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The Great Contraction: Don’t look now, but golf is in decline

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It doesn’t always feel right to talk about “golf.” You know … “Golf?” Not the leisurely stick-n-ball game that some of us like to play with friends and family in our free time, but the sport — the billion dollar industry that transforms miles upon miles of the world’s most valuable real estate, sweeps across nations, pushes technologies, expands across markets, geographies, demographics, and generations.

That, my friends, is the business of golf — the money — and while Golf is by nature the game of business, it can get awkward sometimes to talk about the game we love as if our enjoyment of a perfectly crushed drive can be quantified somehow on a stock exchange.

Awkward or not though, while my personal enjoyment of golf is in peak form, all signs point to the industry itself having a severe case of the shanks.

The Great Contraction

According to the National Golf Foundation, Golf lost 400,000 players in 2013 … as in, they “quit,” sold their clubs secondhand, hung up their spikes, swore off the game. What’s more is that while 14 new courses were built in the U.S. (as measured in 18-hole segments), 157.5 courses closed, most of which were public. That makes eight straight years in which more courses have closed than opened.

The numbers only get worse from there: golfers are actually playing fewer rounds on average, the fewest since 1995. And younger generations just aren’t that interested anymore, with Millennial and even high school age participation in the sport trending downward.

Thanks to a flooded equipment market with decreased demand, industry giants like Callaway, TaylorMade, and Dick’s Sporting Goods are all reporting declines in earnings, their stock prices tumbling.

Ain’t Got Time for That

How could this be? What’s behind such a widespread contraction?

Well, a lot of things. For starters, the rise of Tiger as a worldwide marketing phenomenon bloated the marketplace back in the early 2000s, flooding the country with courses and clubs and clothing. Such growth of the game was naturally unsustainable, so we should expect a degree of adjustment as Eldrick ages and the sport bumps up against the edges of its universe.

And in general, people are simply working longer hours, spending what little leisure time they have with their families, and most importantly, applying their ever-shortening attention spans and hard-earned dollars on more accessible fun.

To top if all off, Golf still fights its age-old image problem, with many nonplayers considering it to be the stuffy, boring pastime of golden-parachuted execs. As we’ve seen, industry forces have taken to the drawing board to try to spark more interest, to cast the sport’s image in a younger, more exciting and accessible light. But who knows if that’s even possible?

More Tee Times for the Rest of Us

The pressures on the game are many, and the bottom of this correction might not even be in sight yet. Only time will tell where the equilibrium lies, where the number of courses matches the number of players and the price to equip and play levels out.

On one hand, whether or not casual players play doesn’t bother dedicated golfers all that much, does it? As long as there’s a nice track close by with an open tee time on Saturday, I’m not crying Chicken Little. And fewer (ahem) developing players out on the course might even speed up the average round a little.

That being said, we’d be lying to ourselves if we said a sport-wide decline doesn’t affect us. Access and price are directly affected by the growth or lack thereof of the game, and over time, these large-scale industry developments do affect our level of enthusiasm and enjoyment – and our wallets, too.

I don’t know. It’s still just awkward. Sticking a nine-iron on a peaceful track as the crickets rise and the summer sun softens over the trees — that’s Golf to me. But I’m still keeping my eye on the industry headlines and hoping more people learn to love the game as much as I do.

What do you think? What’s Golf mean to you?

James Lower
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One Comment

  1. Phil Weidemann

    The USGA for the good of the game came up with the anchored putting rule change. What a great motivation to grow the sport. Kinda like baseball eliminating the bunt.

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