year should be almost as distant (590 miles, on average).
These are positive and perhaps expected signals from golfers, which we’ve corroborated through discussions and surveys with operators. Based on responses from four dozen resort properties, nearly three-quarters indicated pre-bookings for May-December are higher than last year, and almost two-thirds suggested they’re higher than other recent, non-pandemic years. More broadly, nine of 10 reported increases in rounds, website activity and social media engagement, while 8 in 10 reported increases in travel package inquiries. The lone soft spot, it seems, are the more lucrative large-group and corporate bookings – only 40% mentioned those were up.
Recovery in the travel sector will be welcome news for many, but also means golfers will once again be forced to make certain tradeoffs. Whether for business or leisure, the return to flying will cut into “golf time” and personal discretionary budgets – the extent to which we’ll be looking to understand.
April 8, 2021 | Written by: Joe Beditz, NGF CEO and President
There’s no question working remotely has provided schedule flexibility to many people over the past year, eliminating commute times, providing employees greater control over when, where and how they work, and keeping fewer tethered to the traditional 9-to-5.
Talk to golf course operators about 2020 and you’ll hear stories about weekday play, especially (underutilized) late afternoons, helping drive increases in “pandemic” rounds. Recently, we surveyed core golfers themselves to understand more about impacts and expectations around WFH.
Focusing solely on non-retired core golfers, 70% indicate they’ve worked remotely at least some of the time over the past year, and the majority found it was easier to get out and play golf. In fact, half said they were playing more golf than usual, especially in the late afternoons and early evenings. They also reported more nine-hole rounds. These observations dovetail nicely with our research that revealed the surges in play last year (+14% year-over-year) were driven in large part by core golfers who, given this unique opportunity, played even more.
For many companies, work-from-home is here to stay. Recent studies of management trends as well as office occupancy rates indicate that ‘hybrid models’ – no, not those kinds of hybrids – will become more and more prevalent as companies seize the opportunity to reduce occupancy costs, and at the same time accommodate the vast majority of WFH workers who now prefer to retain at least some of their schedule flexibility and not give back all of their hours spent commuting.
And those golfers who played so much more in 2020 … many they tell us they intend to keep it up this year, thanks in large part to greater work flexibility. Let’s hope they do.
March 25, 2021 | Written by: Joe Beditz, NGF CEO and President
The latest monthly rounds numbers are out and show something we haven’t seen in a while – a decline in play. But there’s a bit more to unpack as we look back and look ahead.
February is a relatively low-volume month, accounting for less than 5% of annual U.S. rounds, and year-to-year fluctuations are very weather-dependent. This was evident in 2020, when well-above-average temperatures were observed in most parts of the country, helping to lift play by 19% nationwide before the pandemic took its spring toll. The weather this February was, generally, less agreeable for golf. I certainly don’t need to tell that to those in parts of the Plains states and Texas who were hit by the mid-month polar vortex, or to those in Northeast regions who were dumped on by snow and didn’t see their courses thaw out for the entirety of the month. Mother Nature giveth, then taketh away.
February’s 4.7% decline, reported by Golf Datatech, was the first notable year-over-year drop in rounds (outside of last year’s course-shutdown period) since May of 2019. And yet we continue to see strong indicators for demand.
Shipments of the game’s ultimate consumable, golf balls, are higher than they've been in over seven years, which is corroborated by online search data showing golf ball searches are higher than at any point since 2005. Our consumer “Itch Meter,” which asks core golfers to characterize their desire to get out and play, is higher right now than at any point last spring, reflecting the coming to an end of a hard winter up north as fewer snowbirds got their usual golf fix with seasonal trips to places like Florida and Arizona.
So there are signs that if the weather cooperates, play should remain strong. But in the months ahead, it’ll be important to put rounds numbers in context, as year-over-year comps could be misleading. March through May should see significant jumps given last year’s widespread course shutdowns, while numbers in the latter half of 2021 may be down as state economies open back up and golfers begin expressing their demand for other things (travel, ballgames, etc.)
While February’s rounds numbers reflect the first monthly “drop” we’ve seen in a while, we shouldn’t be overly concerned or overreact to seasonal, single-month fluctuations. Other demand indicators are looking healthy.
 Analysis of 12-month rolling averages for shipments and search
March 11, 2021 | Written by: David Lorentz, NGF's Chief Research Officer
There’s a multi-million dollar question floating around the industry these days: How do we retain more golfers, particularly in light of the extraordinary inflow of returners and first-timers in 2020 (+27% vs. ‘19)? There’s no simple answer – the issue is nuanced and evolving, and success at any level relies on the behaviors of so many. It’s certainly not a macro challenge, but we should discuss it from that level, and consider a few meaningful clues that get us a step closer to cracking the code.
Two points in particular are worth mentioning here, both of which fit nicely into Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. The first has to do with esteem, which centers on achievement, earning respect and/or receiving attention and status. The other deals with belongingness, and the primal need to feel accepted by (and safe within) social groups. Both esteem and belongingness – which form the psychological level of Maslow’s framework – have a lot to do with golf’s less-than-desirable retention rate.
Let’s start with esteem.
For longer than I’ve been alive, NGF has studied the underpinnings of satisfaction and retention in golf, which continues to prove that “shot euphoria” is among the strongest differentiators between those who stay and those who don’t. The majority of lapsed golfers, though they may blame time or money for their departure, admit they never (or rarely) experienced the rush of hitting a good shot before walking away. In fact, only a third of inactive participants suggest they “hit at least one shot per round that [kept them] coming back,” compared to more than 90% of active, loyal golfers.
