The ways in which people are playing golf and engaging with the game continue to evolve. To reflect this, the NGF several years ago expanded its definition of participation, part of an ongoing effort to more accurately measure golf’s overall consumer base — both on and off the golf course.
Participation in traditional green-grass golf has held steady in recent years, finding a new support level of approximately 24 million. In 2018, the number people ages 6-and-up who played at least one round of golf on a golf course increased incrementally to 24.2 million. While this rise from 23.8 million in 2017 falls within the margin of error for the NGF’s national surveys, it is the first measured increase in 14 years.
Off-course participation, meanwhile, increased by almost 10% in 2018, with an estimated 23 million people hitting golf balls with clubs at golf-entertainment venues like Topgolf and Drive Shack, at stand-alone ranges, and using indoor simulators. Despite the increasing popularity of golf entertainment facilities, the majority of off-course participation (12 million) still occurs at golf ranges, whether its on-course golfers honing their skills or beginners learning the game.
When combining those who played on a golf course with the 9.3 million others who played exclusively off-course, golf’s overall participant base has climbed to 33.5 million. This is a gain of 1.4 million participants from 2017, a 4% increase mostly driven by off-course gains.
For the traditional game, perhaps the most critical metric is the stable pool of roughly 20 million dedicated golfers. This group, estimated at 19.5 million Americans in 2018, accounts for 95% of all rounds-played and spending, and therefore is vital to golf businesses and those who make a living in the industry. Dedicated golfers represent 81% of those who play.
The industry continues to see encouraging signs when it comes to newcomers and interest in playing among non-golfers. An estimated 2.6 million beginners played on a golf course for the first time in 2018, a figure at or near historical highs. There are also 14.7 million non-golfers who say they’re “very” interested in playing golf. Almost half of this latent demand pool is comprised of former golfers with some experience, but who haven’t played on a course within the past year. The rest are people who have never played before on a course.
While the total on-course participation count rose slightly, rounds-played declined 4.8% year-over-year to an estimated 434 million rounds in 2018. This drop was attributable in part to weather conditions unfavorable for golf, which is the nation’s top outdoor, pay-to-play participation sport. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, 2018 was the third-wettest year nationally dating back to 1895.
The Face of Golf
When looking at golf’s participant base as a whole, the average golfer is a 46-year-old male with a household income of more than $100,000 who plays approximately 18 rounds per year. Yet the game is becoming increasingly diverse.
Women represent almost one-quarter of participants, 5.7 million in total. This includes almost one million (900,000) girls between the ages of 6 and 17. Females also represent a disproportionally higher percentage of beginners (31%), juniors (36%) and off-course participants (44%) than they do in the overall golf population (23%). There were 2.5 million junior golfers in the U.S. in 2018, down slightly from the past two years but remaining in the recent 2.5 million to 3 million range. More than one-third of today’s juniors are girls compared to 15% in 2000.
Additionally, almost one-quarter of juniors are now non-Caucasian while just 6% were minority participants 20 years ago. Non-Caucasians continue to represent between 4 million and 5 million golfers overall, with an estimated 4.3 million on-course participants in 2018, the same as the prior year. At 18% of all golfers, this is less than the one-third, non-Caucasian makeup of the overall U.S. population.
The most significant recent on-course growth can be found in the 65-and-over category. An estimated 4.2 million “Baby Boomers” played golf in 2018, up from 3.6 million in 2017. It’s also noteworthy that 15% of beginners in 2018 were over the age of 50, the largest percentage in 10 years and a sign that more Boomers may become committed golfers.
As for young adults – one of the most coveted demographics for the industry’s future growth – this participant base remains stable at 6.1 million. Those in the 18-to-34 age group represent 25% of traditional golfers and, even more significantly, 44% of off-course only participants.
Looking ahead, the challenge for golf remains the same as recent years: providing more playing opportunities for those who express an interest in the game – potentially through non-traditional formats and offerings – and successfully converting more beginners into committed participants.
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