The Decline of Golf

by Jon Birdsong on December 2, 2012

There have been a few times in our sport’s history where it seemed the world held its breath to watch golf. It likely happened in 1930 when Jones capped off the unthinkable ‘Grandslam’ win. Again in Augusta, Georgia, when Nicklaus awakened from hibernation at the age of 46 to win his sixth green jacket. Most recently, Tiger in 2008 as he hobbled to victory on a torn knee. It’s moments like these that become the greatest marketing campaign our sport could ever get.

There’s arguably no other sport where the perception of a level playing field exists — even the early duffer can sink a 40 footer every now and then. While with other sports, it becomes certain at point, playing baseball at Wrigley or dunking on Lebron is unlikely.

Despite our game’s significant advantages in appeal, it takes considerable effort to understand and appreciate its depths. The idea that you can be just as good as Tiger on one hole won’t resonate with the average golfer until they’ve played enough to develop confidence and skill. The feeling of striking the perfect shot is addicting. Yet, knowing that perfect shot is still in you after the third duffed shot in a row is the ultimate enigma. But golf is in a decline; if it were a stock, Wall Street would be yelling “sell!” The decline of golf is happening.

Even a polished Power Point presentation couldn’t disprove the numbers. “Rounds played per year” is the standard barometer of measuring the sports popularity, however a much more alarming data point comes from a source most of us use every day: Google. Search terms with the word “golf” have steadily dropped year after year since 2004. It’s down 40% since 04’. You can see below, each summer, the game hits its annual peak, falls in the winter months, only to rise again during Masters’ time (indicated by bump in April).

The decline of golf

Also, As reported each year by the major publications, the average number of golf rounds played in 2010 from 2011 is down — approximately 2.5% according to the National Golf Foundation.

Decline of Rounds Played

Each year pundits matter-of-fact-ly suggest why golf is in decline. Nobody wants to belabor on the point because it’s uncomfortable. The typical reasons continue to rise: it takes too long, rounds are too expensive, it’s too exclusive, we need bigger holes, etc. The real problem is much deeper and solutions perhaps even tougher to find.

While all the other reasons are considerations, technology continues to lead the decline. Not the bigger-driver-heads, longer-ball, range-finding type of technology, but the type of technology that’s disrupting industries across the nation.

Before the internet disrupted the way we communicate, business deals were done in person. Mostly in person, sometimes on the phone, but almost always concluded with a handshake and a likely friendship. Buyers had less information, so they relied on personal relationships and trust as the backbone of commerce. Since no other sport cultivates relationships better than golf, it makes for a perfect marriage. Plato was onto something when he stated: “you can learn more about a man in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” Playing business golf is safe, tried and true, but not scalable…or as scalable as the mechanisms today.

Relationship oriented businesses have and will continue to fuel the golf business but technology is transforming industries rapidly. Information on the web make buyers more informed and relationships less of a commodity. For example, if I want an office printer, my first action is to go directly to Google and search “office printers Atlanta.” Within 15 minutes, I’ll know exactly what I want, the suitable price range, and reviews of what I’ll buy. Pre-internet, Facebook, and Twitter, a sales rep would have developed a strong, personal relationship with a company. He would have been the expert on all things printers and every time our office grew, we’d give him a call and talk about new options over a round of golf. Those days are less and less. Everything is open, online, and transparent. None of these adjectives describe golf.

In a game baked-in of exclusion, there were barriers thwarting adoption from minorities and social classes, golf now has it’s own barrier to contend with: technology.

We’re entering an era where the business leaders of today aren’t doing business on the golf course. Carnegie, Ford, Rockefeller — business tycoons of their time — were all golfers. Translate to today’s innovators: Ellison, Zuckerberg, Bezos, and the late Steve Jobs have never been associated with the game. The time it takes to play a round, a CEO could write a blog post read by millions.

Golf has likely seen it’s brightest time in the business world, yet it definitely hasn’t seen it most popular time in history.

We have to use technology to benefit the sport. As the game’s global expansion into developing countries continue, instruction and access is paramount. Organizing golf’s most passionate young players into communities outside of expensive clubs will be beneficial as well as providing quality instruction to those willing to give the game a try. Golf must embrace technology. There’s no reason a high-schooler in Argentina shouldn’t be able to take a video of their swing, upload it to YouTube, and receive feedback from a golf professional in the States.