This will probably elicit some comments about golf being “difficult and not for everyone,” but the finding deserves more consideration than that. If shot euphoria is the key ingredient to customer retention, are we really okay being laissez-faire about it? Aren’t there ways to impact course experiences and golfer introductions to generate more euphoric moments? Can we better manage a customer who’s coming off a 4-hour slog without any sense of achievement or esteem?
By the way, “shot euphoria” is perfectly analogous to “runner’s high,” which many experts believe is the secret to creating a committed runner.
And then there’s belongingness.
Belonging needs are very real and require constant signals. In his book The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle discusses how “our social brains light up when they receive a steady accumulation of almost-invisible [belonging] cues.”
Consider then that only half of lapsed participants say they felt comfortable being around other golfers. Consider also that 80% of Core golfers, in one of our more recent studies, admitted they would feel at least some level of annoyance if the first-tee starter informed them that the group ahead included beginners. Yikes. How’s that for (not) belonging cues?
We can talk all we want about speeding up the game, shortening rounds, or delivering more “fun,” but unless people’s innate psychological needs are being met, we’ll never solve the retention dilemma. This challenge requires purposeful, people-oriented solutions. We’re encouraged to hear about operators who are actively identifying and engaging new and returning customers with these needs in mind, and would love to hear how you’re approaching this multi-million dollar retention question.
 Those who play now and say they’re “very likely” to continue (assuming healthy and financially able)
 Tom Holland, an exercise physiologist and author of several endurance training books, says “I have found that if I can take a beginning runner and get her to experience [a runner’s high], then I have a shot at making her a runner. It is no guarantee, however, and she needs to experience it numerous times before she will believe it is a part of the process and not an isolated event. Then, when we go really long and she experiences the true runner’s high, I know I have her. And you only need to experience it once to be a believer.” Holland, Tom. The Marathon Method: the 16-Week Training Program That Prepares You to Finish a Full or Half Marathon at Your Best Time. Fair Winds Press, 2007.
 Coyle, Daniel. The Culture Code. Bantam, 2018, p.26
Feb. 25, 2021 | Written by: Joe Beditz, NGF's President and CEO
Is this the beginning of the end? Of golf’s 15-year market correction, that is. It might be.
Last year, NGF recorded a net decline of 169 18-Hole Equivalent (18HEQ) golf courses – a 31% reduction from 2019’s 246, the largest drop on record. We ended 2020 with 13,362 18HEQs. (Two 9-holers equal one 18HEQ, meaning the total number of actual courses is higher; north of 16,000.)
The ongoing correction began in 2006, back when the real estate bubble began to deflate and a subprime mortgage crisis ensued. For the first time since Great Depression, the U.S. golf market finished the year with fewer courses than it started. Each year since, except 2008, the number of 18HEQs has fallen, with a total reduction of 1,645 (-11% from peak supply).
This followed a 20-year golf course development boom during which a total of 4,567 18HEQ courses was added to the nation’s supply (+44%). NGF was partly responsible. We issued a report with McKinsey & Co. in 1988 stating that golf course supply could become the limiting factor in golf’s growth if it didn’t keep pace with demand, which had been growing at roughly 4% on average for many years. The report advocated for the building of affordable, accessible public courses to support a greater number of golfers. Unfortunately, things didn’t go exactly to plan.
Our late 80s call for more courses brought residential real estate developers, entrepreneurs and even municipalities into golf with dollar signs in their eyes. NGF’s research was misinterpreted to mean that golf could not fail in any place and at any price. The laws of supply and demand went out the window, along with any feasibility studies that questioned the good business judgment of a developer.
In the late 1990s, golf demand plateaued. NGF issued another strategic report in 1999 urging the industry to return its attention to growing the number of golfers. About that time a young man with the initials ‘TW’ burst on to the scene, participation surged and the development boom marched on as the economy thrived. In the six years following this cautionary report, another 1,100 18HEQ courses were added (+8%). When the housing bubble burst, it led us into the deepest recession in history and the current correction in golf’s supply/demand balance.
A decade and a half later, thanks partly to real estate developers hungry to turn unprofitable golf courses into profitable real estate, and a surprising surge in golf activity catalyzed by the pandemic, we are approaching equilibrium in supply and demand. After 2020’s participation bump, the number of golfers per 18HEQ now stands at 99% of what it was in 1986.
One of our recent facility studies revealed golf courses are in better financial shape today than they have been in years, which is good news for all of us in the golf business. Profitable golf courses are not just good for the game and business of golf, they’re essential. Profits allow owners to invest in the future and provide greater experiences for golfers.
Markets are always correcting and closures will continue in the U.S., especially given the demand for real estate. Like unemployment, course closures will never get to zero. Even during the 1985 to 2006 building boom, the U.S. averaged more than 40 18HEQ closures annually. If we double that number given the current market for land, that amount of churn is still less than 1% of overall golf supply.
All this being said, the U.S. market may have turned a corner on this correction. We’ll be tracking it closely.
And for those who remember NGF’s “course a day” mantra – mea culpa.
Feb. 11, 2021 | Written by: Joe Beditz, NGF's President and CEO
A year ago today, the World Health Organization officially named the disease caused by the coronavirus, COVID-19 (COronaVIrus Disease-2019), and what a year followed.
