At this year’s Golf Business Symposium, the NGF presented its latest findings on the junior golf market, a segment that is bigger and more diverse than many observers realize. And a group that should give us reasons to be optimistic about the game’s future.
Today, the number of junior golfers—defined as individuals between the ages of 6 and 17 who played at least one round of golf in the past year—is almost 3 million. Twenty years ago, in 1995, the number of junior golfers was also almost 3 million. However, to assume nothing has changed is to miss a much more interesting story.
Between 1995 and 2004, thanks in part to the presence and resonance of Tiger Woods, the number of junior golfers shot up, reaching a peak of 4.1 million. But beginning in 2005, and due largely to the global economic crisis, golf participation in this set fell steadily, bottoming out in 2011 at 2.4 million. Since then, we’ve seen healthy growth of 25%, back to 3 million in 2015.
But more important than the overall number is the demographic make-up of those 3 million kids. Because in key areas, golf is making very important inroads.
In 1995, girls made up only 17% of all junior golfers. Today, they total one third. To put that into perspective, the overall proportion of female golfers (age 6+) has hovered around 20 percent for as far back as NGF has tracked participation. Girls are getting, and accepting, the message that golf can be both welcoming and fun. This would seem to be the result of increased visibility of the LPGA and its young stars, as well as innovative programs like LPGA Girls Golf and possibly longer-term effects of Title IX.
Similar to the growing proportion of junior girls who played in 2015, the number of non-white juniors has grown as well. Twenty years ago, only 1 out of 17 junior golfers was non-Caucasian. Today, that number is nearly 1 out of 3. That’s an impressive rise and speaks to the broader appeal of professional golf, the power of institutions like The First Tee, inclusive programs across the country, and demographic changes in the U.S. population.
Lest you think these two shifts in demographics also reflect shrinking economic power, today two-thirds of all junior golfers come from households making $75,000, a rise of nearly 20% from 20 years ago. More diversity has come with more spending power, and points toward a future golfing population that far more accurately mirrors the country’s population.
And there’s another trend that could prove beneficial to the industry in the years to come. Today’s junior golfers are coming to the game younger. There are 50% more junior golfers under age 12 than there were in 1995. This is a good sign because research shows that the age of introduction positively affects the level of engagement.
In NGF’s recent Millennial research, we found that Millennials who started playing before age 14 are nearly twice as likely to become Core golfers (those who play 8 or more rounds a year and account for more than 90% of total rounds and spending). There’s also a much stronger level of enjoyment among Millennials who start golf early: Four out of five say they enjoy the game “very much” (that’s 20% higher than among those who started later) and 85% say they are “very likely” to continue playing as they get older.
Perceptions of the game are a strong indicator of enjoyment, frequency of play, volume of spending and likelihood to continue playing. NGF’s Millennial research showed that those who start younger have more positive perceptions about the game and fewer negative ones than those who picked up the game later. They strongly agree that golf is a good form of exercise, a great family activity, time well spent, a good way to enjoy the outdoors, even cool. Those younger adopters disagree more strongly with assertions that golf is dull or boring, bad for the environment, elitist and exclusionary, or is an old man’s sport.
The industry should be encouraged by what we’re learning about the youngest golfers. Golf’s efforts to attract more demographically diverse youngsters seem to be working, and with more kids picking up golf at a younger age, there is hope that this next generation of golfers will remain committed to the game throughout their lifetime. Still, we’ve only scratched the surface in terms of truly understanding today’s juniors. We need to delve more deeply into these positive signs, which is why the NGF has begun an in-depth study on the Centennials (those born since 1997).
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.