Ever since stories of the “Golf Crisis” and rumors of golf’s death have started appearing in the major media, I have taken the position that the rumors are wrong.
Now, Golf Digest has in part vindicated me. In a recent article, Mike Stachura points out what the media has gotten wrong:
As I’ve said before, the decline in the number of golfers is a decline from an artificially high bubble. Saying that golf is bleeding players is like buying a stock at $5 then watching it go to $300 in a few days. You hold onto the stock, thinking it will go higher. Instead, it falls to $10. Based on the bubble, you then claim that you lost $290, when what you really did was double your money.
Here’s the number that Stachura dug up:
There were about 5 million golfers in 1960. While U.S. population has only increased some 75 percent since then, the number of golfers has more than quintupled to around 25 million.
Not quite the doom-and-gloom you’ve heard, is it?
Are sales down? As I’ve been saying, the answer is “yes” only if you compare it to the peak of the bubble. Stachura:
Recent data from golf-retail research firm Golf Datatech shows that the sale of hard goods (clubs, balls, bags, shoes and gloves) through the first six months of the year are higher than or equal to 12 of the previous 17 years. Is the trendline down from the somewhat freakish highs of 2006-08? Yes. But there are unquestionable categories of enthusiasm this year.
Again, refer to my stock analogy for a bit of perspective.
The golf manufacturers undoubtedly know the Datatech numbers and their own internals surely tell the same story. The crisis for the CEOs of the major companies is that the sales are not trending upward high enough to maintain the artificially high stock prices and thus, their multimillion dollar executive bonuses. A company missing Wall Street expectations does not translate to a “crisis” in golf.
But television ratings are down, right?
… according to the PGA Tour, the number of unique viewers this year is consistent, and sponsorship interest across all tours is has risen to unprecedented levels. Golf Channel set a ratings record for the month of April this year.
Are rounds played actually down? Yes and no. Weather factors into this in a big way.
This June was one of the six wettest Junes in the U.S. in the last 120 years. But a look inside those down numbers shows an increase in golf being played when the weather cooperates. The average rounds per day open through June 2014 was up 2.7 percent compared to 2013. Twenty-one states reported rounds played were up in June.
But kids are not playing, the doomsayers complain.
At the junior level, Bishop also pointed to the growth in participation in just one year of the Drive, Chip and Putt Competition. In its first year, qualifying events were offered in just 14 states, but its second season shows the program is in all 50 states. The PGA Junior League, which is a team-based Little League-like approach to junior golf, is in just its third year and involves more than 7,000 facilities and more than 20,000 youngsters, double what it was a year ago. Bishop estimates in the next five years, the PGA Junior League could involve 50,000 players, up from zero just two years ago.
Given a realistic perspective—and not the media hype—golf as a sport should not be in panic mode. There is absolutely no need to wave the white flag and sell out to abominations such as Soccer Golf and fifteen inch holes. Mark my words: in the long run, these will cost golf more players than it will gain. Golf is an aspirational sport, and the difficulty is tied to its addictive nature. Making golf easier, or subverting it entirely with soccer balls makes it that much easier for people to drop it. Will soccer golfers come back week after week trying to get better at a difficult game? No. They’ll play once or twice and then return to their regular game. On the other hand, I will not go to a course that forces me to share my fairways with ball kicking idiots. They will lose me, and not gain any permanent players in return.
On the other hand, golf DOES need to work to retain customers and gain new ones. But that is true of every industry. Every successful brand works hard to retain customers. Ford is not sitting on the laurels of the Model T. Apple does not ride on the reputation of the IIGS. The PGA of America’s Get Golf Ready and junior programs are a good start.