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What it is, Why golf needs it, and How it works

Welcome2Golf is NGF’s effort to introduce adult non-golfers to the game of golf and improve the consumer pathway experience to create more committed golfers.

The key word here is “adult.”

There are a host of wonderful beginning golf programs throughout the industry geared toward kids: First Tee, PGA Jr. League, LPGA*USGA Girls Golf, U.S. Kids Golf, Youth on Course, American Junior Golf Association, SNAG, and more. NGF has long supported youth programs and our research has repeatedly shown that these initiatives improve diversity among the game’s participant base and greatly increase the likelihood of creating a committed golfer for years to come.

While there’s no shortage of golf programs for kids and juniors, beginner programs for adults are harder to find. This despite the fact that 75% of beginners are age 18 or older. There are golf courses and golf professionals conducting adult beginner lessons, of course, but our outreach found specific adult beginner group lesson programs at less than 2% of U.S. facilities.

To put that in perspective, consider the ski industry, which has a strong and dedicated effort to bring new skiers to the slopes. There were 470 ski areas in the U.S. in 2020, according to the National Ski Areas Association. Now if only 2% offered beginner programs, that would be less than 10 facilities nationwide. The reality is that almost 100% have some kind of group beginner ski program.

If it’s directionally accurate that only 2% of the 16,000+ golf courses in the U.S. offer instruction for adult beginners, that’s only about 300 in total. And there are no assurances that they have resources, programming or instructors who are properly trained. So, with only about one in every 10 beginner golfers actually taking a lesson, the question becomes, “who’s introducing them to golf?”

The likelihood is that it’s a family member, friend, co-worker, spouse or significant other.

Now consider that the conversion rate for a beginner to become a committed golfer is more than twice as high (42%) for those who receive professional golf instruction versus those (20%) who were “taught” by a friend or family.

This formula equates to missed opportunities. Lots of them. And Welcome2Golf is NGF’s vision to improve not only golf’s retention problem, but more importantly convert new adult golfers to committed golfers whose play and pay provides an immediate boost to the golf business.

An assortment of publications NGF has produced for the benefit of the golf industry over the years

The National Golf Foundation has always been passionate about growing the game of golf and has taken a proactive lead in a variety of instances over various eras. In fact, there was an innovative NGF program in the 1960’s that was actually called Welcome to Golf. And in the 1990’s, we developed a series of Welcome to Golf publications (featuring Snoopy from The Peanuts) that provided guidance to millions of beginner golfers of all ages. It was one of a series of NGF initiatives aimed at growing the game and the business of golf, with publications created to help instructors teach as well as specifically for consumers.

Our research shows the interest level in golf among non-golfers is at an all-time high, with over 12 million adults in the U.S. indicating they’re “very interested” in taking up the game.

And yet with 13 million+ newcomers giving golf a try over the past five years alone, the participation “sea level” has risen by only a fraction of that (from 23.8 million to 24.8 million over that period).

So, it begs the question: why hasn’t the participant pool grown more? The simple answer is that we’re not successfully converting enough of these beginners testing the waters into committed golfers. Not enough that results in real growth.

At NGF, we believe that to improve this conversion rate – and we’re talking millions here – then we as an industry must be better prepared, better equipped and better educated than our current efforts. And we can’t just educate. We have to also take action.

That’s the motivation of Welcome2Golf.

W2G - Conversion Rates

The Three Keys

We started slowly, with programs at six facilities in 2020 and a group of amazing coaches who shared our passion. We expanded to 13 W2G facilities in 2021, with more to come in 2022. NGF helps provide the resources, tools, collateral and education for them to be successful, but it’s the W2G coaches who drive the program’s three key elements:

  • Invite
  • Introduce
  • Convert

Think of these as the three legs on a stool. They’re the support system.

In regard to INVITING, we’re not relying on the golf industry to market for us. Our W2G facilities are going out locally and actively seek to bring people in, contacting local businesses, health clubs, schools, and service clubs to name a few, as well as promoting themselves on- and off-course and building relationships throughout their community.

The second step is INTRODUCING non-golfers and lapsed golfers to the game in a fun and welcoming way, from a tour of the facility to hitting a ball in the air for the first time in the very first lesson. While there’s considerable focus on the rational concerns about time or money when it comes to golf’s appeal, NGF research indicates that it’s getting a newcomer to feel accepted, comfortable and confident makes the biggest difference in whether they stick with the game or leave. Thus, a facility tour for beginners includes important elements like learning how to make a tee time, strap a bag on a cart, where and how to get range balls, how the bag drop area works, and so on. Our W2G coaches are learning the art of creating golfers rather than students, and manage these participants along this “golfer journey.”

That brings us to retention and, more importantly, CONVERSION. This element is often overlooked, but is crucial in turning beginners or returners into committed golfers and loyal customers. It’s about following up, engaging them and creating opportunities for W2G “graduates” to return, thus improving the facility’s chances to grow rounds and revenue.

Initial W2G returns have demonstrated that this adult-specific program works. The data bears that out.

W2G coach Maggie Hartman, PGA, with a group class at Commonground GC in Colorado.

Opportunity

It’s not for all facilities, and that’s ok. We’re looking for innovators, risk-takers and influencers who want to be at the forefront of something new and exciting. Those who want to make a difference.

The long-term vision is demonstration and education. We want to have more golf courses offering W2G-type programs that are successful in converting beginners into committed golfers. If it works at 20 sites, it will work at 2,000. We hope to create a movement, or revolution if you like, demonstrating that W2G works and then focusing on educating other interested operators.

The past few years have shown the opportunity that exists for golf.

But simply having newcomers give the sport a try isn’t enough. That was the case during the “Tiger Boom” of the mid-1990s. When Tiger Woods first burst onto the scene as a professional, the number of on-course golfers in the U.S. was about what it is today. But participation surged for a number of years, with Tiger boosting the game’s popularity and making it cool to play – or at least try.

Numbers didn't tell tell the whole story, however. While the overall golfer population increased over the next decade, as did play, an interesting thing happened. The average number of rounds played per golfer declined fairly significantly. This was an indication that while more there were indeed more golfers, many of the newcomers were far less engaged and played with far less frequency. The reality is that many who came to golf during this time never got hooked and became committed golfers.

Imagine the difference a dedicated adult program might have made.

With Welcome2Golf, NGF is seeking to make that large-scale impact, leave a legacy, and truly grow the game. And we’re looking for others to join and support the mission.