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Who Wants In?

A year ago today, the World Health Organization officially named the disease caused by the coronavirus, COVID-19 (COronaVIrus Disease-2019), and what a year followed.

Last issue I shared the big picture of what happened to golf in 2020: a huge jump in rounds, six million new and returning on-course golfers, an 8% increase in total golf participation (on- and off-course combined). It was a year like no other.

We also noted that “green grass” golf had a net gain of roughly 500,000 participants last year – a number that’s nothing to sneeze at, but at the same time has some course operators and others wondering why it wasn’t more. The reason, simply, is that the record influx was offset by a larger-than-normal volume of people who stepped away from the game, many it appears due to COVID-19 anxieties and/or financial stress, among other things. We’ve attempted to explain golf’s customer churn in a previous issue of Fortnight.

The flood of new faces was a reality though, even if some of our gains were offset by the ones who went absent. Who were these new people? Who wanted “in” during 2020?

  • Youth (+ 630,000)
  • Beginners (+ 570,000)
  • Women (+ 450,000)
  • Non-Caucasians (+ 320,000)

All of these groups saw significant gains and, hopefully, many will be back this year along with some of those who had to step aside. If so, we could see another increase in green grass participation in 2021.

But we should do more than hope.

Consider that the number of traditional, green grass golfers today – around 25 million – is the same as 25 years ago. This despite population growth of 25%. Meaning, of course, that the rate of participation in the U.S. has fallen, from over 11% to around 8%.

We have an embarrassment of riches in the form of new golfers, but can only grow the game if we keep more of them. Over just the past five years, we estimate 13 million people have tried playing golf on a golf course for the very first time. Yet we have not realized very meaningful net growth in on-course golfers. We can do better!

It starts by recognizing the incongruence between our current customers and those who want “in.”

Latent demand for traditional golf, which is higher than ever, skews remarkably younger, more female, more diverse and more average in income, as compared to the universe of current golfers. You can see this in the graphic above when you compare our current customers to those who want “in.” You can also see it in the big gains we made last year with these very groups.

To take advantage of this surge in interest, entrepreneurs at golf courses and in golf product and service companies will need to innovate and adapt to the diverse opportunity before them.

Joseph Beditz
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