Has Golf Gone Off Course?

A Wall Street Journal special report published last month suggests as much.

“The game has tried hard to draw new players. But it may have missed a bigger opportunity: getting more rounds out of its most avid golfers.”

The report states that the major components in golf have gone all out to woo new golfers to the game, capitalizing on the worldwide popularity of Tiger Woods. And it has worked: three million new golfers take up the game each year. The downside? About the same number give up the game. I’m no math whiz, but I believe that’s a net gain of zip.

Another distressing fact: For the first time in 60 years, more golf courses closed than opened last year.

According to the report, now many are calling for a new strategy, one that focuses on the loyal, passionate base of existing golfers.

(This is common sense to any student of Marketing 101. It’s far easier and less costly to sell to an existing customer than attract a new one.)

Ways being discussed to improve the golf experience for existing golfers include speeding up play, cutting green fees (and other expenses), and giving amateurs even more technologically advanced clubs to improve their performance.

No argument here, although I’m a bit cynical about the technology aspect. Perhaps if they did more to support the avid golfer (and increase his or her rounds), fewer golf courses would have to close.

The Armchair Golfer

Photo of author
Neil Sagebiel

8 thoughts on “Has Golf Gone Off Course?”

  1. A fair assesment, however as a golf course architecture company we see more and more big name golfers demanding excessive fees to put their name to signature courses, the highest is 33 million dollars per course design. This makes courses unviable from the outset. We at http://www.aworldofgolf.com are combatting this with excecptional courses with old course feel but with modern technologies accounted for i.e longer hitting clubs and golf balls etc and at realistic costs which enables the average golfer to be able to afford playing the courses thereby bringing more existing golfers to play more and hopefully attract new golfers too.

  2. Great topic.

    In my opinion, the reason people quit the game is because 1) it’s really difficult, 2) it takes a lot of time, and 3) it’s expensive. There’s not much that can be done about any of these problems, except possibly number 3). And for those of us who love the game, 1) isn’t actually a problem, it’s part of why we love golf.

    My suggestion for growing the game is to make more league and individual competition available to players of all skill levels. I’m thinking of leagues run by local PGAs that are open to everyone. My wife plays tennis, and she has a bunch of opportunities to join teams and get coaching at a reasonable cost. Golf could learn something from the USTA.

    The idea of attracting more players by making the equipment better seems backwards to me. In my experience, novice players don’t benefit much from the new equipment (novices seem to hit the ball about 100 yards regardless of the club in their hands). Instead, improved equipment has the effect of further separating the good players from the bad players. As a result of the good players getting better, courses are being made longer and tougher, which makes the game all that much slower and more expensive. I don’t see how that helps grow the game.

  3. Excellent post. This is something I’ve been thinking about lately.

    When Tiger Woods became a household name, golf boomed, big time. Maybe he was the cause, and maybe he was only a part of it, but it was mid-90’s when things started to really boom. Courses were popping up left and right. There seemed to be more golf on TV (the Golf Channel celebrated its 10th anniversary not too long ago).

    In the last several years, I’ve noticed courses in my area declining big time and some are even closing up or are just on the brink. I’d be interested in seeing how golf’s TV ratings have trended over the last two decades.

    It seemed like in the late 90’s more kids were being introduced to golf even earlier in life, with the rise of golf-centric schools and academies leading to eventual college scholarships and careers in golf.

    For a while, I wondered if people weren’t just trying to see if their own kids could become the next Tiger Woods. I now wonder if people are starting to realize that maybe the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow isn’t as full as they hoped and consequently golf is contracting back to earlier levels of popularity.

  4. I like the idea of the leagues and tournaments. I love playing new courses, but paying the standard green fee means that the expenses quickly mount up. Especially if you want to play great courses. I enter tournaments as a cost effective way to playing new courses. The entry few is usually substantially less than the standard green fee and it is also a lot of fun.

    We do have to focus on ways to get the current golfers to pay more. It is expensive to join golf clubs, as they usually ask for a joining fee and the subscription when you join. That quickly lightens the wallet.

    I think it is a chicken and egg scenario. I worked renowned course and they charged high green fees, but you struggle at times to get the numbers of golfers on the course. Drop the fees and it opens it up to more golfers. It is just supply and demand.

  5. Great comments, all. Yeah, increased leagues and competition would be a great way to rally more golfers. Sharing the golf experience and meeting new people makes golf all the more fun.

    In addition to riding Tiger’s popularity, I believe that a lot of courses popped up in the 90s because the economy was booming at the time. But then Y2K passed (a period of intense investment preceded it), and along came 9/11, war, oil issues, etc., and the perceived rise in golf turned out to be more like a mirage.

    As some of you rightly point out, the game is expensive for the average person. Which begs the question, is golf still primarily for the rich?

  6. Great point about the booming economy in the 90’s. Financial prosperity was high which probably paved the way, and Tiger came along and helped draw people in. His cross into mainstream popularity may have caused a spark, but the fire was fueled from a lot of places.

    Now, things are a little tighter. Home foreclosures are on the rise, oil prices are high, etc.

    I don’t know if it’s a game for the rich, but not being rich, I have to wonder if I’d even be playing if I hadn’t been introduced to the game while working at a course in college.

  7. When was the last time anyone saw a golf course ranger actually speed the pace of play? If a course is going to put groups off #1 every 6 minutes and jam the course full of players, they’d better be prepared to enforce that pace of play. Five-and-a-half hour rounds are what keep a lot of occassional golfers from becoming regular golfers.

  8. I have to agree with woundedduck, being that I am an occasional golfer myself. I find the time I wait to get a tee time, and waiting for the group (or person) in front of you frustrating. Yet, my complaining my fall of deaf ears of those that love golf more than me.


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