The vanishing American golfer

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At first glance, the National Golf Foundation’s annual golf participation study results may have seemed like more bad news to an industry that’s had more than its share of negative developments in the past few years.
The survey found that the number of golfers in the United States in 2008 fell 3 percent, from 29.5 million in 2007 to 28.6 million. Nearly a million golfers gone, vanished. Not good, right?
Granted, no one is happy about seeing participation go down, but let’s put that figure in context. Given the badly battered economy, most American industries would have  accepted a mere 3 percent drop in the number of customers. And a closer examination of the numbers shows that most of the loss is attributable to a significant drop in the number of “core” golfers, those who play eight or more rounds a year.
That’s a figure that operators should review carefully with an eye for devising strategies that will keep more of those frequent players in the game. On the other hand, what golf has managed to do well is to attract newcomers interested in taking up the game and former golfers back to the course. The NGF report pegged the number of golf newcomers in 2008 at 1.7 million and it found another 2.3 million came back to the game after not playing in 2007.
NGF president and CEO Joe Beditz correctly pointed out that there is a natural turnover in participation for all sports, but he optimistically noted that golf is “definitely attracting new and former golfers from a large pool of latent demand.” What needs to be addressed now is the retention rate.
We’d like to hear from operators about the participation trends you’ve noticed at your courses. Is it easier to attract new golfers now than in the past? How much of the increase can be attributed to industry “grow the game” efforts? What can operators do to keep those vanishing “core” golfers coming back? Share your opinions now.  


A number of golf operators do not take quick and positive action to assure membership and tee time sales. One simple thing in this economy is to finance memberships long term and pre-sell tee times. While we agree with the overall decrease in golf participations on a national basis, there are areas of increase in comparison to prior years. Women represent one of the largest single growth areas to golf and a wonderful open market.

In Maryland, at the Atlantic Golf courses, we are certainly hanging in there, but everyone, not just golf courses, are losing events. Big weddings are small, and small meetings are held at the office. As long as our prices are in the right places, we will get golfers, and of course the question is - how many? (As an aside, this is the part where I look at all the new municipal facilities, the ones that we tried to stop, the same ones that weren't going to take our business - and scream. That is where a LOT of events are moving - because they simply can charge less than anyone if they want to.) To answer your stated questions, it is NOT easier to attract new golfers to the game. That is why we always go after the sacred "core" golfer and that is the whole problem - because we really need to get those new folks just as much, if not more than any others. Industry efforts are excellent and completely undervalued and underutilized by everyone. Let's face it, a program like "Take your Daughter to the Course" is SO EASY. It is a free program - free marketing artwork, free internet splash, etc. You can even design the end product, run it when you want. AND you will have a great new program. And very very few people have bothered to even read the email about the program - our own staff included. I hope they read this! We probably focus TOO much on keeping the "core" that you mention. We certainly need them, and I am NOT suggesting we don't pay attention to them, but they are changing too. So maybe we need to change our outmoded way of thinking about the "core" golfer. For example, the statistics on men over 50 who twitter will surprise you. A LOT of them do, and more every day. They are doing things differently, and we need to wake up to that fact. At the end of the discussion it is the price, and then after it is all about how well you communicate your message. No matter what the platform(s).

As usual,you can't depend on figures from the NGF. Are these numbers of golfers or numbers of rounds and how do you they know how many of these "golfers" play more than 8 rounds a year. Remember years ago NGF reporting how many new golf courses needed to be built for all the new golfers coming along and most of their data coming from random questioning of golfers. The fastest way to grow golfers is to give enough incentive to the current golfers to bring just one new golfer into the game over the next year. But very few of these core golfers want to disrupt their normal golf games to bring along a beginner the several rounds that it would take to get the newcomer comfortable. And most golfers are enjoying the now low, discounted prices to play golf that we have been experiencing way before the economy was bad. Making golf a business is what has destroyed the game of golf as we knew it.

I think that this article is tilted too far in favor of a positive view of things. 1. While it is common place for sports to see an ebb and flow of participation, it is not common for the number of golfers to fall 3% in a single year. This is a recent trend in golf that should be troubling for everyone involved with the game. 2. The 3% decline is dismissed somewhat, in view of broader problems throughout the economy. But that approach ignores that the 3% decline came before the worst problems in the economy surfaced. By the time the financial sector started to unravel, most of last year's golf rounds were already played. If the economy hurts golf, we likely will not see the numbers impacted until we look at 2009 participation results. 3. This type of "glass is half full" commentary only makes sense when the glass is truly half full. Unfortunately, that will lead some operators to wait for things to return to "normal", even though most indicators suggest that we should be developing new strategies. 4. This article ignores the reality that participation is only one of the challenges that golf faces. I suspect that a 2009 study would show that our customers are less willing to spend as much on golf as they did in 2008. This marginalization of golf is as much of a dilemma for operators as the decline in participation.

Golf, as with any recreational activity, depends on the availability of discretionary funds as well as discretionary time. In order to combat the 'downturn" in players golf course owners and operators need to examine where the competition comes from. These are regioal issues and need to be evaluated locally. Higher living costs, taxes, fuel, etc. affect golf and the need to spend time with family (a side effect of 9/11/01) is another. I encourage the members of my organization (The Long Island Golf Course Association) to step back, evaluate their asset and re-invent their business approach. Ten years ago golf course owners didn't have to be great managers. A two hour wait for a tee time was normal. Today, golf must be managed as any other business. Government at all levels need to recognize the value of golf courses, support them and stop competing by running Municpal facilities.

The query is: how will you do. You will need to to get a distinct segment market that you are eager to put it up for sale their products.

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