The philosophical and rhetorical question, “Whoever said golf was supposed to be fun?”, was posed by the Wall Street Journal in early 2014. The subject warrants ongoing attention as golf businesses compete for wallet share of almost 24 million participants.
The difficulty in growing golf’s customers (the proverbial participation ‘rising tide that would lift all boats’), is as much about retaining the millions of new golf trials each year as it is about increasing the industry’s recruiting efforts to attract more new players (though both would be good). Easing golf’s intimidation while making it less serious, more dynamic and more fun for new players may very well be golf’s most critical priority. The commonly cited culprits of golf’s supposed excess servings of time, cost and difficulty deserve to be displaced. Unfortunately, millions of people have had a golf experience that mirrors the Wall Street Journal headline — not very much fun.
That’s a significant problem considering that people prioritize things in their lives that they enjoy and make them happy. The power of the game and its magnetism continues to attract millions, yet it loses just as many, primarily due to issues of discomfort with golf’s environment or self-consciousness about their ability and knowledge of etiquette. Let’s face the music… despite Rickie Fowler’s orange flat bills, DJ’s Hollywood cool and Spieth’s wholesome charm, the game is still perceived as stuffy, rigid and intimidating to the typical novice. These are qualities that don’t necessarily promote fun and enjoyment among those unfamiliar with its culture or less than proficient at the game itself.
But what about the more than 24 million golfers that played the game more than 450 million times in 2016? Can such a vast number of people be playing if the game isn’t fun for them? Of course, the answer is no. While it’s true that one’s level of play impacts the pleasure they derive from the game, there are plenty of other elements of the activity that promote enjoyment. So NGF decided to ask a different question to better assess golf’s attraction:
“What makes golf fun for you?”
More specifically, NGF asked core golfers what they did in conjunction with the game to increase their enjoyment on the links. What we found is that while golfers vary in their on-course behavior, the majority are attracted to the game as much for the atmosphere, natural surroundings, fun and challenge as they are the game itself. These elements include socializing with friends, gambling, drinking and friendly competition, which ultimately enhance their time on the links and moves golf up the ranking of their recreational choices.
We know most golfers, especially those less proficient or simply new to the game, enjoy playing with family, friends or co-workers. It’s also true that more than one-third of players place camaraderie high on their list of priorities when choosing recreational activities. It makes sense then that 50% of golfers play with the same group of friends during the majority of their rounds. This increases the comfort level on the course, allowing golfers to play however they choose without judgement or pressure.
Once together on the course, a significant portion of golfers like to raise the stakes among playing partners to add more excitement to the game. Nearly 20% of all golfers gamble on their rounds regularly or all the time. That number jumps to 35% among avid golfers, suggesting the more frequently a golfer plays the game, the more confident they are to wager on it. Trash talking almost always goes hand-in-glove with gambling, and golfers are no different. A quarter of participants (likely the same people that are wagering) talk trash to playing partners during a typical round.
As one might expect, fun on the course often includes a stop or two at the beverage cart for a cocktail. In fact, nearly one out of every four golfers drinks alcohol on the course during a typical round. Interestingly, the percentage of in-round drinkers remains relatively equal among casual, core and avid golfers, leading one to infer that frequency of play or competency doesn’t necessarily influence whether someone regularly enjoys a cold one or not while playing. Likewise, nearly 10% of golfers smoke a cigar on the course, and roughly half that number smokes something typically less legal when playing (or at the very least is willing to admit to it). For some, the fun is shared with others via social media (though perhaps not as much as some of their other more contemporary personal ‘adventures’). While almost 40% of golfers stay connected via their cell phones while playing, a more modest one out of every five posts online during the round.
Yet despite these in-round distractions, it’s interesting to note that fun and tradition do coexist on the links. Despite the gambling, drinking and social sharing, NGF found that the vast majority of golfers still pay close attention to their round of golf. Roughly 80% keep score on a regular basis. By extension, slightly more than half obey the majority of golf’s rules, and 40% say they closely follow them on a regular basis.
An equally large number of golfers eschew the more common offenses such as mulligans and ‘rolling’ the golf ball before playing a shot. In fact, only slightly more than 10% of golfers report taking ‘two off the first’ and an equal number admit to taking a mulligan after the first hole. Once off the tee, fewer than 10% said they improve their lie before playing their next shot. Of course, some may roll their eyes at this supposed adherence to the rules, but at the very least a significant number of golfers show a healthy respect for them.
Not all of golf’s traditional protocols are followed. Roughly half of golfers play ‘ready golf,’ disregarding the tradition of ‘honors’ off the tee or holding firm to the custom that the player farthest from the hole should hit first… often speeding up play as a result.
So back to the question that launched this discussion—is golf supposed to be fun? Every golfer plays for their own reasons, but it’s safe to say that all 25 million people that teed off last year weren’t playing ‘serious’ golf every time they did so. Rather, they have certain ancillary aspects of the sport that increases the enjoyment they derive from golf. Golf’s owners and operators would do well to embrace those less serious components of the experience (the legal ones anyway) if they hope to retain and welcome more players to the game.
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.