The sport of golf is stuck in a sand trap and there’s very little reason to think that situation will ever change. For a long time analysts blamed the great recession for the decline in golf participation, which started down in 2008 but never really bottomed out and the participation numbers continue downward.
In 2013 the PGA admitted that more golf courses would be closing than opening, a situation they see lasting for years. The losses are particularly heavy among lower cost golf courses. In 2013 4.1 million people quit the sport and only 14 golf courses were built while 157 closed. Even popular golf courses have resorted to promotions and discounts to lure players back to the course. The reasons for golf’s decline are inherent in the sport itself.
The biggest obstacle for many is simply the time required to get in 18 holes. With the increasing demands of family and work, fewer people have four to five hours to commit to any one activity. Then there’s practice time. You have to practice to maintain your status as even a mediocre golfer. Studies have shown that leisure time has actually contracted for both men and women. Today a round of golf comes with a side of guilt thinking about everything else you could be doing. Not only that but who wants to show up at a golf course by themselves? That means coordinating schedules with your friends, dealing with last minute cancellations and trying to fill in your foursome. That’s more time on top of the time it takes to play the game.
Golf can be affordable, but you have to work at it which makes it even more time consuming. If you go golfing once a week and average $40 for green fees, which is a dirt cheap figure, that’s still $160 a month. On top of green fees, there are the costs of equipment, gadgets and clothing. There’s an underlying current of snobbery that goes along with golf that anyone who’s played the game has experienced first hand. Golf also has a demographic factor working against it and, unless the sport makes radical changes, it’s destined to keep the impression of a sport for old, rich white guys.
Aging Player Base
Back in 2009 Jack Nicklaus lamented that young people weren’t really interested in playing golf. Golf has to rely on an aging player base, which is prompting some courses to consider adding senior tees and experimenting with larger holes, some as large as 15 inches, that let more putts drop. In the digital age kids are as overscheduled as their parents between soccer practice and video games, young people have more convenient options for entertainment.
Golf just isn’t fun for large numbers of players. Besides the fees and equipment, the sport requires constant practice to stay at a level you can keep up with those who play regularly. If you’re having a bad day there’s always that legion of carts building up behind you wanting to play through. On a tough day that means you’re the person holding up your companions. You can’t duff it and still have a good time. If you’re a consistently bad player you’ll find your friends going without you.
The biggest problem that faces golf is that the sport is dominated by traditionalists who resist change. By the time the sport starts embracing new technologies and making changes that would bring in more players, it will likely be too late to salvage golf from being anything other than a niche sport practiced by a declining number of players.