Last issue I shared the big picture of what happened to golf in 2020: a huge jump in rounds, six million new and returning on-course golfers, an 8% increase in total golf participation (on- and off-course combined). It was a year like no other.
We also noted that “green grass” golf had a net gain of roughly 500,000 participants last year – a number that’s nothing to sneeze at, but at the same time has some course operators and others wondering why it wasn’t more. The reason, simply, is that the record influx was offset by a larger-than-normal volume of people who stepped away from the game, many it appears due to COVID-19 anxieties and/or financial stress, among other things. We’ve attempted to explain golf’s customer churn in a previous issue of Fortnight.
The flood of new faces was a reality though, even if some of our gains were offset by the ones who went absent. Who were these new people? Who wanted “in” during 2020?
- Youth (+ 630,000)
- Beginners (+ 570,000)
- Women (+ 450,000)
- Non-Caucasians (+ 320,000)
All of these groups saw significant gains and, hopefully, many will be back this year along with some of those who had to step aside. If so, we could see another increase in green grass participation in 2021.
But we should do more than hope.
Consider that the number of traditional, green grass golfers today – around 25 million – is the same as 25 years ago. This despite population growth of 25%. Meaning, of course, that the rate of participation in the U.S. has fallen, from over 11% to around 8%.
We have an embarrassment of riches in the form of new golfers, but can only grow the game if we keep more of them. Over just the past five years, we estimate 13 million people have tried playing golf on a golf course for the very first time. Yet we have not realized very meaningful net growth in on-course golfers. We can do better!
It starts by recognizing the incongruence between our current customers and those who want “in.”
Latent demand for traditional golf, which is higher than ever, skews remarkably younger, more female, more diverse and more average in income, as compared to the universe of current golfers. You can see this in the graphic above when you compare our current customers to those who want “in.” You can also see it in the big gains we made last year with these very groups.
To take advantage of this surge in interest, entrepreneurs at golf courses and in golf product and service companies will need to innovate and adapt to the diverse opportunity before them.
Jan. 28, 2021 | Written by: Joe Beditz, NGF's President and CEO
A shot in the arm: Something that has a sudden and positive effect on something, providing encouragement and new activity.
-- Cambridge Dictionary
I can’t think of a more appropriate description of the year 2020 and its effect on golf, can you? There hasn’t been this much optimism and new activity in the golf business since the turn of the century – I almost forgot what it felt like.
Happy to tell you we’ve wrapped up our 2020 research and begin the reporting of our findings starting with this issue of Fortnight – now the official name of this bi-weekly insights newsletter that you’ve been receiving over the past nine months. Fortnight will serve as a new primary channel of communication for us with anyone and everyone who works in the golf business. If you know someone who should be on the distribution list, please forward this to them and point out this link for signing up.
Down to business. We’ve got a lot to discuss -- too much for a single issue of Fortnight, in fact, so we’re going to divide this “Year in Review” into three parts. This issue we’ll provide you with a few topline numbers on golfers, rounds and course supply. In two weeks, we’ll dig into golf participation and provide details on who came into the game, who left and how some important customer groups fared. Finally, we’ll devote the third issue in the series to supply, sharing insights on golf course openings, closings, renovations and an examination of the trend toward market equilibrium.
For readers who are NGF members, you don’t have to wait. Our full report is available at www.ngf.org/graffisreport. Yep, another new name, The Graffis Report, which is what we’ll be calling NGF’s annual year in review – a nod to our founders, Herb and Joe Graffis, who established NGF 85 years ago as the first golf business research, education and trade organization.
Coming into 2020, there was plenty of optimism for the U.S. golf industry, thanks to stable green grass participation and significant growth of engagement away from the course. Then the world was struck by the coronavirus pandemic and golf, like most other businesses, took a huge hit. But spring shutdowns gave way to an unprecedented summer and fall in terms of play, golfer introductions and reintroductions, and robust, late-season spending. As we look back on an astonishing year, several things stand out:
- 14% year-over-year increase in rounds despite March/April course shutdowns
- Total golf participation (on/off-course combined) up 8% Y.O.Y. to 36.9 million participants
- Net gain of 500K on-course golfers, the largest lift in 17 years, up to 24.8M
- An increasing number of interested green grass prospects, up 10% Y.O.Y.
- Significant decrease in the number of course closures as the financial health of facilities nationwide has improved
Surges in play got the most attention in 2020, and rightfully so. Consider that the average weather-related fluctuation is +/- 2%-3% in a typical year and only once in the past two decades was there a 5% Y.O.Y. increase. The 14% jump means that, even with the loss of 20 million spring rounds, the net gain over 2019 was in the neighborhood of 60 million rounds, putting the industry around 500M in total. Heightened demand was particularly evident from June through year’s end, when approximately 75M more rounds were played than the same stretch in 2019.
When we began tracking off-course forms of golf some years back, it was to better quantify the game’s broader consumer base and footprint. This goes well beyond Topgolf – to other golf entertainment venues, and the hundreds of businesses that now have simulators and screen golf setups, plus the good old standalone driving ranges, which believe it or not still outnumber Costco warehouses. Today, almost as many people engage with off-course forms of golf as do traditional “green-grass,” with considerable overlap between the two. Over the past five years, the overall golf consumer pool has risen 19% to 36.9M – including now 12.1M Americans who only hit golf balls with golf clubs somewhere away from the course.