The love of the sport will be the driving force of golf’s growth and that’s a type player every true golfer wants in their outing.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Larry Fitzgerald March 7, 2013 at 7:58 pm

I live in Walnut Creek, CA and play to a 10 hcp.
Our local city-owned course (Boundary Oak) has seen a steady decline in play over the 15 yrs I have lived nearby.
I retired in July ’11, but still only play about 15-20 rounds/yr.
1. Golf is too slow. Even a weekday round can run 5 hrs. Carts make it worse, because 80% of the time you just sit there. Let’s walk.
2. Equipment is better, but this enables really poor golfers to get around in about 100-120 strokes. The emphasis is only on distance. W/o a 460 cc driver, many golfer couldn’t hit the ball 20 yds.
3. There needs to be “casual golf” rules. Distance-only penalty, drop areas for lost balls, 3-putt max, double-par and you pick-up, winter rules all the time, etc.
4. Courses are too tough. I’m a 10, and anything over a slope of about 125 should be the max. Did you see Michael Phelps on Golf Channel? He has no business on Medinah, or any course with >115 slope and 6,000 yds/72.
5. Golfers depend on instruction, rather than figuring out the game for themselves. It takes about 3-4 yrs to learn the game. There is no magic out there.
6. Too much beer drinking, chatting, and smartphone time (posting to Facebook!) slows it way down.
7. Very few golfers know anything re: history of the game, fundamentals of the swing, or can carry on a conversation on golf in general. I’ll bet only 10% of golfers own more than 3 books on golf.
8. Pro golfers set the poor example of slow play, emphasis on distance, poor temper control, dependence on instruction.

Frederico March 9, 2013 at 7:06 pm

Very well written article…….but you left out other factors and variables……

I just want to preface that I picked up the Game in college in my 20s. I can’t play as much as I did back then, but I still try to get in a round every now and again at my local Muni.

Yes, technology is NOT friendly to Golf. While your Dad and Grand-Dads had the luxury of kissing their wives on a Weekend morning and heading of to the Course to play a round and have a drink with their buddies at the old 19th hole, young people can’t afford that anymore. Everyone is just too busy. Golf it seems is a game for someone with lots of time on their hands, like retired people.

Also too, if you are person of color, like me, Golf has an ugly and nasty history of exclusion. The gilded elite Country Club thankfully is fast disappearing just like paper Newspapers. Now you see C.C. memberships for sale, open to anyone provided you buy a house on the 9th hole of some development.

I remember a time, not to long ago when Golf didn’t reach out to young people of all ages and colors, nationalities. Golf was played by older men, almost all white. And to add insult to injury, Golf was the only sport that would allow apartheid era players from South Africa to play. No other sport would allow these people in except Golf. And keep people of color out…………. :(
What self-respecting kid would want to play an old, white man’s game when other sports like basketball, baseball, football etc were open to anyone??

Is it any wonder that Golf was already dying until Eldrick “Tiger” Woods came on the scene???

I love the Game, I really do. But for Golf to be viable in the Future, some of it’s “grand old traditions” have to die-out. Otherwise, Golf will go the way of Paper Newspaper, Home Phone Landlines and cursive handwriting.

Joe March 25, 2013 at 6:33 pm

I have a handicap (4-7 depending on the season), am a member of a men’s tournament group, don’t have a single book on golf and don’t care to. My friends and I play golf to drink, socialize, and for the rigor of tournament play. Including 8-10 tourneys I play about 18-20 rounds a year. Most of my friends play even less. The last thing we talk about when we play is golf, other than how good or bad our shots were!

My dad taught me to play and if it weren’t for the fact that he was an avid and excellent golfer, I doubt I would play. I imagine I will be the difference in whether my kids play or not. So the math for golf is quite a bit underestimated in my opinion. When, say a man, doesn’t play or stops playing the game, chances are there are 2-3 kids that never become interested or stop being interested. Analyst are only measuring the decline in rounds played, multiply that by 2 or 3. Then think about the players that will never play the game that might have.

With little time left after the demands of work, family and life in general, golf is how we choose to spend what little time we have left together. It’s better than sitting in some bar doing nothing but drinking, playing pool and throwing darts.

The game is too hard, too expensive, and takes too much time to play it casually. Unless you’re like us and enjoy the time together and don’t care how long it takes because you have good beer and good friends.

Also, golf courses and golfers in general are not encouraging to newer golfers or god forbid beginners. 90% of the time I take my 8 year old daughter, who can hit her driver straight and about 180yds, I get the irritated look from other, usually older, golfers. And I only take her out in the summer on Saturday or Sunday for twilight.

Golf as a participatory sport has long ago peaked in the US and its not coming back.Golf is going to turn into driving ranges and par 3′s, except for people rich enough to afford greens fees and the time it takes.

