Golf industry courts new players

by April 3, 2014

Golf’s premiere tournament, the Masters, will be swinging into action in a few days, and it’s a great peg for a look at the fiscal health of your region’s golf industry – from resorts and courses to equipment sales and lesson.

As fewer time-pressed Americans opt for a slow stroll around the links, and demographics takes its toll on an aging crop of enthusiasts, golf facilities and related businesses are hurting.

woman in yellow skirt on green golf course, blue sky

Photo: Grand Cayman Golf

This just-out article from industry publication Golf Club Management says “Golf ‘desperately needs to change its image’” and in a recent Harris poll, only 2 percent of adults picked the game as their favorite sport, according to an online report by USGolfTV.com.

This report by the National Golf Foundation, “Golf Participation in America, 2010-2020,” (PDF) is worth a read; it says that after finishing the 20th century on an upswing, the pastime has been in decline with participation rates dropping yearly since 2000.  The group forecasts a 1 percent annual growth rate, mostly among high-income people, and expects as many as 1,000 golf courses to disappear this decade.  Clearly golf is falling out of favor among middle-income people for economic and lifestyle reasons.

But golf is big business and important to many tourist and resort economies; CNN reported last year that an industry estimate puts the game’s total economic impact at $177 billion a year in the U.S. alone.  So checking in on what courses, clubs, coaches and related businesses are doing to reach a new generation of players is fodder for some interesting business stories.

golfer shot from the ball's point of view

Photo: Phillip Ritz

The Sioux Falls (Iowa) Argus Leader says “Country clubs adapt to survive,” and notes that fitness facilities are one way that private clubs are trying to appeal to a new clientele; eased dress codes, on-premises sports bars and kiddie pools are other tactics. Speeding up the pace of play is another aspect of modernizing the sport; GolfBallsUnlimited – which bills itseslf as a resource for bulk, used and recycled balls (an interesting angle for a story – you could expand it to recycling of gear in other pastimes as well) just issued a press release saying slow play is “killing golf,” and hinting that better-quality balls are part of the solution.

Another tech angle: Golf carts with GPS.  It would seem difficult to get lost on the average suburban cart path but who knows?  What other amenities do the latest models feature?  Lots of aftermarket fans and air-conditioning systems are out there, and Golf Car News, the industry publication, offers other potential story nuggets.

I also see a lot of thriving driving ranges and wonder, are time-deprived would-be players substituting a quick dash to the range for full-scale play?  How are the ranges adapting; they used to be no-frills facilities and now seem to feature nicer amenities; I even saw one that appeared to have air-conditioned bays.  It’s an entire industry that might make for a new twist on the business-of-golf story; seek out story leads at the Golf Range Association trade group site and its related industry magazine.

Also worth a look at trends in corporate and fundraising golf outings; are these staying in favor or falling prey to more family-friendly events?  Check bookings at local courses or clubs and ask corporate organizers about trends they’re seeing on their end.