Meanwhile, the number of active, on-course golfers in the U.S. grew by half a million in 2020, up to 24.8 million. It was the most significant Y.O.Y. net increase since 2003, thanks to a record inflow of beginning and returning players (6.2M of them, which is 27% higher than the year before and almost enough to populate Los Angeles and Houston). The net gain could have been even greater, but 2020 was an extraordinary year in more ways than one. Last year 5.7M people stepped away from the game, a 19% increase in outflow versus the year before. The incremental loss was marked by virus anxieties, financial hardships and parenting challenges, and the cancellation of thousands of charity and/or corporate events that draw in “occasional” golfers. Lucky for us, the recently-lapsed participants in 2020 show significantly more interest in returning compared to recently-lapsed in years past.
Speaking of interest, golf’s pipeline of green grass prospects, which we refer to more clinically as “latent demand,” has never been bigger. The number of Americans who didn’t play on a course in the past year but suggest they’re “very interested” in doing so now rose to 17M in 2020 – a 10% increase from the year before and up more than 40% since 2015. As interest continues to swell, there’s been a concomitant rise in the number of beginners, which this year hit an all-time high.
On the supply side, the number of golf course closures dropped significantly (-31%) compared to prior year. NGF recorded a total of 193 18-hole equivalent closures in 2020, about 1.3% of total supply. Demand for land to develop into residential and commercial real estate projects continues to fuel the supply correction in golf. At the same time, fewer than 8% of the nation’s 14,000+ facilities report that they are in poor financial shape, down from 25% in 2016. Markets are always adjusting, but last year’s downswing in closures and improvements in facility financial health could signal the beginning of the end of golf’s ongoing demand/supply correction, which has lingered for 15 years.
Jan. 14, 2021 | Written by: David Lorentz, NGF's Chief Research Officer
As the broader U.S. economy limps into 2021 and stimulus measures work to stave off a double-dip recession, the sentiment in golf remains optimistic, although there are certainly questions about how the industry will fare amid vaccine rollouts and the eventual return to public life. On the whole, golf has been a clear beneficiary of the stay-at-home economy.
Back in November we discussed how the increases in 2020 play and spend were being fueled, to a significant degree, by a passionate cohort of existing players. We estimated that roughly 20% of the Core golfer population had really upped their engagement, taking full advantage of favorable weather, limited travel and other transient pandemic factors, like working from home. Among non-retirees in this group, 4 out of 5 are still operating on a hybrid or full-time-remote work schedule, compared to just 60% of other Core golfers (8+ rounds annually).
As we look ahead to the next 12 months, it would seem that our ability to match (or at least come close to matching) rounds totals from 2020 would hinge greatly on whether these zealous golfers continued to lean in as they have over the past seven months. Indeed it’s worth rooting for, although our most recent consumer pulse data suggests there will be some ‘regression toward the mean’ for these consumers in 2021.
Last week we asked Core golfers to consider two scenarios – one where widespread vaccinations occurred, face coverings and distancing were no longer needed, and life returned to relative normal by early summer. The other scenario, which may be the more plausible of the two, assumed that the coronavirus situation persisted throughout 2021.
In both scenarios, this ‘zealous’ group expects that their play in 2021 will fall back by 10-15% (their self-reported rounds were up, on average, by almost 40% in 2020). It’s a disappointing but perhaps inevitable reality, that there will be some eventual fallback in engagement among the 2020 fanatics, and yet there’s a bigger force at play here – one that could, and probably will, positively shape the industry in 2021.
Our research indicates 4 to 4.5 million Core golfers reduced their play and spend in 2020 (and they outnumber the ‘zealous group’ by as much as 50%). It’s this group that could really move the needle in 2021. In the ‘back to normal by summer’ scenario, these golfers predict their play would rebound to pre-Covid levels, while even under a ‘prolonged’ scenario they expect to cut their 2020 shortfalls in half, which would still provide a significant boost to rounds this year.
There will be other factors at play – like the weather, which couldn’t have been much better in 2020, some rebounding in travel golf and event golf (leagues, outings, etc.), or the inflow of new and returning players, and how they’ll respond in 2021. But the important takeaway here is that U.S. golf rounds were up significantly in 2020 despite the fact that a large swath of the Core golfer population (roughly a third of them, myself included) was actually pulling us in the opposite direction. So the bigger question is not whether the zealous golfers will keep charging this year, but to what extent the ‘underperformers’ will bounce back. Certainly our data gives hope.
2020 NGF Viewpoints
Dec. 31, 2020 | Written by: Joe Beditz, NGF President and CEO
As I considered this last message of the year, I realized I really just wanted to say “Thank You” to everyone in and around golf who helped turn a terrible situation at the start of this year into something positive for golf.
Thanks to the golfers who came out in record-setting fashion – whether they were seeking to get outside, get exercise, get together with family … or all of the above. Thanks to the newcomers, to the returners, and to our most dedicated and passionate participants who seized the opportunity to play far more frequently.
Thanks to the tireless employees at the more than 14,000 golf facilities around the country who handled unforeseen challenges, from interacting with customers and booking rounds in new ways to juggling safety and staffing issues. And to the operators at those facilities who share rounds-played data with us every month, helping us keep our finger on the pulse of play.
Thanks to the superintendents and their dedicated crews. Heavier play meant more divots, more pitch marks, more golf cars and the turf compaction issues that come with them. They’ve been busting their butts to keep up, so kudos to these hard-working men and women.