Bernie April 14, 2013 at 7:51 am

It seems likely that the fact that the baby boom generation is starting to get to the age where arthritis, back problems, knee problems etc. are starting to creep in, is a factor. And the decline of Tiger Woods’ career means there’s no international superstar to draw new young players in.

Larry April 17, 2013 at 11:59 am

Reply to Joe: Yes, people (like you!!) who are on the course to socialize, drink beer, and don’t care how long it takes are the primary reason many of us are unwilling to submit to 5 hr rounds. Get off your butt, walk, hit the ball, and do your drinking and socializing on the 19th hole.
At my local course I can sometimes get through 12-15 holes in 2.5 hrs, but the last 3-6 holes can take 1-2+ hours due to foursomes of gossiping, half-drunk men spending time looking for lost balls in the woods after another 200 yd drive that’s 40 yds off-line with their new $399 TaylorMade driver. Did I mention 5 practice swings + a pre-shot routine just like the pros?

garth July 1, 2013 at 9:34 pm

I think that the decline of golf can be linked to God looking at all this land that can feed hundreds of millions of people being used to shwack your balls. Then again, eating food is over-rated….lol…In Saskatchewan where I’m from, the season is only 4 months long, which is further limited by the wind, heat and rain. and other obligations (like eating)…courses get boring, too expensive to maintain properly, way to much practise to get half decently good, lacks team concept, courses that are at least half decent are not accessible…14 clubs, now that’s ridiculous (then again its a British sport)…golfing is based on selling new products how far you can hit which makes the courses out of date and the new courses even more unaffordable. The worse thing is, that its not a real sport like hockey, but like darts or snooker (further British). look at John Daily o Duffer, Petterson or others…ya real athletes…lol…Inbee Park has won 3 straight majors and looks pregnant…and lets face it, when it’s 100 degrees outside, I’d rather be inside, watching world’s dumbnest, laughing my guts out with my wife…lets face it, the manipulative American media marketing crap on television used to get people into buying products that they really don’t need only works to a point. Even Jack Nicklaus plays tennis, fishes, and admits that he only golfs to be competitive.

garth July 1, 2013 at 9:37 pm

oh ya, golf is more stressful, than a stress relief

garth July 1, 2013 at 10:39 pm

cost wise?…if a good course is an hour away, that cost me $40 for the car. round of golf, 1/2 cart (cause everyone I golf with won’t walk), $15, $45 for the round, $15 for a drink and food, and lets say $5 for lost balls=$115. $115 to hit a stupid ball in a hole, heck the winter rules crappy sand greens course next town over is only $7 per round. Not only that, If I choose to work that Saturday, I take home $150, which make a net diff of over $200 (with all exp included) 20 Saturdays/yr =$4000. Over 20 yrs=$80000

Tom July 8, 2013 at 10:17 pm

@Garth: Wow, talk about a Debbie Downer! Having been to Saskatchewan a couple of times, I think the land used up for urban sprawl is far worse than the land used for a golf course. I remember going to both Saskatoon and Regina and all those roads required to service all those oversized single family dwellings costs more in unproductive land than any golf course. As for price, it’s easy to get a tee time in the evening which makes it less costly. In Vancouver, we have a few “expensive” courses that you can play after 4pm for $25 and still squeeze in 18 holes on most summer nights. $25 for 4 hours of entertainment is good value in my books. I also like your line about being inside watching TV instead of being outside in the heat; like everyone else in North America, sitting on their rumps watching sports instead of actually playing sports. You brought up an interesting point about working instead of playing golf and yes, you would take home more money working a Saturday, but think how much money could make if you worked Sunday’s as well! Heck, you may as well just work every minute of ever day and you’ll be rich!

Anyways, enough with Debbie Downer. I think the real problem with golf is that as a sport/game, it’s too hard. People are lazy and don’t want to put in the effort to get good… they’d rather spend the time getting good at EA Sports Tiger Woods video game. According to a recent article in the Toronto Star, people average 4 hours and 20 minutes in front of a TV everyday! That’s over 30 hours a week! Imagine how much time we’d all have for golf if we weren’t on our rumps watching TV. Next time you’re watching TV ask yourself if you’d rather be watching this silly reality show or could you use the time to play golf with your buddies.

Janna C. Bolton December 2, 2013 at 9:45 am

You can extrapolate this rule for all golfers. The later the game is taken up, the less chance one has to become good at it. Define “good” anyway you want: the later you start the harder it will be to get there. Starting young imprints muscle movements that stay with you forever, like riding a bicycle. Starting as an adult makes it much harder, if not impossible for most people, to imprint the proper muscle movements for an accurate, repeatable swing.

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