First, some historical context for those not immersed in the golf industry. Roughly 20 years ago, the golf industry converged to map out strategies to build golf participation by an additional 20 million Americans by 2020. The initiative was dubbed “Golf2020.”
The ensuing activations varied from the extremely well conceived to some dead on arrival. Unfortunately, those aspirations for a boom in participation, despite ostensibly favorable demographics and valiant efforts by many organizations, did not materialize.
Having been an active observer of many of these efforts, I could fill much more space than this forum allows, with reasons why we didn’t things achieve the goals espoused at Golf2020. Fairly speaking, many of these reasons were outside the control of those sponsoring various initiatives.
Still, the industry was also dealt an onslaught of unfair, unjustified and factually lacking criticism from predatory mainstream media that sensationalized a perceived precipitous drop in participation. These doomsayer reports unfairly broadly defined what constituted a golfer, and then contextualized the numbers against an arbitrary comparable year, conveniently at the peak of TigerMania.
The reality, according to our research, showed that the most engaged group of golfers — those contributing 80% of annual rounds and a similar percentage of golf-related spending — had actually remained stable over a similar time period, and had in fact grown significantly when looking just a little further back.
Now, in our COVID-fueled world, we are seeing evidence of a potential new boom in golf participation. Both anecdotally and empirically, we see full tee sheets, amid encouraging reports of increased play from existing golfers and renewed trial from lapsed and never before players.
Golf has successfully positioned itself as one of the few viable options for outdoor recreation and socialization during closures and quarantines.. In our ongoing research, we are also seeing golf facility operators draw strongly positive evaluations from golfers for adhering to safety and sanitization protocols, concurrent with favorable sentiments that the game is providing an “oasis from the chaos.”
Could this be an inflection point that allows the game to leverage this surge into systemic and sustainable growth? Many are already claiming victory. And while I’m hopeful that they are right, our research suggests this initial exuberance is potentially premature.
As we saw during the Tiger Boom, facilities that fail to address some of the foundational challenges of providing a welcoming and unintimidating environment may see things recede once people venture back to other activities. Hopefully we can align to strike while the iron is still hot.