Thanks to the golf retailers and manufacturers, who overcame early-season calamity to meet the surge in consumer demand that followed.
Thanks to our hometown courses. Destination golf is special, but golf is primarily local and that’s why the game was able to provide safe haven this year.
And a very sincere and special thanks to the members of our passionate and committed NGF community who make our research possible, and to our readers, who let us know what we do here at NGF is relevant and important.
No doubt there’s still some tough sledding ahead. But we’re looking forward to tomorrow, which will usher in a new year, a rebounding economy, the eventual death of the virus, and a return to normalcy for you and your families.
Dec. 17, 2020 | Written by: David Lorentz, NGF Chief Research Officer
This week the Commerce Department reported that U.S. retail sales dropped 1.1% in November – the second straight month of decline and a bigger dip than most economists predicted, with softer spending at department stores, restaurants, and car dealerships. That, alongside weakening consumer confidence, increases in jobless claims and the uptick in Covid-19 cases, has some rightfully concerned about a sputtering economy as we head into winter.
Since May, the overall golf economy has shown tremendous resilience amid the turbulence, and there are good reasons to expect (or at least hope for) continued buoyancy. November, although a much lower-volume month for sales (~5%), was another strong one for the equipment business, with wholesale shipments of clubs up 100% versus a year ago, and shipments of golf balls outpacing last November by more than 30%. We connected with a number of leading golf retailers this week – both brick-and-mortar and online – and hear that strong sales have continued in recent months (since the $1 billion Q3), as the buying season has stretched deeper into the year than we can ever recall.
There’s also evidence that holiday golf gifting could outpace historic levels.
Online search interest for “golf gifts” reveals a 25-30% increase vs. 2019 and the highest point in five years, at least. Partial data for December suggests this search term could reach its highest popularity mark in a dozen years. Looks like more golfers could be finding golf balls, apparel or gadgets in their stockings this year.
Self-gifting among golfers may be on the rise too. We recently surveyed a sample of 350 Core golfers and learned that three-quarters of them expect to spend as much or more on golf-related gifts for themselves this holiday season – lining up with broader consumer trends towards “treating yourself” to cure the coronavirus blues.2 The most popular gift, they say? Golf clubs, which supports their reported increases in spending and the upsurge in shipments mentioned above.
Here’s to hoping the golf economy doesn’t sputter anytime soon. From the entire research team at NGF, we hope you have a safe and joyful holiday season.
December 3, 2020 | Written by: Joe Beditz, NGF President and CEO
October rounds played came in 32% higher than last year, according to Golf Datatech, raising the national year-to-date figure to +10.8%. Several multi-course operators we checked with this week told us that the surge in play continued in November, putting us on track for an annual increase of somewhere around 50 million rounds over 2019. Pretty amazing.
Record setting? Not quite.
Can you guess the last (and only) time we had an increase bigger than that?
It was Tiger’s breakout year – 1997 – when the number of rounds jumped up 63 million over the year before. Rarely has coming in second place felt so good. I doubt that anyone around for both surges would argue if I said that this year felt better. We were in the serious pits back in March and April, when we lost about 20 million rounds to virus-related shutdowns, and the climb out has been stunning.
Both of these “surge” years are standouts. Over the past 20+ years, rounds played have generally moved up and down no more than a few percent each year, typically weather-related fluctuation. A “big” jump would be something like 5%.
Globally, the pandemic has not been good for too many businesses. Golf has been one of the lucky few. For reasons well-documented, people have been more attracted to and engaged with golf in 2020, helping to drive up rounds played.
But weather has helped quite a bit too. It has been (mostly) an exceptionally warm and dry year. Following two of the wettest years on record, the weather has been very favorable in places where a lot of golf is played … from lower New England to the Great Lakes states. (Click here to see a map.)
Tiger won the Masters by 12 back in 1997. This year I’m guessing we’ll finish up 12% in rounds. It’s just a coincidence.
November 19, 2020 | Written by: Joe Beditz, NGF President and CEO
Back in 2009, towards the end of the Great Recession, we surveyed U.S. golf courses and clubs regarding their financial health. We did it again in 2016 to see how things had changed, and again over the course of the past few months.
In both 2009 and 2016, roughly a quarter of public courses admitted to being in bad shape, financially. Among private clubs, 21% were doing poorly in ’09, but seven years later that proportion had dropped to 14%.
Did these self-reported financial health measures have any predictive validity? Yes, they did.
- Nearly 20% of the public courses in our previous samples who rated their financial health 0-4 on a 0-10 scale are no longer in business – a 4x higher ‘closure rate’ compared to those on the upper end of our health assessment scale
- A third of private clubs who rated their health 0-4 in those previous studies are now either closed (7%) or converted (26%) to semi-public or public facilities (8x higher rate
So where do things stand today? Much improved. See graphic below.
There’s been a dramatic rise in the proportion of U.S. golf facilities reporting to be in good financial shape compared to our previous studies, including more than half of public courses and nearly 2/3 of private clubs. And, fewer than 1 in 10 (public and private combined) suggest that they’re currently in bad shape (0-4).
For public courses especially, the summer swell has had a profound impact on financial well-being. Coming into 2020, 14% of public courses would have rated themselves in financial distress (down from 25% in 2016), but today that proportion has been cut almost in half (8%), thanks to over 2,000 extra rounds on average.
