Amid uncertain times, golf has enjoyed a resurgence in play, particularly so during the summer months. It’s momentum worth celebrating and a unique opportunity for the game.
In a recent industry message, NGF CEO Joe Beditz not only discussed the surge in rounds, but addressed the importance of sustaining this interest in play and retaining both new golfers and those who have returned to the game after an extended hiatus.
As an extension of this dialogue, NGF reached out to leaders from different corners of the golf industry for feedback and varied perspective on two key questions:
How would they assess the opportunity that exists for golf right now?
How might we best take advantage of this?
Here’s what they had to say:
Joe Assell, CEO, GOLFTEC
Golf is experiencing an unprecedented surge in interest and activity. As long as COVID-related lifestyle and business restrictions are in place, golf will remain one of the primary activities people pursue. Existing golfers are playing more golf, former golfers are returning to the sport, and droves of people are taking up golf for the first time. This surge is leading to more demand on all aspects of the industry from club memberships, to tee times, to golf equipment, to lessons. The opportunity for golf is to retain as much of this accelerated activity as possible for years to come.
This is the moment golf has been waiting for. We need to make sure this surge of people have FUN. Fun comes in many forms including great hospitality at the course, time with family, shiny new clubs and apparel, and lower scores via lessons. The golf industry has a collective opportunity to retain a new wave of people and boost rounds played for years into the future. As Covid restrictions eventually relax and other activities and business travel again compete for people’s time, a new-found passion for golf must be embedded in people’s lives to overcome other options for their time.
Steve Skinner, CEO, KemperSports
Golf has a great opportunity to capture a generation of new players. Most of our facilities are experiencing a 20-30 percent increase in rounds played this summer. That increase is coming from avid players who are playing more, but also from a flock of new players. For years, the golf industry relied on the baby boomer generation, which accounted for the majority of players and total rounds played. Now, we’re seeing first-timers, families and juniors enjoying the game. The pandemic has created an expanded market that, we hope, will help drive our industry forward. We have an opportunity to capture a new audience and turn first-timers into lifelong golfers
At KemperSports, we see five critical ways to capitalize on the increased demand for golf.
- We must commit to providing an exceptional golf experience – one that is welcoming and fun and makes guests want to come back. This has been a key differentiator for our business and our culture for more than 40 years. And, 2020 is no different. In fact, customer service ratings at our properties are higher than they have ever been. Great customer service plays a major role in creating repeat customers.
- We must welcome juniors, families and new golfers with open arms. This includes creative ideas like free, 15-minute introductory lessons, junior rates and family tee times. We should also continue to create and renovate alternative courses (short course, par-3s and putting courses) and consider alternative types of formats (scrambles and team play, such as PGA Jr. League).
- We must consider seniors, who still represent the game’s most loyal players but fall into a higher risk category. Be sensitive to their needs and consider their behavior in operational protocols.
- Create an efficient food and beverage system for delivery and grab & go options. Expand to-go selections and consider app-based delivery services to guests on the course. Creating more outdoor dining spaces is also key to supporting a limited F&B system during this time.
- Increase communication to all guests. Strategic communications have the power to engage guests and reinforce lasting relationships with customers. We need to truly connect with our customers.
Mike Davis, Executive Director, USGA
Thinking about it in very general terms, one of the things that all of us in golf talk about on a constant basis is what the game of golf is. We all know it’s the game of a lifetime, so you can be a little kid to days away from kicking the bucket, so to speak, and you can play golf. It’s a game that through the handicapping system allows players of varying skill levels to play on an equitable basis. Not many other sports are like that. I think that this coronavirus has given us a great opportunity for people that never played the game, or people that did play it that lapsed from it and came back, or families to recreate and socialize together and do it safely. We went from really utter chaos in March and April — golf courses being closed, golf equipment manufacturers furloughing employees, laying off employees, shuttering plants — to now it’s booming. And it’s only been a few months that that’s happened.
What’s going to be interesting is can we keep that going? Those new players that came in, those lapsed players, the families, the more women’ playing. All those things are really good, but will it stick? As an industry, we’re really trying to say what can we do to make sure that happens.
Adam Heieck, CEO, Youth on Course
This is arguably the best opportunity the industry has seen to cultivate juniors. Golf is one of the few sports/activities many young people and their parents feel comfortable with and we’re seeing thousands and thousands of families flock to the sport. Those who had played once or twice are playing more frequently and investing in programming and equipment. Golf has become a family activity that can be played late in the day or after school (or perhaps even earlier with distance learning in many states). Youth on Course is seeing record growth (membership up 50%+ this year) as parents are desperate to get their kids outside and active.
