Are things as bad for golf as USA Today says?

Average: 2.5 (8 votes)

In the newspaper business, there's nothing quite like kicking an industry when it's down. Of course, it hurts a little when it's your industry that's getting kicked.

The latest newspaper writer to do a-bruisin' on golf is Jon Swartz of USA Today, who contends, in a story called "Golf Clubs Suffer in Recession as Membership Dwindles," that "the business of golf faces an economic outlook that is sinking like a downhill putt." Oh, those clever newspaper writers! They really know how to turn a phrase!

To be fair, Swartz has the broad outlines of the story right. Golf's popularity, as he notes, has been in a slow but steady decline pretty much since the bombing of the World Trade Center. And Swartz knows why.

"Most people just can't afford the luxury of a $100 to $400 round of golf," he writes, although he could have mentioned that the vast majority of golf courses charge less. He's also on target when he notes that "businesses are cutting back on golf-related expenses for executives," although that's been happening for the better part of a decade, and that "travelers who once plunked down gobs of cash to golf in exotic locales are passing up golf vacations."

Actually, those "exotic locales" started seeing fewer customers right after 9/11, when most everyone in America became afraid to get on an airplane. Although the resort business has improved over the years, it's never fully recovered. From there, Swartz lays a few demoralizing facts on the table.

Among them: -- The total number of memberships at private clubs currently stands at 2.1 million, 900,000 below the number recorded when the business peaked in the early 1990s. -- Citing a statistic provided by Jim Koppenhaver of Pellucid, Swartz notes that private clubs in the United States lost between 5 percent and 15 percent of their members last year. The losses cost the average club $187,000 in dues. Even worse, Koppenhaver believes that as many as 1,000 private clubs must close, convert to public play, or merge with healthier clubs before "some semblance of balance returns to the private club market."

-- The number of golfers in the United States has fallen to 27.1 million, according to the often unreliable National Golf Foundation, down from 30 million in 2005. -- So far this year, rounds played at U.S. golf courses are down 3 percent, according to Golf Datatech. Nothing like a few kicks in the teeth to get a golf executive moving in the morning! It should be noted, however, that some of the "evidence" Swartz uses to support his arguments -- particularly the anecdotes he uses to add color to his story -- is specious.

I don't know why, for example, Swartz starts with a report about a consultant from California who quit his club in New Jersey, as if that's supposed to illustrate a typical problem that private clubs face these days. Are clubs in the Northeast full of dues-paying members from the Left Coast? And what's the point of telling us about the young woman in Los Angeles who didn't take up golf because the price of a local club membership -- said to be $100,000 a year -- was too expensive?

Couldn't anybody in Southern California suggest some alternatives for this directionless young woman, like maybe learning to play at one of the area's many municipal courses or joining a somewhat less pricey club? You can read the story for yourself by clicking on this phrase.


I agree with Pete's 3 points. I grew up in the 1950's on a 9 hole golf course that was BOTH affordable and FUN and we played it in an hour and a half! Back to the basics... We can do the same thing today --- make 9 hole rounds available at ALL public access courses. Charge an appropriate fee. Teach the concept of no honors, "Pace of Play" and the public will respond with increased levels of participation. The high cost "ego-centric" courses designed and built over the last 10 to 15 years are no longer attractive. They have become financial dinosaurs if you will. If golf is to survive at its current levels, it MUST BE Affordable, Fun and Efficient in both operations and time of play.

Well stated Bob...and I thought the industry leaders quoted in the USA article frankly missed a great opportunity to tell some of the great successes happening in golf despite the troubling economy....

I,too, agree with Pete's 3 points. I'd like to add a fourth... Keep stressing the Juniors programs. As a supplier to the Golf Industry, I talk to courses nationwide every day. The ones that are prospering in this climate (they are out there) are the ones able to think with a degree of innovation:Private courses going semiprivate;reciprocal alliances, etc.

Excepting some exaggerations in the recent USA Today article, by and large it accurately portrays the issues confronting the industry – private clubs are unable to stabilize their revenue streams, public golf is facing unprecedented downward pressure on rates, resorts are being hammered by changes in business and personal travel. With the number of golfers declining and a small pipeline for new golfers, the supply of golf courses is well beyond any reasonable demand estimates. Where we find ourselves should not be a surprise to any of us; it has been clearly visible for several years. Solutions – any and all that individuals and industry groups can create. However the reality is that demand and supply have to be in balance for any of the numbers to work. That means that either significantly more golfers are created sometime soon or some private clubs / public courses will be closed until the numbers do balance. We should not shoot the messenger, but certainly don’t ignore the message Mr. Swartz delivers.

