5 Need-to-Know Facts About the Recreational Golf Boom

Professional golf gets plenty of attention—good and bad. And there’s been no lack of the latter in the past year with the contentious relationship between the PGA Tour and LIV, and the now-official rollback of the golf ball that was precipitated by how far the best players in the world are hitting the ball, unlike the other 99.99 percent of us.

Recreational golf, however, is thriving, despite what’s happening at the highest levels.

To make us feel better about the positive momentum within the game you and I (and almost 26 million other Americans) play, whether competitively or socially, here’s a handful of need-to-know golf health metrics. These data points are courtesy of the research team at the National Golf Foundation.

recreational golf
(photo by Getty Images)

One Million More Golfers

More Americans teed it up on a golf course in 2023 than at any point in more than a decade, with a net gain of approximately one million golfers to 26.6 million in total. The number of traditional golfers—those who play on a golf course—has now risen for six straight years, even before the pandemic-related boost in engagement. But last year’s leap of one million participants is the most since 2001, a year in which a wunderkind named Tiger Woods won the Masters to complete the unprecedented feat of holding all four modern-era major titles at the same time.

Record Round Total

When national play levels dipped a little bit in 2022 after a record-setting year for rounds in 2021, many people in and around the golf business figured it was the first sign of a return to normalcy or a regression to the mean. But 2023 showed we might just be experiencing a “new normal” for green-grass golf. Not only did play levels increase in 2023, but there were a record 531 million rounds played at golf courses across the country. Consider that’s about four times as many rounds played as the total attendance to all MLB, NFL, NBA, and NHL games combined last year.

45 Million Total Golfers—On-Course and Off

Whether or not you’ve visited a Topgolf venue or swatted golf balls at a target in an indoor simulator at a strip mall, more and more people are getting their first taste of “golf” at places like these. And the number of people who play various off-course forms of golf—and this doesn’t include miniature golf, mind you—has surpassed the more than 26 million who take to an actual golf course. There are now more than 45 million people who play some kind of golf, a total that’s climbed over 50 percent in the past decade.

recreational golf
(courtesy National Golf Foundation)

Most New Golf Courses Since 2010

The U.S. doesn’t exactly lack for golf courses, not with almost 16,000 nationwide. But that isn’t stopping golf-obsessed developers and landowners from building new courses to meet demand where there’s a fit. Right now, that seems to be mostly in states like Florida, Texas, and South Carolina. There were more than 100 course development projects in the works at the start of 2024, and last year delivered the most new U.S. course openings dating back to 2010.

Record Beginners, Again

The past four years have seen a record number of newbies hit the golf course for the first time ever, over three million each year. That’s a byproduct of several things, not just golf’s resurgence since the pandemic hit. First is the positive effect that golf entertainment and other forms of grassless golf are having on introductions and interest, making people more comfortable and confident when it comes to swinging a golf club. Then there are the increasingly positive perceptions of the game (beyond the professional ranks), with an increasing number of prominent athletes and celebrities not only playing the game but celebrating it on social media. There’s no question, golf is cool again. But it’s also not hard to do the math and see golf’s biggest obstacle for future growth—retention. More specifically, that means converting more beginners to committed participants who continue to fuel participation and play increases in the years to come.

Do you know anyone who started playing golf for the first time in 2023?