Think of golf participation as a bus that visits almost 15,000+ golf facilities multiple times each day and never stops. Players of varying commitment and skill levels ride the coach, and at any given time since 2011, golf’s Greyhound has entertained 24 million riders of all ages and from all walks of life (yes, they walked before they rode). During the past four years, roughly the same number of new players paid their fare as got off the bus each year. We have capacity for more players and the quality of the on-boarding process is critical to retaining customers and building golf’s franchise in the long term.
One piece of excellent news is there are tens of millions of non-golfers eager to become part of the journey (latent demand). The churn without growth makes the golf course business incredibly competitive. To use another really subtle bus metaphor, keep in mind that when it comes to the success and failure of golf courses, golf is a local business.
With so many interested non-golfers who aren’t paying customers, it’s reasonable to conclude that golf isn’t facing an interest problem, but rather issues related to activation and retention. In other words, plenty of people want to play, but most aren’t aware or perhaps comfortable enough with the path to the game.
According to a recent NGF study, only 10% of non-golfers, those who haven’t played a round of golf in the past 12 months, are aware of programs that can ease their entrance into the game.
Likewise, less than 30% of former golfers who have lapsed (played golf previously but not in the past 12 months) took golf instruction when they were first introduced to the game.
Golf’s leading organizations engaged in player development —The PGA of America, LPGA, PGA TOUR, the USGA and The Masters Tournament —are working to positively affect the participation churn through their consolidated support of grass-roots programs such as Get Golf Ready, The First Tee, LPGA/USGA Girls Golf, Drive, Chip & Putt and PGA Junior League Golf. Efforts also include attracting players back to the game who fell away for one reason or another (slightly more than half of lapsed golfers report being open to returning to the game in the near future).
“There are a lot of bright spots out there,” said NGF, PGA and NGCOA member Del Ratcliffe, owner/operator of Ratcliffe Golf Services, which manages five facilities in the Charlotte area. “Part of the problem is we have painted ourselves into a corner with all the repeated talk about barriers like cost, time and difficulty. We need to adopt the philosophy that golf is an activity that can be enjoyed by everyone, and then actively promote it that way.”
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Golf has never been as accessible as it is today. More than 75% of golf facilities are open to the public, and given the current buyer’s market, tee times at quality courses are more affordable now than any time in recent memory. Operators are also embracing technology usage on the golf course (i.e. cell phones, social media, music),and are eliminating rules and dress codes that many younger adults consider restrictive and cumbersome. These changes speak well to attracting the game’s future prospects—including juniors, millennials and those who will be drawn to golf through alternative programs such as Topgolf and FootGolf. Millennials and juniors make up more than 35% of the current golfing population and slightly more than half of the game’s latent demand.
“As a golf industry we are all pulling in the same direction to promote the aspects of the game that are so attractive to those who are involved,” said Nancy Henderson, chief teaching officer with the LPGA. “We have a nice common message about the virtues of the game.”
Recruiting Junior Golfers Using Innovation and New Messaging
We have learned that the earlier we get people involved in golf the more likely they are to stay with it, increasing the importance of activating juniors. Nearly 65% of current golfers were introduced to the game between the ages of 6 and 18. With interest piqued (juniors account for 5.5 million of golf’s latent demand), The PGA of America, The First Tee and the LPGA/USGA are increasing their efforts to attract these juniors.
The PGA’s Jr. League Golf program has activated thousands of juniors between ages 6 and 13 in just three years of existence and is expected to expand significantly beyond the 17,500 (2014) junior participants. The program succeeds by exposing children to the game through low-pressure team competition and group instruction that makes golf more welcoming and enjoyable to learn and play.
The First Tee has a number of programs that introduce children to golf in the proper way, but its “National School Program” is unique in that it delivers early golf instruction directly into public schools. The First Tee programs reached more than 4.1 million young people in 2014. The program equips physical education teachers with the proper knowledge and lesson plans to create positive leaning environments for elementary school aged children. The program focuses on the proper motor skills and life lessons that golf promotes while introducing the game in the proper environment.
The LPGA is working with the USGA and The First Tee, offering the “Girls Golf” program that is administered by LPGA instructors and professionals at locations across the country. According to Henderson, Girls Golf programs enjoy a 50% higher retention rate among females than gender-mixed programs, and since 2010 has grown from onboarding 5,000 girls a year to 50,000 in 2015 (figures from The First Tee).
All Aboard Millennials
Millennials comprise more than a quarter of current golfers, and another 12 million interested in getting on board. These current and potential golfers present a sizeable growth opportunity, but absolutely require the proper environment for activation and conversion.
Like juniors, 18-34 year old adults prefer to learn the game in group settings, and recent NGF data shows that a sizeable number (well more than two-thirds) prefer to learn the game alongside friends or co-workers they are already comfortable with. These potential customers also have diverse interests, so the invitation can’t necessarily be framed in the traditional way. Instead, it’s about comradery, challenge, outdoor activity and, yes, beverages.
“The most important thing is getting these young people out onto the golf course,” Ratcliffe said. “It’s not always the traditional approach to golf that works, but if we take the message to them and then deliver the experience on the course the results will be there.”
Alternative Routes to Growth?
The emergence of two golf-centric programs—Topgolf and FootGolf—have the potential to help the game gain additional traction among young adults and other previously less engaged segments of the population.
Topgolf, a combination of driving range, high-tech bowling alley and sports bar, is introducing (or reintroducing) the game to thousands of non-golfers. Their financial success and customer demographics have certainly caught operators’ attention.
“To be honest, when I was first introduced to Topgolf, I was like ‘man, this is a threat to the golf industry.’ But I soon realized it was an opportunity for us to engage a different group of people with the traditional game of golf,” said Ratcliffe. “The reality is Topgolf has overcome many of the obstacles given for why golf is not growing. It’s a different atmosphere to be sure, but there is great potential for crossover.”
Since it’s estimated that just a little more than half of Topgolf customers are on-course golfers and they attract such a broad spectrum of lifestyles, NGF believes it is perhaps the clearest manifestation of latent demand. It is a less serious, more approachable, dynamic and fun-centric version of golf and people are flocking to it.
Some of the same things are being said about FootGolf, which combines elements of golf and soccer, and is played on existing golf courses with a few modifications. According to the American FootGolf League, the sport is currently played at more than 425 courses in 49 states. While many operators are taking a wait and see approach as to whether FootGolf will deliver new players to the traditional game, there’s no question that it is creating an additional revenue source for public golf facilities and it is introducing new people to the golf course environment who might not otherwise find themselves there.
“I believe that when you introduce FootGolf players to the golf environment you have an opportunity to attract them to the traditional game,” said Roberto Balestrini, AFGL’s passionate leader and an NGF member. “People ask me if FootGolf is bringing new people to the game, and I tell them it’s too early to tell, but there’s no doubt the opportunity is there.”
As with many meaningful trips, it’s golf’s journey and not the destination that is most memorable. There’s always a new skill to learn or course to challenge. So the bus moves on and new players continue to be welcomed aboard to experience the ride so many of us enjoy.
Erik is the Editorial Director for the NGF. Before joining the National Golf Foundation, he spent more than two decades with Bloomberg News, both as a writer and editor, with a focus on sports business and the golf industry. The New Jersey resident has also written about golf for outlets that include Forbes, LINKS and the Met Golfer.