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Growing Golf: Playing in New Ways

Golf is an integral part of the private club community and the lifeblood of country clubs across the nation. Some people have called it an elitist sport; others felt that it was too inaccessible to new players to warrant their involvement; many simply don’t know enough to make any judgment call about golf at all. Golf 20/20, a collaboration of all segments of the golf industry, from the associations and manufacturers to the golf course owners/operators and the media, seeks to correct these gross misconceptions and galvanize the golf industry by showing the sport to be the enjoyable, accessible, beneficial and fundamental part of American culture that it has been throughout our lifetimes.

The first step in changing the minds of the public is finding out what they really think in the first place and where we stand today. To that end, Golf 20/20 supported in-depth research across the industry, and commissioned a special report detailing the latest information on perceptions of the golf world, just released at the GOLF 20/20 FORUM along with the National Golf Foundation’s state of the industry report. The state of the industry report covers issues vital to the industry: current participation, how the American public perceives the game, and how best to improve both areas.

Where is Golf Today?

The National Golf Foundation (NGF), in conjunction with Golf 20/20, provides some interesting insight into where golf stands in terms of popularity today. Even though the economy is inching towards recovery, it’s clear that the recession has taken its toll. According to a recent survey of Americans, there was a net drop of almost one million golfers in 2010, even with 3.5 million golfers either first beginning or returning to the game. In previous recessions, the number of overall golfers rebounded once the recession had passed, and the same is expected to hold true for this year or the next.

While losing 4.6 million distinct golfers may seem like a daunting statistic, the recession had much less of an effect on the prime indicator of industry health: the number of rounds played. Here, the numbers are favorable. The average number of rounds played by an individual each year has actually increased by 8.2%, according to NGF statistics. Though that increase wasn’t quite substantial enough to entirely offset the drop in total rounds played (there was a net decrease of 2.3%), the retention of dedicated golfers and newly retired baby boomers have kept the game going despite the poor economy.

Golf courses didn’t fare as well. This past year saw only 46 new course openings—the lowest number in the past 25 years. The good news is that the closure rate hasn’t dropped any further, staying roughly the same as it was in 2008, with only 107 new closings.

Despite this range contraction—a trend that is likely to continue—the major golf confidence indicators (rounds, equipment and travel) have shown significant improvement since the early days of the recession.

How People See the Game

Now that we have a clear picture of how the golf industry is currently performing, we need to know how people actually perceive the game. A recent online survey by Synovate (statistically weighted to represent the nation at large) shows that there is ample room for improvement.

For years, the golf industry has tried to overcome what some call an “elitist image,” concerned that the public thought golf was inaccessible, expensive, discriminatory, and difficult to learn. This survey revealed how much we have accomplished, while highlighting how much we have left to do.

One of the major misconceptions about golf is that it is an expensive sport to play. In 1994, 67 percent of non-golfing Americans believed that the sport was too expensive. Today, that number is down to 45 percent. While the statistics show improvement, the golf industry still has a long way to go.

Another image problem in the golfing world is that the sport is discriminatory—both towards women and minorities. In this particular instance, golf’s image has actually deteriorated over recent years. In 1994, only 13 percent believed that golf courses discriminate against women and minorities. Now, that number is up to 22 percent. All in all, it means that about 50 million adults believe that the game is inaccessible to the public at large. While the change in the numbers may be due to shifting national demographics, it’s a disheartening figure nonetheless.

On the plus side, those of the general public who actually expressed an opinion believe golf to be a healthy sport that teaches good values.

According to a survey by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA), which asked 4,000 Americans how difficult they felt it was to “learn & enjoy” different sports, golf came in 21st out of 25, just ahead of skating, hockey, snowboarding and skiing when those who have never played golf were asked. Among those who have actually played, golf came in second to last, just barely above ice hockey in last place.

Though it appears that golf has an image problem in that it is seen as expensive, elitist and difficult to learn and enjoy, almost half of the American public has yet to make up its mind about the way it perceives the game—prime targets for a movement to educate the public about and increase interest in the industry.

Overall, the state of the industry and perceptions of the game aren’t ideal, but we’re beginning to see a sliver of hope on the horizon. People are engaging with golf in new and interesting ways, and are interested in learning more. As it turns out, people are interested in learning more about golf. While there are 27 million golfers today, approximately 90 million Americans would like to either get involved in the game for the first time or play more often than they do currently.

