Golf Growth Has Stabilized – And That is Good Enough

The latest “state of the game” research is out from the National Golf Foundation, and the news is good: Aging Baby Boomers should mean more rounds will be played; there is “latent demand” among Millennials; golf continues to grow as household income increases; and although many clubs and courses have closed lately, the numbers really aren’t that bad (within 4 percent of the all-time high of 15,000 courses, which was set in 2005).

I’m glad the news is good. I’m even happier that it isn’t great.

“Great” was when we were told that a new course had to open every day between the mid-1980s and the end of the century to meet demand. And “great” was when we realized we were meeting that goal. But then it was miserable: the golf boom went bust and there were too many courses for not enough golfers, equipment wasn’t selling, golf pros lost their jobs, and golf-community homes plunged in value.

So we should be thrilled that, according to the NGF, “golf has stabilized.” Even better is hearing that, for the foreseeable future, the game won’t grow.

Much as I love golf, as much as I want my friends in the industry to do well, we have to realize that the go-go days are gone and may never return. We are, I hate to admit, the wrong sport for the times. How can a game that demands time and patience thrive in an internet-powered world in which speed and options are what matter?

When the most popular team sports—basketball, soccer, baseball, and football—are losing young players (down 4 percent a year from 2008 to 2012, according to The Wall Street Journal), how can golf compete? Those games are suffering even when there’s a basketball court in every schoolyard and you need only a strip of grass to have a catch. How can golf grow when you need a driving range or golf course for practice—plus a ride to get there and money for a bucket of balls?

Face it: Rather than trying to position golf as a game for the masses, we need to accept that it’s more like polo, another activity that requires large amounts of time, specialized staging areas, expensive equipment, hours of practice, and manic devotion. We can, and should, do what we can to expose diverse segments of society to golf, but I’m fairly certain the game will remain the pursuit of an elite leisure class.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. Not when it’s a dedicated audience that can afford to spend the time, money, and temper on a game that gives so much back to those who love and appreciate it. Not when there are public and private clubs that can manage themselves financially and culturally. Not when TV audiences still want to watch the finest practitioners and sponsors still want to be associated with them. Not when charities continue to benefit.  

Golf’s present and future are good. And in this case, good is just great.