NOTE: Our 2020 sample consisted of 876 public courses and 337 private clubs, but because 9-hole and value-priced (<$40 rack rate) facilities are under-represented in our sample, a slightly higher overall percentage of public courses may be distressed than our results show.
So, what do the courses and clubs who remain in trouble have in common?
• They are disproportionately 9-hole and/or value-priced facilities (<$40 rack rate)
• They claim to be in oversupplied/bad markets
• They have made little/no investment in capital improvements over the past 5 years, and don’t have plans to make any
The takeaway here is that the overall financial health of U.S. golf facilities has improved significantly since 2016 – a function of stabilizing participation, an improved overall economy and the closing of many lower-performing courses, and now the surge in rounds played. And, with fewer facilities now financially “at risk,” we should expect the rate of closures/conversions to slow down, and the marketplace to find its way closer to equilibrium.
November 5, 2020 | Written by: David Lorentz, NGF Chief Research Officer
There’s an adage in business that 80% of sales come from 20% of customers. This phenomenon – known also as “the law of the vital few” – may not be the universal truth that some suggest, but it does have pretty broad acceptance and application, and is viewed by many as a powerful tool for growing business.
Coincidentally or not, this principle applies nicely to the pandemic-induced lift that golf has experienced over the past five months, as it’s become pretty clear that a certain 20% of existing customers are contributing disproportionately to the outcome. (What follows begins to answer the question we’ve been asked more than any other in recent months: Who’s driving the surge?)
Since March we’ve surveyed several thousand Core consumers, chronicling their sentiments and behaviors and drawing distinctions between different groups, time periods and locations. Within this pulse survey we’ve also inquired about current and expected 2020 golf spend, asking respondents to compare these amounts to 2019 and/or their “typical” annual spend.
The data here is more directional than scientific/projectable, but it’s showed us that 20% of Core golfers will be “over-spenders” this year, while roughly 30% will be “same-spenders” and, believe it or not, half will actually underspend this year versus last (or typical).
This increased spend among the 20-percenters – who represent 2.5 to 3 million golfers nationwide – applies to both equipment and rounds. Over-spenders are 44% more likely to have purchased a driver and/or set of irons so far in 2020 (despite entering the year with equal expectations to buy). And when it comes to rounds, they’re estimating an average increase of 37% for the year (compared to +23% for same-spenders and -6% for under-spenders).
So, who are these over-spenders, you ask? Well, two-thirds are under 50 years old and half are in households making $150,000 or more, which is about 1.5x and 2x more common, respectively, than the average Core consumer. This group is also 23% more likely to live in the Northeast and Midwest Census regions, which supports the state-by-state rounds increases we’ve detailed in previous weeks.
But perhaps the most obvious or expected difference is that this group of over-spenders appears to be a bit more serious about the pandemic. Compared to other Core golfers (8+ rounds annually), they’re:
- 15% more likely to believe that “normal” isn’t returning until the second half of 2021 (or later)
- 15% less likely to feel that their work and personal lives are “getting back to normal”
- 16% less likely to have dined out in the past seven days
- 63% less likely to have visited a crowded outdoor spot in the past seven days
All of these observations lead to two important points. The first is not new but worth revisiting – that golf and the pandemic have a bit of a synergetic relationship going, both broadly speaking and, more specifically, as it relates to the 20-percenters who are doing a lot of the heavy lifting. It seems the emotions they harbor towards the pandemic are stimulating some of this golf-crazy behavior.
The other point is about retaining and “leveling up” your best customers. Do you know your vital few? Their differentiating characteristics? How are you identifying, serving and rewarding this group? Finding look-alikes?
We talk often about attracting new golfers, and there’s a tendency in business towards investing disproportionately in customer acquisition, but sometimes (maybe most times) the easiest source of new and sustainable revenue is right under your nose.
October 8, 2020 | Written by David Lorentz, NGF Chief Research Officer
In a recent article about pandemic winners and losers, New York Magazine described golf – one of its winners – as “slow and expensive.”
These are just two of the game’s unflattering perceptions (there’s also “difficult” and “exclusionary”), and are used by non-golfing/non-endemic journalists almost as a matter of course. Whether a function of bad experiences, skewed exposures or innate human ‘negativity bias,’ the reputation of golf among those who don’t play has leaned unfavorably for years. As industry researchers we’ve not only tracked these sentiments, but have long been curious to understand their origins and impacts.
Perceptions as you know are formed based on relatives. Golf is “slow” because most sports require running and jumping and other lively exertion. It’s “expensive” because most of the recreational equipment in your garage can be used for free at any time (and just about anywhere). In a way, that’s what makes golf “exclusionary” too – since there are certain places that many of us can’t play, as they’re prohibitive in cost or access or both.
These contrasts aren’t worth apologizing for, necessarily, and they certainly don’t stop roughly 1 in 9 Americans from actively engaging with the sport each year (or another 2 in 9 from doing so passively), but I needn’t tell you that perceptions matter in business. They influence behaviors and strengthen loyalty. Or, they push people away. Roughly 75% of non-golfers with a negative opinion of golf also express zero interest in taking it up. By comparison, only 27% of non-golfers with neutral perceptions have closed the door on the game. The difference there is intuitive but it does underscore the importance of managing golf’s brand and owning its narrative. It’s said that the market will define your story if you don’t give it a story to talk about.