Changes in Our Society

To better the perception of golf in the eyes of the people, we need to take into account the overarching challenges that golf faces in today’s climate. Several “megatrends” in both demographics and consumer practices create a unique set of circumstances for the future of the game.

The demographics of our culture are changing. Baby boomers are now retiring, minority populations are rising, women are taking on a much larger role in society and the millennial culture of the new generations is impacting the business world.

Consumer culture is altering the way people live their lives.  Family now occupies the center of leisure time and activity, and people have less time to spend relaxing in the first place. Health and wellness have become a focal point in people’s daily lives, and individuals want to spend less and get more, with an eye towards value.

Barriers to the Game

With the changes in consumer culture, many barriers exist to increasing the popularity of golf.  The length of the game, in particular, is considered a major inconvenience for people, as many simply don’t have enough free time and prioritize other leisure activities, such as spending time with their families, above golf. Since many people don’t see golf as a family activity, and many people find it harder to play if their spouses or children are not engaged in the game, people with families tend to golf less than they would like.

Many individuals also feel that the game is unwelcoming to beginners and is hard to learn, and are thus adverse to teaching their families or committing the time to learn themselves.

The other chief barrier for many current golfers is the cost of the game. Green fees, club dues and equipment costs are all perceived as reasons for not playing more.

Considering these challenges, how can we get the market to engage with the game?

Where do we go from here?

This May, industry leaders in the golf community converged at the GOLF 20/20 FORUM to answer that very question.  Presenters at the Forum outlined strategies and plans of action for appealing to the American people and increasing interest and participation in golf. The event detailed strategies for engaging women, increasing accessibility and making the sport both more playable and more fun to entice new players to pick up the game and make it easier for casual golfers to become more involved.

Today there are many ways to become engaged in a golf experience, including video games such as Wii, golf games such as TopGolf, and virtual games. This opportunity to “ladder up” to playing traditional golf is seeing a surge in new game concepts.  

The opportunity to tap into the almost 90 million people who are interested in playing more and learning about the game may begin in new, innovative ways.

Golf 2.0

The Golf 2.0 strategic plan from the PGA of America sets a clear goal in the development of the industry: by 2020, increasing the number of golfers to 40 million (from 27 million in 2010) and consumer revenue from the game to $40 billion (from $33 billion in 2010)all the while establishing retention mechanisms and increasing minority participation. With such aspirations, we need a good plan in place to accomplish it all.

Golf 2.0 has it covered. The new approach to golf supports the goal of “growing the game” with three distinct pillars: retaining and strengthening the golfing core, engaging lapsed golfers and creating interest in non-traditional golfing groups, all supported by a foundation of robust program management and execution.

Retaining and Strengthening the Golfing Core

This particular pillar of Golf 2.0 has two main steps. To make current players want to golf more, we need to know who our core players are—learn about individuals and use that knowledge to make them feel welcome and involved. We also need to deepen the engagement of current golfers by using the information gathered in step one to foster loyalty, involve them in leagues and determine what they want out of the game. Once we figure out what core golfers want, we then actually need to alter the game to fit their needs, even if it means shortening courses to accommodate time restrictions, looking for ways to reduce the cost for valued players, or making the game more family-friendly, to accommodate players’ desire to spend more time with their loved ones.

Engaging Lapsed Golfers

This part of the plan is a bit more complicated and focuses on several distinct market segments.  It involves making specific efforts to connect with women, creating tailored programs to welcome back novices to the sport, developing targeted hooks for families, crafting a specific approach for enticing seniors, or “platinum players” to return to golfing, and establishing the building blocks for future players through programs specially created for kids.

Creating Interest in Non-Traditional Groups

A cornerstone of Golf 2.0 is increasing diversity within the golfing community. Engaging minorities and those not customarily associated with golf is a two-step process, which includes offering off-course options and alternative formats to the traditional green-grass courses and crafting and promoting programming and marking that appeals to minority communities in a “drive for diversity.”

Program Management and Execution

So now that we know what we want to do, how do we actually get it done? The foundation of this entire process is strong member education, focusing on oversight of member and industry education to supplement the other strategies as we put them in place. We also need to institute an aggressive public relations and messaging campaign aimed at correcting the public’s misconceptions about the affordability of the game. Finally, we need to appeal to new golfers (and by doing so, appeal to all segments of the market) by highlighting the role of PGA pros in teaching beginners in a friendly, welcoming environment—and creating a catchphrase to welcome beginners across the industry can help accomplish that goal.