Regarding the USA Today article, although rounds played may be down the member usage of the private club industry segment is generally flat or reporting that they were ahead of budgeted revenue projections overall.These success' were not due to dues or assessments, rather usage of other services members were using at the club (fitness centers, spa facilities, aquatic's area's). These services have been added to many club facilities over the past ten years in preparation for the diminished amount of time that club members are able to spend at the club.We also heard that there was no dissatisfaction or "leaving" of golf as a sport. Only that when they had less time available, the members wanted to continue the physical conditioning benefits provided at their club facilities until their personal life style allowed for more time playing golf.I do not speak to the entire industry. Only that 10% of golfers who belong to Private Clubs. However, our industry is adjusting, not going away. Our industry continues to provide millions of jobs in the worse job market in 50 years. Our industry continues to support thousands of small business' that have relied upon our industry to support them for decades.The USA articles facts do not support their headline. (Exactly why readers and publishers of print media continue to diminish in number.) The article does not reflect the condition nor the future of our industry. Our industry is not facing a "fast, downhill putt" in my estimation. We are, however, learning to apply a more "firm" stroke to the uphill putt we have before is the housing sector, the real estate sector, the automobile sector, the publishing sector, etc. etc.The million's of jobs and the millions of $$'s that golf injects into the local economy of every community in which our industry exists have not disappeared....and it will not. It may just look a bit different. My observations after 45 years in this business.Jim Jim Singerling, CEO CMAA

REMEMBER, "IT'S THE ECONOMY, STUPID" Every time the economy tanks, someone says,"What's wrong with golf". Golf is fine, it has been fine for hundreds of years. When people lose jobs, businesses, homes,they cut back on expenses. Golf has always been on the top of the economic pyramid, it is recreational and a luxury. It is a time for adjustment not time to re invent the game. Golf will survive, it always survives.

There are many solutions to the downward trend in the number of players in golf. Let's explore and implement solutions. 1. Make it VERY AFFORDABLE. In general green fees are about 50% too high or even much higher at certain places. Practice balls are 50% -75% too expensive. Equipment is 50%-75% or more too expensive. Electric carts are 50% too expensive and should NEVER be mandatory. Never ! Food and drinks at all courses is way overpriced. As you see everything is making the game an elite game and the masses are leaving in droves. It is too expensive. Especially for families the game is way, way, way too costly. Owners of existing golf courses have to lower the prices of everything to attract people to the game. 2. The game has to be fun. The "big name designers" of the last 20 years have made courses way too difficult. People and developers got sucked into the idea that a "big name" designer is better. Actually we have learned that these ego-maniacs have ruined the game for the average golfers and people wanting to learn the game, and even some lower handicap golfers. Developers in the future should note that the "big names" probably means that the course and the developement will go bankrupt. The big name designer's egos got the whole thing wrong. Golf courses need to be playable, fun, and pretty, and memorable. It should not be a torture track. Golf need to be fun for the young people. So they develop a sense of success and self esteem. 3. It should take no more than 4 hours to play an 18 hole regulation golf course. If it takes longer then the golf course needs to be remodeled, maintained properly, and monitored. Remember in the British Isles an 18 hole round takes about 3.5 hours to play. They play fast, know the rules, and the most courses are manageble and not too difficult. Even there, if a golfer loses a ball in the heather, they play it like a lateral hazard.. speed of play is more fun and more economical. Speedy play need to be rewarded..How about a rebate back in the pro shop if a group plays under 3.75 hours ? .. GREAT IDEA ! 4. Renovation of existing courses need to happen. Most golf courses need to be updated. This means bringing in an expert designer ( NOT A BIG NAME ) to make the course more fun, less arduous, less back-breaking, easier, and more beautiful. 5. Developers need to let the designer use the best land for golf so it is economical to build a course. Then there are countless design ideas to implement so good golf and housing / hotels co-exist. Usually the old core golf courses are best for golf, or semi-core, which in turn could be best for the development. This is not always true, but should serve as a basic concept. Blake E. Stirling

Yes, golf is having problems with the economy in the bucket, however golf course owners cannot cut all fees over 50% and renovate their golf courses at their expense and stay in business. Golf course owners are not subsidized by tax dollars, but by hard sweat equity and determination to create jobs amd expand the economy. Less negative publicity by the liberal media and a positive attitude will help grow golf....KEEP YOUR HEAD DOWN AND SWING HARD...FORE!!!!

