It came as a shock to the golf world when Nike, one of the biggest names in sports, announced it was getting out of the golf equipment business. While it will continue to manufacture and market footwear and clothing, the days of Nike golf clubs, bags and golf balls are, effectively, over. Just a few months ago Nike’s biggest competitor, Adidas, announced it was selling its golf equipment line. The question that remains is who would want to buy it?
Participation in golf as a sport peaked in 2006 and has been on a steady decline ever since. In 2013 160 of the nation’s 14,600 golf facilities closed as the number of golfers dropped from a high of 30 million to numbers somewhere below 24 million. There are a lot of reasons for golf’s decline and one wonders where the tipping point is when the sport finally just collapses. The largest decline on a percentage basis is among men 18-34 years old. That is a brutal demographic to lose for any sport and is reflected in virtually every golf metric including rounds played, television viewers, and, of course, golf equipment sales.
Golf Is Too Expensive
With green fees topping $100 at some courses, plus shoes, clubs, balls and bags, golf is out of reach for many younger players saddled with student loan debt or struggling to make mortgage payments. With even low-end country club memberships still running close to seven thousand dollars, not including initiation fees, golf’s popularity is declining at the very time its potential target market is shrinking.
Golf Is Too Time Consuming
It takes four to five hours to play 18 holes and that doesn’t include time spent getting ready and getting to and from the golf course. That also doesn’t include the time and money spent at the driving range and putting green practicing. While golf is looking at ways of speeding up the game rule changes are slow because of the colonial nature of golfers who resist any attempt to change the game, even if it’s for the better.
Golf Is Too Hard
Course designers have gone out of their way to make courses harder to keep pace with advances in equipment technology. Making courses challenging enough for experienced players makes them too hard for beginners. Golf is also a game that punishes those new to the sport by faster golfers on the course behind them crowding slower players and rushing them to play faster. The steep learning curve, 200 page rule book and frustrating nature of the game have many people questioning their motivation for sticking with the game.
Golf’s Optics Are Horrible
Golf has a stubborn reputation of being hostile to anyone other than white males. Listening to a group of older men complain, nearly nonstop, about a foursome of ladies in front of us in 2010 was my personal last memory of the game of golf. It didn’t help that Augusta National, where the Masters is played, did not admit African-American members until 1990 or women until 2012. The icing on the cake for golf is a divisive presidential race headlined by Donald Trump, someone who is, in many ways, the new public face of golf.
In the end golf is just too slow for the modern world, too expensive, too impatient when it comes to younger players and too resource intensive. With non-native grasses that require more water than an almond farm, golf courses are seen as an unfortunate waste of prime real estate. Many cities and municipalities have closed public golf courses in order to save money.
Golf will probably totter along a few more years or even decades as its market share continues to shrink. Some day we’ll hit the inflection point and we’ll all be surprised on the day that golf finally limps off into sports history.