The best part about Golf 2.0? Action plans are already in place, and they start now. See Action Plan Sidebar.

Appealing to the New America

Emerging trends in the American market create unique opportunities of which the golf industry can take advantage in the coming years. The new trend towards the “greening of America,” the growth of minorities, the increasing role of women and technical innovation are all areas on which the industry can capitalize.

Creating courses that appeal to the different segments of the market is key to attracting new participants. Members of the younger generations all want different things, and segmenting our approach to tackle each one makes golf more appealing to new players.


Women in the younger generations are health, conscious, indulgent, and may be skilled in the game, but are generally not particularly passionate about golf. Many would play more if the games were shorter, and the courses more playable for their demographic.

New participants also need to first learn the game. Trial or package programs, integrating lessons and discounted play for beginners, are one way to draw people in and make it easier to learn without a substantial up-front investment. Flexible playing opportunities, including shorter courses help make the game seem less intimidating to first-timers. Women, in particular, respond favorably towards participation enhancement programs, especially those with an emphasis on family golf, social leagues centered around the workplace, and beginner play on specific courses.

Overall, marketing and messaging strategies that appeal to the new generations should focus on personalization and heightened service, providing guidance while introducing them to the game. Younger people also tend to resonate with “grounded and pragmatic” values—toning down the imagery of conspicuous consumption helps assuage the lingering uncertainty from the recent recession. Private clubs should focus on evolving to meet the needs of “The Sandwich” Generation (those caught between caring for their aging parents and supporting their children), and altering their messaging to focus on providing messaging featuring real life interactions, escape from the daily grind and an emphasis on families.

Increasing Participation

Making Golf More Playable (Alternate ways to approach the game)

One of the best and worst things about the game of golf is that it has a lot of rules. Playing such a serious game can be intimidating for beginners. As a community, we need to remind people that golf is still, before anything else, a game and should therefore actually be fun.

Because so many potential golfers feel that the sport is difficult to learn and are intimidated by the prospect, Golf 20/20 developed and distributed a list of a few ways to take the pressure or beginners and make the game a little more fun to learn.  According to Golf 20/20’s It’s OK to Play, “Guiltless ways to make golf more fun,” it’s ok to:

  • Not keep score.
  • Play from the shortest tees or start from the 150-yard marker.
  • Give yourself a better lie by rolling the ball around a little.
  • Tee the ball up anywhere when you’re first learning.
  • Only count swings when you actually make contact with the ball.
  • Throw the ball out of a bunker after one try.
  • Forget about a ball that may be lost or out of bounds.
  • Drop a ball where you think it might be … or where you wanted it to be.
  • Use fun team formats. Play a scramble with your group for an entire round, or just for a hole or two.
  • Just chip and put on a hole when you feel like it.
  • Pick up in the middle of the hole and enjoy the scenery of the great outdoors.
  • Skip a hole, eat your lunch, have a cool drink, or just relax if you need a break.
  • Play any number of holes and call it a round of golf: three, six, nine, 12.
  • Move your ball away from trees, rocks or very hilly lies.
  • Hit the same club for the entire round while using a putter on the putting green.
  • Play golf in your sneakers. Be comfortable!
  • Get enthusiastic! High fives, fist pumps and big smiles are encouraged.
  • Talk on the golf course … enjoy a nice conversation or tell a few jokes.
  • Bring your kids to the course, whether they are three or 30.
  • Play golf just for fun!

The GOLF 20/20 FORUM presentations recommended additional alternative ways to create courses, communicate with golfers and approach the game. Barney Adams, founder of Adams Golf Company, discussed “Tee it Forward,” a consumer awareness campaign designed to encourage all golfers to play the course at a length that is aligned with their average driving distance. Golfers can speed up play by utilizing tees that provide the greatest playability and enjoyment. The inaugural Tee It Forward campaign promotion will run during July 2011, with the overall goal to build consumer adoption year round.

Rick Phelps, current president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA), focused on creating golf courses that are “affordable, playable and sustainable.” According to Phelps, “I want to bring attention to the other 95% [of courses], including the public courses where over 70% of all rounds are played, and educate people inside and outside the golf industry that the median greens fee for those courses is $28.”