As an industry, we have to work together more than ever to sustain interest in the sport. Juniors are playing more, but what will keep them? How welcoming are our facilities, can we rethink the way we introduce juniors and their parents to the game? (Operation 36 has figured this out) If we can create a pathway and easy to understand, accessible information for parents, we can make the growth we’re seeing sustainable rather than a brief uptick.
Steve Harker, CEO, Touchstone Golf
We agree that there is a tremendous opportunity in our industry right now. We believe these latent golfers that we have surveyed for the past few years are picking up the game and finding golf as an oasis during these stir crazy times. These increased customers are right in front of us and the opportunity is there for the taking. The problem lies in the fact that most golf courses are not organized in a way to capture this new found demand. With pre-paid tee times, often made by one member of a foursome, along with masks and social distancing, it is extremely difficult to capture all golfers’ information and make them feel welcome and comfortable; all of which are crucial for customer engagement.
It is crucial that we capture our customer data, especially when they are a new or first time golfer. Then we need to engage with customers in various ways to ensure we communicate to them in the way they want to be communicated to, and make them feel comfortable and competent. We also have to change the way we think and the way we interact with our guests. We are not suggesting we have all the answers but rather that we have to put forth new strategies and tactics to better train and equip our staff and engage with our customers. As an industry we have recognized the value of a reoccurring golf tournament, but we have not realized and acted upon the LIFETIME value of an individual golfer. Now, it is the individual golfers that have proven to yield far greater profits and potential long term growth for the industry and the game. We are now in a fight to retain these new golfers that see the game as a safe fun way to interact with friends, compete, and be outside.
If there is only one thing we know, that is that we have to do things differently. We cannot continue to operate golf courses the same way as a convenience store. We have to change our staff’s behaviors and take the time and energy to engage with every customer as if they were our only stakeholder. At Touchstone our strategy is to create activities, tournaments, leagues and lessons to connect these new golfers to the game. With a broad range of activities our goal is to capture the attention and excitement of each golfer in ways that excite and motivate them with hopes of creating future advocates.
Jason Adel, CEO, GOLF Magazine/GOLF.com
With rounds trending upward and new golfers seemingly being introduced to the game at a comfortable clip I think the opportunity in front of us is tremendous. Much like what we experienced in the late 90s and early 2000s, we may be on the precipice of another golf boom. I do think that many of the same challenges we’ve had over the last decade or so still exist and may magnify themselves with so many new golfers. How do we continue to find new ways to introduce golfers to the game, how do we make it more accessible… and of course, how do we keep this group interested and invested long term?
For me, the best way to accomplish this is to continue to break down the barriers to entry and the stigma that exists around the game. Much of what we see from today’s professionals I think helps that. Even simple things like watching PGA TOUR players play in shorts or untucked shirts or some of the access we now have via social media helps generate a more fun, carefree stigma around the game.
Tom Cox, CEO, Golfballs.com
Right now, golf has a spectacular opportunity. There are not many other live sport options on TV. There are fewer safe leisure activities. I’m not sure if we are experiencing a Covid-induced one-time event, or a permanent uptick in participation. The optimist in me wants to think we have a real chance to make it permanent and the realist in me says that it is all about retention science.
(We need to) work hard to convince new participants that golf is more fun, inviting, accessible, diverse, inclusive, flexible, easier, aspirational, attainable, sustainable, family-friendly, and a better value than the other leisure activities. When it’s safe to ‘go back in the water,’ we want them golfing instead of swimming.
Rob DeMore, President, Troon Prive
Clearly, there is a short-term opportunity for golf. The benefits of golf beyond playing the game itself are needed today more than ever. Golf is able to provide a safe harbor for both people’s physical and mental well-being. It remains a place families and friends can remain connected while also support a healthy lifestyle. With so many other recreation outlets either closed or limited by the pandemic and so many that will likely to be impacted long term by technology alternatives (for example, going to the movies vs. direct home distribution; in the fitness industry, home fitness equipment and added technology will likely impact gym memberships). Golf remains a healthy and inimitable experience. I can exercise and go to the movies from my living room, but I can’t play golf in my living room. Not responsibly beyond putting anyway.
In my view, (we need to) continue to extol the benefits of the game that go beyond the scorecard. The much-needed time spent making memories and providing rays of hope during this Covid journey to create new lifelong habits is essential. Teaching the game so that people use this Covid time effectively to produce more enjoyable rounds after the other attractions come back is essential. Now is the time to take advantage of this period to alter habits going forward.
Annika Sorenstam, CEO, ANNIKA
Golf is in a terrific position given the pandemic. Golf is one of the safest sports you can play in terms of social distancing. You are outside walking in the fresh air. You don’t need to touch anyone else’s equipment or golf balls, or the flagstick. You can play together with your family. It’s really the perfect sport for the current situation, and the numbers show this. We are up in terms of rounds played, equipment sales, and especially viewership of professional events. Golf was the only sport being televised for a while and I think we can keep the momentum going.
