State of the Game – Do You Know How Healthy Golf Really Is?

If you’re reading this newsletter, chances are you’re a fairly passionate golfer.

You’ve probably played several times this year. Maybe you’ve taken a few lessons or have been practicing in earnest, champing at the bit to test that latest swing tip on the course. Perhaps you’ve been planning another annual golf trip that brings old friends together for new memories.

Yes, in all likelihood you’ve got the golf bug. This game of a lifetime can truly elicit a passion like few other pastimes.

But how much do you really know about the overall health of the game?

Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images

No doubt you’ve come across a few ill-informed stories questioning whether golf is in dire peril. Maybe, at some event, social function or gathering, you found yourself talking to a non-golfer who insists that this game, which has been around for centuries, is on its last legs. Spoiler alert: it’s not.

I frequently find myself crossing paths with golfers (probably much like you) who don’t always hear about the game’s positive momentum, beyond the Tiger Woods impact. In my role with the National Golf Foundation—the go-to information source in golf—I’m privy to some of the latest and greatest data on the golf industry. As such, I feel it’s my responsibility to share some of the big-picture numbers and perspective; not necessarily as ammunition to shoot down opposing viewpoints, but to keep you better informed about some of the common misperceptions about golf.

Did you know 24.2 million Americans played golf on a course last year? That’s up from 23.8 million each of the previous two years. And while fewer people are playing than prior to the Great Recession, golf seems to have found a nice support level of around 24 million golfers—a number that’s actually quite similar to 25 years ago when a young phenom named Tiger first came on the scene and electrified the industry.

Well, what about those Millennials who supposedly don’t play golf? The NGF’s annual Golf Industry Report shows that approximately 25% of golfers are in the 18-34 age group—6.1 million strong in total. That’s almost identical to the 25% of the U.S. population that they represent.

When it comes to this generation, let’s face it, Millennial engagement with many forms of recreation and discretionary spending (including golf) has been impacted by significant education and credit card debt, and delays in many of life’s milestones, whether it’s getting a job, getting married or moving out of their childhood home. But these young adults are indeed playing golf and, through the reach of social media, showing how special the game can be. There are also indications that a meaningful number of Millennials have simply delayed their participation in the game, and will likely play later in life.

Whether you consider it real golf or not, Topgolf is a positive for the traditional game. It’s an easily accessible way to engage with the game in a non-intimidating way. It’s also helping boost interest in playing golf on a course. And this “off-course” niche is one of the fastest-growing parts of the golf industry. The 23 million people who played off-course forms of golf — driving ranges, simulators or golf-entertainment venues – is almost equal to those who played on an actual golf course. The majority of these off-course participants were also regular golfers, but 9.3 million of them have never played on a golf course before. So, getting a golf club in their hands can only be a positive, especially if they have fun and build confidence.

Topgolf (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images for Tifanja)

If you add those 9.3 million “off-course only” golfers to the 24.2 million traditional golfers, overall golf participation rose to 33.5 million last year. That’s up 8% over the past three years.

And that could continue to go up. There are 14.7 million people who have never played golf or didn’t play last year but say they’re interested in playing now. Part of that is driven by the popularity of offerings like Topgolf. On top of that, the game has welcomed more than 2 million beginners each of the past five years, including 2.6 million last year—more even than when Woods was at his peak.

The next time you hear someone taking shots at golf, think about this for a minute: it’s one of the top participation sports in the nation, as one in nine Americans (6+) plays golf in some fashion—a higher rate than sports such as basketball, tennis, baseball, football, and skiing. That means people are paying not only for tee times, but for equipment, apparel and travel, food & beverage, memberships and range fees, golf cart rentals, and much more. Taken as a whole, golf drives more than $84 billion in economic activity across the U.S.

More than one-third of the U.S. population played, watched or read about golf last year, a total that tops 107 million. It’s a significant reach and was up 10% last year alone.

Looking for other positive indicators?

  • Golf travel is a $20.5 billion market in the U.S. and 8.2 million golfers played while traveling last year
  • The market for golf clubs and balls was $2.7 billion last year, up about 6% from the previous year
  • 2.5 million juniors (ages 6-17) played golf last year and they’re a diverse bunch, 36% of them girls compared to 15% in 2000. Almost a quarter are non-Caucasian while just 6% were minority participants 20 years ago
  • Almost 5.7 million women played golf last year, up 14% from 2011, just after the nation emerged from the recession
  • Approximately 22 million Americans watched streaming coverage of golf tournaments last year, so media consumption is evolving, even in a sport as traditional as golf
  • 75% of all courses are open to all players, matching the highest public-to-private ratio in history

What about those course closures you hear about from time to time? Again, it’s important to assess the big picture, not simply think that courses shutting their doors must mean the game is in trouble. Yes, there have been more courses closing across the U.S. every year dating back to 2006. That’s a natural market correction; the product of an industry that got oversaturated by adding more than 4,500 courses to the U.S. supply total from 1985-2006.

Stop to consider that for a moment. During that 20-year building boom, the U.S. added more courses than any other country in the world even has in total.

Continued escalation—which at the time was driven by a robust economy, strong housing market and a Tiger-fueled passion for the game—wasn’t sustainable. So, while more courses are closing than opening now, predominantly in competitive markets, the U.S. still has almost 17,000 golf courses. That’s more than Japan, Canada, England, Australia, Germany, France, South Korea, Scotland, and Ireland combined.

The NGF measures course openings and closures in 18-hole equivalents (two 9-hole courses are the equivalent of one 18-hole equivalent, while a 27-hole facility equals 1.5 18-HEQ). While no golfer likes to hear about courses shutting down, the 198.5 (18-HEQ) closures last year were a relative blip on the radar of overall supply. Many of these were driven by owners taking advantage of soaring real estate values, often choosing to sell as part of a planned exit strategy.

Research shows that when courses close, golfers move to another nearby facility. They don’t stop playing.

In fact, research shows that golfers played an average of almost 18 rounds last year.

Are you doing your part?


Do these numbers from the NGF confirm or contradict what you see in your hometown? Let us know in the comment section below!