So what’s our story, and how do we present a better one? A few thoughts:
- For starters, we can do some counter-punching with better information and context. Take “expensive” as an example. Golf obviously has startup costs, but in terms of ongoing expenses it’s actually quite practical for the majority of Americans. Right now our database shows a median maximum rate of $48 for 18 holes†, including cart, at a regulation-length public course in the middle of peak season. If you’re willing to steer away from the busiest times, that median rate drops to almost $30. That’s somewhere between an $8 and $12 hourly rate for recreation, give or take, which would seem to be as good as anything else that’s pay-to-participate. And that’s just the median! Context can change perceptions. Just ask Ikea, who used the approach successfully in their “It’s that affordable” campaign.
- We also don’t have to counterpunch every negative opinion or misperception, but instead can use certain ones to our advantage, which marketers often accomplish through irony or self-deprecating messaging (remember Golfsmith’s #AnythingForGolf campaign, which cleverly faced up to the difficulty of the game?). Satire can be an effective way to capture attention, but perhaps more importantly can appeal to emotion and earn trust
- Finally, we can tell a better story by focusing more on our customers (and prospects) than ourselves. Branding is inherently self-centered but ultimately your customers care a lot more about themselves than they care about you. So make it about them! Last year we piloted a marketing program in Denver that aimed to activate interested adults by using strategically-crafted messages directed at various consumer targets. Before going to market with those ads, we tested their effectiveness among samples of Denverites and other Americans. In doing so we discovered that our message about dress code, and needing “More golfers who don’t dress like golfers,” was most effective in making golf seem relevant, approachable and fun. The message wasn’t about sprawling fairways, challenging greens or timeless traditions – it was about them, and us needing their unique sense of style.
The good news is that opinions of golf have been improving. Seven years ago, 43% of non-golfers had neutral or positive things to say about the game. Earlier this year (pre-pandemic), that proportion had risen to 55%. It’s significant progress but there’s room to keep going. Golf has a lot of people’s attention right now, and with that comes the opportunity to create impressions – new and better impressions. And while we have the power to do this through words and storytelling, the real convincing is going to happen at the course.
We’ll continue to track how sentiments change during and after this Covid-fueled boom.
† The cost to play golf has actually fallen over the past decade – had we kept up with inflation since 2007, that median maximum rate would look more like $53, not $48.
September 10, 2020 | Written by Joe Beditz, NGF President & CEO
The big question in March and April was whether golf courses and retail would reopen and remain open. In May and June, we wondered how quickly and strongly the golf economy would bounce back from spring losses. Then, in July and August, our curiosity turned towards understanding how golfers were behaving differently in the new normal, and which consumer groups were contributing to the summer spikes in play and spend.
Now, the big unknown seems to be the extent to which we might retain new golfers and sustain increased levels of play when COVID is finally in the rearview. That’s of course a longer-term question, but we can certainly speculate based on past and current knowledge.
Let’s first recognize how we got to this point. There’s no question the leading driver of golf’s nationwide surge is less resource competition – fewer commitments, fewer trips, fewer available activities, and fewer ways to spend disposable income. There’ve been other transient factors too, like favorable weather, extended shutdowns at golf entertainment venues, and perhaps even a pandemic-induced need for mental and physical escape.
But nothing about the past few months seems structurally different for golf, whether with the product itself, the service that supports it, or the overall user experience … unless you count extended tee time intervals, which for a time seemed to produce faster, smoother and more enjoyable rounds. Either way, we weren’t suddenly marketing ourselves differently, onboarding new players differently, or managing customer relationships differently. (In fact, remote check-in procedures may have made it more impersonal.) Which is to say we should expect a similar churn rate as before, because nothing changes if nothing changes.
The ability to retain customers has been golf’s Achilles heel for some time now. In the past five years alone we’ve “welcomed” more than 12 million people to the traditional game, and yet our ‘sea level’ has risen by only 200,000, give or take. It’s almost inexplicable, and signals a serious issue with the experience and/or perceived value among new customers.
We can certainly hope that the pandemic reorients consumers – making them appreciate open space, fresh air and less crowded activities than before. But those are probably fleeting effects.
Perhaps the one thing that may be different these days, and should contribute positively to golf’s retention rate, is the fact that more and more beginners are coming in with off-course experiences under their belts – specifically golf entertainment – which means more competence and confidence. Our data shows that beginners who’ve played at a golf entertainment venue are 20% more likely to say they’ll stick around, barring health or financial setbacks.
This message isn’t meant to be a tub of ice water dumped over the hopes of those currently celebrating golf’s surge, but it is a ‘bucket challenge’ of sorts. If it motivates some to fight the natural tendency to relax and enjoy the extra business, and instead strive to identify our newcomers and make an extra-large effort to ensure that their experience is sticky … then it was worth the risk of dampening some of the enthusiasm out there right now. Encouragingly, we’ve had recent dialogues with operators about this very topic (experience and retention), and can sense a different level of determination.
July 30, 2020
Based on NGF research at the midway point of the year, there’s evidence the number of junior golfers (ages 6-17) could swell by as much as 20% this year. With approximately 2.5 million kids having teed it up on a golf course last year, that’s a potential Covid-related bump of half a million junior golfers by year's end.
If we had used the first quarter of 2020 (January, February and March) as any indication, we’d have seen no real change in the junior ranks, as the numbers were relatively normal. But in Q2, the rise has been significant from a directional standpoint.
