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Golf Is Alive And Well, Particularly At Private Clubs: Vibrant and Adaptive Offerings

There’s a well-known story about Mark Twain who, upon hearing from a British newspaper that he was on his deathbed, responded, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” I’ve thought often of this story in recent months, as a spate of articles has been published announcing “the demise of golf.” Publications as varied as The EconomistForbes, and The Los Angeles Journal (to name just a few) have gleefully jumped on the “death of golf” bandwagon.

Happily, just as the reports of Mark Twain’s death were an exaggeration (he would go on to live another 13 years), it’s not time to publish golf’s obituary either. There are an estimated 24.1 million golfers in the United States today, according to the National Golf Foundation. While this number is slightly down from the peak of 30 million that the industry enjoyed during the Tiger Woods frenzy years, today’s numbers are robust and have been holding steady for over a decade. Perhaps more importantly, there are an estimated 20 million committed golfers who play regularly and plan to continue to do so.

This number demonstrates why the private club industry is vibrant and likely to remain strong for years to come. The number of committed golfers—the type of golfers who are more likely to belong to a private club—has remained steady. For the most part, the private club industry hasn’t experienced the turbulence that public clubs have.

That’s not to say that it has been completely smooth sailing in recent years. The Great Recession and its aftermath posed significant challenges to private clubs. As Americans became more careful about their spending, clubs had to adjust—no longer just a place for dad to golf on weekends, clubs across the United States have responded by becoming more family-oriented and offering more social and recreational activities for members.

In recent years clubs have also begun to place a premium on members’ health and wellness. Many clubs are investing in exercise equipment and offering fitness programming, including programming designed to meet older members’ unique needs, and many are even hiring personal trainers and other certified professionals to serve the needs of members.

Interactive practice facilities such as simulators, covered and indoor hitting bays also keep golfers engaged and active, especially in the winter months, offering opportunities to train, practice and visit the club.

For many clubs, this commitment to health and wellness extends to food services. Fine dining has long been a staple of the private club experience, but many clubs today have reoriented their dining programs to focus on nutrition, offering healthier food choices for members and their guests. It’s another example of clubs’ commitment to health and wellness.

One indication of the ongoing health of private clubs is the important roles they continue to play in their communities. In cities and towns across the United States private clubs are economic engines, employing millions of residents and injecting $21 billion into the economy every year. Significantly, club jobs tend to pay better than comparable positions locally, and often, those jobs are the springboard to lifelong careers, not just in the golf industry but in the hospitality industry as well.

As a sign of the times, one very important example of the contribution that private clubs make to their local communities is clubs’ growing commitment to sustainability. A recent survey conducted by NCA and McMahon Group found that nearly three quarters (74%) of private clubs use sustainable practices, undertaking a variety of initiatives, including water conservation and energy efficiency programs. Many clubs also participate in education and certification programs designed to minimize their environmental impact and preserve natural habitats around golf courses. While these sustainable practices are obviously good for clubs and their members, they also provide tremendous benefits to local communities.

These economic and “green” benefits are characteristics of an industry that’s vibrant and healthy and committed to playing an important role in the community. It seems, as with Mark Twain’s long-ago experience, the reports of golf’s demise are greatly exaggerated. Of course, that won’t come as a surprise to the millions of golfers who belong to the nation’s private clubs.

Bill Smith is a principal at Smith Phillips Strategic Communications, a media firm that consults with NCA. He is also a member of Concord Country Club in Concord, N.H.