We need to capitalize on this momentum by continuing to make golf fun, accessible and inclusive both in terms of consumers enjoying the product and with regards to industry jobs.
Jeff Foster, Senior Vice President, GolfNow
As our daily lives have changed, golf has continued to be a constant. Our sport has experienced a revolution, of sorts, which has welcomed new faces and new demographics in record numbers at non-traditional times and days of the week.
Where technology has allowed many courses to reopen and operate during the pandemic, we can see how its power not only is helping courses become more efficient and able to handle the surge, but also providing golfers with an easy way to book and play golf more safely. It’s up to all of us to capture the hearts of these new and reactivated golfers and important to show both golf course operations and golfers, alike, that technology can create a more frictionless, customer-focused golfer experience that will help keep the game growing.
Dan Ladd, Executive Vice President/GM, Cobra Puma Golf
At the start of 2020, our team was excited for a tremendous year ahead, but no one could have forecasted the series of events that would have led to the growth we’ve seen throughout the game of golf in the recent months. The pandemic has presented considerable challenges globally, but it has also created a genuine opportunity within the golf industry. Consumers are eager to be outside, to be active while being responsibly social – and golf checks all those boxes. As a result, we’re seeing a resurgence of rounds played, and an increase in equipment sales and TOUR viewership – which is great for the industry. Since the beginning of Cobra Puma Golf our mantra has been ‘Enjoy Golf.’ We take great pride in making the game more fun and approachable, so seeing so many players that are new entrants or returning to the sport from long absences is exciting for us.
Our challenge, going forward, is to capitalize on this momentum, advancing golf’s newfound appeal and encouraging golfers who are new or returning to the game to get out there and Enjoy Golf. As an industry, we have to continue making the game relevant, fun and accessible. At Cobra Puma Golf we are doing that through game-changing products for all golfers, stylish, on-trend gear to help golfers look and feel good on the course and through our athletes, influencers and ambassadors who help bring even more excitement and awareness to the game.
Dan Van Horn, President, U.S. Kids Golf
This is an unprecedented moment in time, as people everywhere look to find activities that are safe and offer real long-term benefits/values to their lives. Golf as an industry needs to be intentional and smart right now. It’s not just about meeting the demand, which is significant, but also introducing the game and the benefits of it to as many people as possible. For so long, we’ve talked about getting more kids, more women, more minorities to play golf. What better time than now, when so many other activities aren’t available?
We must create programming – for women, kids, young adults, etc., all that engage people in a safe and meaningful way around the different aspects of the game that create interest. One thing we do at the U.S. Kids Golf Academy is offer a free trial class. It’s wonderful to see so many families take advantage of that to determine if golf is something they might want to learn. Our retention rate shows that for many, it definitely is.
Dan Murphy, President, Bridgestone Golf
Covid-19 has permanently changed the ways we live and work. For example, newly adopted corporate work-from-home policies have afforded consumers newfound flexibilities in scheduling their days, a significant factor in golf’s recent participation and growth. While the current spike in rounds will likely moderate, we forecast a sustained interest in the game, leading to industry growth in 2021 and into 2022. We are optimistic that golf is on a good path.
Beginners, occasional players, and avid core players need to have a good golf experience to come back for more golf. We are all counting on the frontline operators to create a welcoming and positive experience. As a leader in R&D and golf ball technology, we remain committed to making great products that fit each individual player’s game and that enhance all golfers’ positive experience, ensuring that both performance and pricing make the game appealing.
James Ledford, President, Golf Pride
The opportunity that exists for golf is, in a word, tremendous! Who would have guessed that all we needed to grow the game was a global pandemic? Not discounting the negative impact of the virus throughout the world, this might be the best exposure for the sport in decades. People’s lives have changed. They have more time and they want to be outdoors where it is safer and they seek social contact that they are missing in other parts of their lives. Those factors appear to be encouraging avid players to play more and new players to try golf for the first time. Equipment sales as a result are seeing possibly the biggest bounce that we have seen in a decade or longer – a combination of pent up demand from the lockdown and incremental interest in buying new equipment.
Short term, I think the entire equipment industry is simply trying to catch up with the spike in demand. Next year and beyond, we need to watch carefully how many new entrants to the game continue to play, even after life goes back to some new state of normal, post-Covid-19. Equipment for beginners could be an even bigger segment going forward if those who tried golf this year stick with it and pull even more friends into the game. Only time will tell.
The National Golf Foundation is a community of individuals and golf businesses committed to being the most well-informed advocates for the growth of the industry. With the world’s largest research team dedicated to golf, NGF provides members with the most accurate and objective insights on the game. We help golf businesses better understand their market and grow their businesses. The NGF is the only association for everyone in golf, and we advocate for growth by educating and connecting our members.