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A Publication of the National Golf Foundation

Questions, Answers and Insights for Everyone Interested in the Business of Golf




Biggest Rounds Jump Yet

Joe Beditz, NGF President and CEO

We’ve said it before, that “Autumn is golf’s best season.” This year it could literally be true.

The September numbers are in and Golf Datatech is reporting almost a 26% jump in rounds played versus a year ago. Percentage-wise, this is the largest YOY increase so far this year and represents about 12 million incremental rounds. (Thanks to all the golf courses that are supplying rounds played data to us and making these reports better and better.)

Once again, every state in the continental U.S. saw increases in play of at least 2% over last year. That makes it three straight months now. A major drop in precipitation helped fuel a 46% September rounds-increase in Minnesota, while other Midwest states also saw notable increases: Illinois (+35%), Wisconsin (+29%), Michigan (+27%), Indiana (+27%) and Ohio (+26%).

At the end of the quarter ending September 30th, year-to-date rounds are up 8.7% nationally. As a result, we have updated our year-end forecast based on two different scenarios: 1) rounds in the fourth quarter come in flat compared to last year; and, 2) 2020 rounds continue to outpace 2019 in the final three months by 15%. The graph below shows those assumptions would tell us that rounds for the year could finish up between 7% and 10%. A startling turnaround following a disastrous start to the spring.

Our upper +15% assumption for the rest of the year may not prove to be correct, but it isn’t unrealistic either, given the increases of 20%-and-better the past several months. When thinking about year-end, the fourth quarter represents just under 20% of annual rounds, and October has an outsized influence on those fourth quarter results. Based on our calls with several management companies this week, the surge in rounds has carried into October, so we’re feeling bullish about that year-end forecast.

A couple of things to bear in mind. All these extra rounds do not benefit everyone in golf equally. There are several business segments, such as resort golf, that are not enjoying a “V” recovery. And second, significant increases in rounds played don’t necessarily indicate the same is happening with golf participation. While we’ve recorded noticeable increases in juniors and beginners, the stocks and flows of our consumer base may end up evening things out in the end.

But let’s enjoy this while we can. And let’s keep promoting “Autumn. Golf’s Best Season.”

Record $1B Golf Equipment Sales in Q3

U.S. golf equipment retail sales topped $1 billion in total for the months of July, August and September, an all-time Q3 record since Golf Datatech started its tracking in 1997.

Mirroring the surges in rounds following the industry’s spring shutdowns due to Covid-19, total Q3 sales of golf equipment on- and off-course were 42% higher than the same period last year and almost 18% higher than the previous measured Q3 high of $852 million in 2007.

The sales increase was led by strong showings in golf bags, wedges and irons, and is the second highest quarter in the more than three decades of Datatech’s tracking. Only Q2 in 2008 – a period capped by Tiger Woods’ last major victory (his U.S. Open playoff win over Rocco Mediate at Torrey Pines) – was slightly higher, at $1.013 billion. 

Perceptions of Golf

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:

  1. 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.
  1. 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.

  2. 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.

The Churn

Diving Deeper Into the Give and Take of Golf Demand

Joe Beditz, NGF President and 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.

The Emergency Nine

Have you gotten out to play nine holes in recent months? If so, you're not alone.

Golf course operators report that afternoon and evening tee times have been popular, which seems right given that Covid-19 has changed the contours of the work day for many. Sorting through recent golf participation and engagement research, the number of short loops (as a percentage of total loops) is up over 15% in 2020.

Core golfers report that 33% of their rounds this year have been of the nine-hole variety, while occasional golfers tell us that nearly half (48%) are playing nine holes. This will be seen as good news by many, especially the USGA given their PLAY9 initiative, 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 (see below), so clearly the late-day tee times aren't just for the work-at-home crowd. With late summer days, those nine-hole twilight rounds present the perfect opportunity for families to get to the course after an early dinner, or newcomers to get more comfortable with the game.

Nine-Hole Golf in the U.S.

A Look at Nine-Hole Facilities as a Proportion of Total Supply

Did you know that up until 1974, there were more nine-hole golf facilities in the U.S. than those with 18 or more holes?

18 holes wasn't always the preferred layout. Indeed, many of today’s 18-hole courses were built in two stages -- nine holes at a time. Today, there are 3,777 nine-hole golf facilities in the U.S. that account for about 26% of the total supply.

The seven states with more nine-hole facilities than 18 or 27?

Iowa -- 248 vs 135
Kansas -- 137 vs 101
Nebraska -- 123 vs 90
North Dakota -- 88 vs 28
South Dakota -- 79 vs 40
Maine -- 72 vs 60
Alaska -- 14 vs 6

And yes, Iowa has more nine-hole golf facilities than any other state in the nation. The only other state with more than 200 nine-holers is Texas, with 202.

New Faces On the Course

Projecting jumps in junior (and overall beginner) participation

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.

Golf travel - What's the impact?

While equipment sales and play have been staging a strong comeback, the same can't be said for golf travel. NGF consumer research is signaling that overall trip volume could be down 35% to 40% this year.

That said, traveling golfers tell us they’ll most likely be driving to their golf destinations this year — and not necessarily close to home.

Three out of four golf travelers (76%) say they’re willing to drive more than four hours each way for a golf getaway, and those with a trip still planned for 2020 indicate they’ll spend an average of six to seven hours in the car just getting to their destination. It’s why U.S. golf resorts and destinations should and are continuing to aggressively target their drive-in markets.

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.

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98% of U.S. Golf Courses Are Open

The NGF’s latest nationwide survey of U.S. golf facilities shows that 98% were open to play as of the week beginning June 1, just 1 1/2 months after half the courses in the country were closed. 

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We hope you find this complimentary information to be beneficial and interesting.

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