I cannot agree more....speed is the name of the game now. We all choose a fast food restaurant because of our time constraints of our now, very common overloaded days. Time is our commodity. It may make sense to let PGA Professionals be PGA Professionals versus the report writing accountants we have all become. You should re-look at your summer issue about the fastest growing management companies and ask if that is not a significant factor to the decline in rounds/golfers/business.

Let them fail. Few clubs have been operated as stand alone golf facilities. Waste, inefficiency, absurd debt, and inability to change have trapped these operations. They will cease to exist. No longer can they be bailed out by lot sales, assessments, and initiation fees. The only other inefficient courses to survive are those government supported munis that remain subsidized by tax dollars. They too will end when non-golfers get smart enough to realize the tax dollars that are siphoned off for these facilities. Yet, many courses are doing quite well when proper business strategy is followed. As a golf business owner, it has never been easier to to compete with the traditional golf club mentality because it no longer can be supported financially. It doesn't work...period. When you look at the recommendations coming from traditional golf organizations it is laughable. Obviously, few have ever operated a "for profit" golf business. As the golf death spiral widens, these groups will desperately contiune to preserve themselves at the expense of the golf industry.

After reading all the comments, I agree with everything said. However we must realize all the factors that are the reasons for the demise in the number of golfers and rounds played. Private clubs face aging members, health problems, seasonal play(non-residents),relocating, economy cycles, personal financial problems, competition from public courses & other activities, disgruntled members, dues increases, assessments, rising costs of services w/diminishing quality, prejudices, over saturation, outdated facilities are examples! There are more but the Number One culprit is "Member managed/controlled/directed/influenced clubs and General Manager's who are "bottom line" addicted and lack marketing knowledge. The aforementioned don't understand they are in the dues business...NOT THE GOLF BUSINESS! The Number One priority should be to maintain membership levels. How much is appropriated in the budget of a private club for membership recruitment? It should be top of the list. Is the membership director experienced in marketing. Is he/she a volunteer or a paid person? The pay for volunteers is zero and most of the time the results are zero! When a club loses one member, take immediate action to replace that member. Don't wait until the number reaches 100 and then you decide to take action. Analyze your clubs problems and how they came about and I'll bet the answer is losing members and not doing anything about it. What is a member worth to your club. Using supposed data, the average member life in a private club is 14 years. If the dues are $7,000 per year that member is worth $98,000 to the club. How much would you invest in securing an investment worth $98K Effective marketing is the ability to create a need for your product or service. A reason to buy. The golf industry is very weak in this area. How about a survey to find out the number of years of a membership that people have in private clubs. Let's say it comes to 20 years. Isn't 20 years of belonging worth something in presenting what a membership in a private club means. I personally have spent over a million dollars in my memberships and if I had to start all over again, I would do it again. Next to my family, golf is the most important thing in life. What greater value could you find. This is the message our industry has to get out. Volvo did it with mileage..why can't we?

Wow you Americans are really beating yourselves up lets see if you recover for the Ryder Cup. The problem could be as simple how do you engage the young and middle age Golfer. Their problems are different but in fact they centre around choice and time. Whilst we allow the tour players to feather their nests we in the real world see Golf as a time consuming and costly sport. The lifestyle image we portrait has to change why for example no jeans t shirts etc etc. Why when you walk in the Clubhouse you feel you have entered a secret sect! Move the Game forward make it quicker more accessible and more importantly fun. The ones opposing this view are now paying the price so let them go to the wall, just for those who want for Golf to continue lets change attitudes and lets hope for better role models on the tour than we currently have. They all seem like robots rather than characters. The LPGA players are far more accesible at tournaments than the overpaid PGA players. Lets have more team competition like the Ryder Cup lets drag those who want to leave the game as it is kicking and screaming into the new era of Golf

The game has great tradition and spending time with your children playing golf is a wonderful bonding experience. I hope the industry will develop programs that encourage parents to play golf with their children

Maybe the issue is the economy? from WSJ on 9/23: "After the luxury car market's most severe downturn in decades, smaller, less ostentatious models from the premium auto makers were expected to lead the rebound—or at least that's what many industry experts had predicted. Instead, the costliest and largest sedans made by BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Audi and Lexus have fueled a sales boom this year, particularly in China and the U.S."

Don't play the overpriced courses. I've been playing 18 holes since 1952, 9 holes is not a round of golf, leave the game alone. High green fees are just a sign of greed, let them go broke, that will leave more volume for the honest owners.

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