Golf as enjoyed by the well-heeled is in good shape, but overall public participation has faded. Edwin Smith looks at ways of correcting the dip in popularity
In the summer of 1996, a prodigiously talented 20-year-old by the name of Tiger Woods turned pro and, at a stroke, promised to usher in a new era that would democratise his sport and take it to a younger, wider audience in the process. The stage was set for a glorious revolution.
But now, 18 years later, golf – not unlike Tiger – finds itself at something of a crossroads. Whereas the man has suffered poor form, injury and reputational setbacks, the game is losing players in its traditional heartlands and is still struggling to shake off the stuffy, old-fashioned image that has managed to cling to it, thanks to a well-meaning, but stubborn, old guard.
Fortunately, the state of play in established golf nations, such as the UK and the United States, doesn’t tell the full story. While participation in golf has dropped by 15 per cent in England between 2006 and 2013, and by around 20 per cent in the States in the last decade, trends in some other parts of the world are beginning to travel in the opposite direction.
In China “golf is still enjoyed by, statistically, 0 per cent of the population”, says Dan Washburn, author of The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Dream. But, he adds, the world’s newest super power is home to an increasing number of golfers. And even a tiny slice of a 1.4-billion population, “can still amount to a decent-sized number”.
As a result, “there are people who look at China as the next frontier and some in the golf industry are hinging their hopes on China as far as the future of the game is concerned”.
Between 2005 and 2010, the number of golf courses in China tripled (to 600) – a dramatic growth spurt by any standards, but particularly in light of legislation that makes it technically illegal to build new courses. It is, Mr Washburn says, a symptom of the country’s complicated relationship with a pastime that Chairman Mao banned, labelling it a “sport for millionaires”.
There is benefit to be had from offering different types of memberships, inventive pricing models and encouraging people to play a less time-consuming round of six holes
Even so, China looks set to play an increasingly important role in golf’s future on a global scale.
That theory was lent added weight by the recent £135-million acquisition of Wentworth by the Beijing-based Reignwood Group. But then, the top end of the market is in comparatively rude health. The locations, equipment and experiences on offer to golfers with a little money to spend continue to improve all over the world. In time, though, the effect of a sustained slowdown in the number of new players coming to the game could be felt further up the food chain.
The ruling body of golf throughout the world, except in the United States and Mexico, the Royal & Ancient’s recent – and long-overdue – vote to admit female members is a step in the right direction, as is the effort that clothing companies have made to try to modernise players’ wardrobes. But there are still significant barriers to entry for would-be golfers.
TIME, COST AND IMAGE
According to Richard Flint, development manager at England Golf, the three main ones are “time, cost and perception”. Mr Flint says that the inclusion of golf in the 2016 Olympics, for the first time since 1904, is “a very positive thing”, but he is more interested in what individual clubs can do to attract and retain players.
Although player numbers have declined across all demographics in England each year for the last ten years, he says that England Golf figures show 21 per cent of clubs managed to increase their membership numbers last year.
“The two big things that [these clubs] focused on were friendliness and flexibility,” says Mr Flint. So customer-service training is important, but there is also benefit to be had from offering different types of memberships, inventive pricing models and encouraging people to play a less time-consuming round of six holes, rather than the traditional nine or eighteen.
He also mentions the TaylorMade initiative, Hack Golf, which sees beginners aim for holes that measure 15 inches in diameter, as opposed to the regulation 4¼ inches. Mark King, chief executive of the equipment manufacturer, says this is “meant to take away the intimidation factor” and make the sport more accessible.
And more creative solutions are beginning to be put on the table. Bubba Watson, one of the most colourful characters on the PGA Tour, partnered with his clothing sponsor Oakley to design a golf buggy-cum-hovercraft. A video of Watson driving the vehicle over bunkers and through water hazards has more than 8.5 million hits on YouTube. The idea generated positive publicity for a public course in Ohio, which ordered two of the craft.
Of course, hovercraft golf buggies are not the answer for every local golf club, but the idea does exemplify the kind of thinking that could improve golf’s image, attract more players and secure the long-term future of a magical game.