It makes sense, with golf celebrated as a safe and healthy outdoor activity for all ages as the coronavirus rages on. With many youth sports on hold or slowly coming back, and families seeking activities they can do together, especially as schools were out, golf has emerged as a terrific alternative. Our data also suggests that these newbies may actually be a little bit younger than usual, with an increase in the number of girls and about the same racial/ethnic diversity (~25% non-Caucasian) that we’re now accustomed to seeing among the junior set.
The number of overall beginning and returning golfers during the Q2 stretch appears equally significant – both about 20% higher than in recent years.
The question, as always, is whether the industry will be able to convert these golfers into committed customers. That will depend on the experience they have at the golf course, which can no doubt be managed in a way that enhances satisfaction, fosters loyalty and improves retention.
Bear in mind, this inflow of new golfers will be offset, to some extent, by a natural churn that occurs every year. This may end up even more pronounced in 2020 due to Covid, as some golfers will elect not to play this year because of financial hardship or health and safety concerns.
August Rounds Slip Slightly Off 2020 Pace
Rounds played for August were down 7.3% nationwide compared to 2020’s end-of-summer surge, although play continues to trend ahead of recent non-pandemic years.
August is typically one of the three highest-volume months for rounds, behind July and June. Last year, August 2020 rounds saw a YOY jump of almost 21% as summer vacations, youth sports and other activities were more limited.
Weather also was a factor in this year’s dip in August play. Precipitation was up fairly significantly (43% or higher) in four of the northernmost geographic regions included in the monthly report produced by Golf Datatech, which incorporates facility data gathered by NGF. In the East North Central region, for example, home to golf-rich states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois and Ohio, precipitation was up 53% for August and rounds saw a decline of just over 12%.
Entering September, play was up 11.3% nationally compared to the same eight-month period in 2020, when approximately 20 million spring rounds were lost due to virus-related operational restrictions and anxiety.
2020 Play Finishes up 14% YOY, Over 60 Million More Than 2019
December rounds were up more than 37% nationwide, according to Golf Datatech’s monthly report, capping a resurgent year for the U.S. market. Overall, play during 2020 was up 13.9% over 2019, putting the year-end total at around 500 million rounds.
Play at private clubs was up 19.9% year-over-year, while public facilities (including resorts that were more affected by travel limitations) saw a 12.4% rise in rounds.
From June through the end of the year, the surges in play yielded about 75 million incremental rounds compared to the same period in 2019. For the year — and factoring in the loss of 20 million spring rounds due to virus-related shutdowns and anxiety — the net gain is more than 60 million extra rounds over 2019, when 441 million rounds of golf were played at the nation’s more than 16,000 golf courses.
In a typical year, weather-related fluctuation usually accounts for a 2% to 3% difference in the total number of rounds played. The only other year in the past two decades that the U.S. saw an increase of more than 3% was in 2012, when play rose 5.7% in part because of an early-season heatwave that contributed to heavier offseason play in some parts of the country.
The Emergency Nine
Did you get out to play nine holes at some point in 2020? If so, you weren't alone.
During the summer months in particular, when there were extra hours of sunlight, golf course operators reported that afternoon and evening tee times were exceptionally popular, which seems right given that Covid-19 changed the contours of the work day for many. Sorting through our golf participation and engagement research, the number of short loops (as a percentage of total loops) was up over 15% in 2020.
Core golfers report that 33% of their rounds were of the nine-hole variety, while occasional golfers told us that more than 40% of the rounds they played were nine holes. This will be seen as good news by many and would indicate that the “time barrier” to golf is being overcome by more golfers.
We've talked about the increase in beginners and youth golfers, so clearly the late-day tee times weren't just for the work-at-home crowd. Those nine-hole twilight rounds on late summer days presented the perfect opportunity for families to get to the course after an early dinner, or newcomers to get more comfortable with the game.
The USGA, which has a PLAY9 initiative, said that 9-hole scores accounted for about 13% of scores posted to the new World Handicap System in 2020. In total, almost 66 million 18-hole scores were posted in the U.S. to just over 10 million 9-hole scores. This engagement is among the more committed golfer base, too, as golfers with an official USGA handicap posted an average of 38 rounds, almost double the average played by all golfers last year.
• Currently open
• Not yet open or operations suspended temporarily
• Non-sampled golf facilities
The map above represents a sample of approximately 10% of all golf courses in the U.S., and is intended to provide perspective as to the geography of courses that are either open or have temporarily suspended golf operations.
While not representative of a complete view of golf course availability, it is the most nationally representative sample of courses available in the industry -- one that includes daily fee, private, municipal, resort and residential communities.
Trend in Course Openings
Less than 50% of golf courses were open to play for more than a month during the height of the coronavirus pandemic -- a combination of governmental efforts (state and local) to reduce the spread of the virus as well as seasonality (wintry weather in the northernmost parts of the country).
The percentage steadily increased from the last week of April through mid-May as more than a dozen states lifted bans on golf while others -- most notably California and Florida -- eased significant local restrictions. By early June, no states had restrictions on play.
A shot in the arm: Something that has a sudden and positive effect on something, providing encouragement and new activity. — Cambridge Dictionary I can’t think of a more appropriate description of the year 2020 and its effect on golf, can you? There hasn’t been this much optimism and new activity in the golf business…Read More
At one point in mid-April, as many as 19 states had restrictions on golf, either at a statewide or local level. The following is an overview of how governmental executive orders affected golf operations nationwide.Read More
As the pandemic stretches on, NGF’s ongoing national participation study shows that 35- to 49-year-old golfers have been especially engaged.Read More