Creating New Golfers

Another major aspect of increasing participation is attracting new golfers from the younger generations. At the GOLF 20/20 FORUM, industry leaders presented many new ideas on how to draw young golfers to the game. Established programs, such as The First Tee, played a major part in the initiative to attract the youth to the game, but many new and innovative ideas surfaced, as well, including:

  • The SNAG program, which promotes the use of specialized equipment to supplement learning, including color coded grips
  • Promoting educational golf outings
  • G-Ball, golf’s version of T-ball, for children
  • Using soccer fields as low-cost makeshift golf courses
  • Instituting golf as a school activity in gym classes

Get Golf Ready is another successful initiative for introducing new players to the game. More than 34,000 students have participated in the program during its first two years, and of those 58 percent were women and 25 percent were minorities. Of Get Golf Ready participants, 84 percent continue to play golf for the first year of the program, and 75 percent continue into their second year. Over the past two years, Get Golf Ready as helped generate an additional $19.9 million in revenue hand helped bring the game to thousands of burgeoning young players.

Appealing to new golfers and introducing children to the game is a key element in creating the golfers and private club members of tomorrow.

Golfer Retention

Golfer retention is one of the most important aspects of keeping the game strong.  Many current golfers, 90 percent, in fact, do not have a handicap and are public players.  Current golfers from generations X and Y are busy with children, family and work, and don’t necessarily devote a day a week to golf.

Just because casual golfers may not have the time to travel and play at tournaments, doesn’t mean that they don’t want to compete. Virtual tournaments (vTour), not facilitated by staff, can be played on almost any course in multiple formats, and can give even casual players the chance to try their hand at competition—adding excitement to the game. Players get to compete for prizes, see their names on a leader board and get the experience of tournament play without the serious commitment of being a pro.

For those who aren’t so fond of competition, “Play Days” might be just the solution. It’s a meet-up or a choose-up game with set times on one course. It’s ideal for locals looking for a game who may not have regular golfing buddies or for travelers in from out of town.  It makes it easy for golfers to find games and draws people into the golfing community.

The Future of Golf

While golf may not be where we want it to be today, there is ample opportunity to grow the game for the future. Appealing to minorities and women by making the game more flexible and accessible will enable us to build interest and increase participation. Educating today’s youth and involving them in the game is vital to ensuring the growth of the sport among future generations. Most importantly, we need to retain our core golfers and enable those who love the game to keep playing. While the overall state of the golf industry may not be strong today, we now have a plan of action for building a better tomorrow.

Jackie Abrams is NCA’s communications manager. Cathy Harbin is executive director of Golf 20/20 at the World Golf Foundation. She is also a PGA Master Professional, LPGA member and CMAA member. She has been a Class A Member of the PGA of America since 1992 and a golf course general manager for more than 20 years.

Sidebar: Golf 2.0 Action Plan 

These are the goals set forth in the Golf 20/20 Forum report:

GOAL #1:
 Standardize process to bring returning golfers back into the game, emphasizing a positive experience for returning novices

GOAL #2: Specific programming for women that addresses their pain points by creating non-threatening vehicles into the game

GOAL #3: Make golf more welcoming for families to attract lapsed parents and grow participation among young players

GOAL #4: Raise youth participation in golf by making the game more accessible both on and off the course

These are some of the general action steps recommended in the Golf 20/20 Forum report:

  • Form team; set scope for effort
  • Partner with women’s golf organizations, local communities, schools, businesses, manufacturers, etc., to tailor programming and raise awareness
  • Select and standardize programs, messages and procedures to form the core of the initiative, informed by partners
  • Establish overarching customer service procedures and guidelines for near-beginners
  • Pick pilot facilities—localize message and supporting programs; train pilot facility members and staff to meet executing criteria; build baseline; etc.
  • Pilot the program—integrate with existing programs and infrastructure
  • Record best practices and identify gaps
  • Gain national sponsor support (e.g., manufacturers); use
  • vignettes and hard results to illustrate program success
  • Gain buy-in from critical mass of facilities using pilot results and leveraging partnering sponsors
  • Distribute and train participating facilities to execute against standardized procedures and guidelines
  • Potentially launch mass media campaign when critical mass of facilities are ready to implement the program

For more detailed information, please visit the Golf 20/20 Forum website at or contact Cathy Harbin at
[email protected].