Golf's participation problem? It's inability to change
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Golf’s participation problem? It’s inability to change (but not how you think)

Golf is really hard. Often, it takes far too long. And it is definitely a very expensive hobby.

But is that why 5 million more people have left the game than taken it up in the last decade?


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The golf industry has offered this holy trinity of excuses as to why the America's golf population has dipped from a high of 30 million players in the early 2000s to approximately 25.7 million players, according to a 2013 estimate by the PGA of America. Those reasons aren't without merit, certainly, but they're minor in the grand scheme of things or merely consequences of the issues that the game is helpless to fight. Golf has a demographic problem.

However, before we dig into the issues burying the game, let's clearly dismiss one excuse for why golfers are leaving the clubs in the garage.

Net-net, Tiger Woods had almost zero impact on participation in golf. When Tiger turned pro in 1996, 25 million people played golf in the U.S., according to the National Golf Foundation. Today, while the names and faces may have changed, the number is basically the same.

An April 2014 report on Golf.com cites Brad Adgate, senior vice president and director of research for Horizon Media, as claiming Woods' extended competitive absence -- and, by extension, eventual retirement -- as having the potential to hurt the golf economy to the tune of 25-30 percent, the factor by which PGA Tour ratings can dip when Woods doesn't play. The piece multiplies that discount against the $68.8 billion size of the golf economy and returns Woods negative impact to the tune of $15 billion. That math doesn't work.

That nearly $70 billion figure (a 2011 estimate, is now about $56 billion) accounts for a slew of direct and indirect impacts golf has on the economy, including travel and tourism, rounds played, equipment bought and the like. Not a single person on the planet will choose not to take that golf trip to Scottsdale because Tiger went under the knife in March. Well, maybe Lindsey Vonn, but not Elin Nordegren.

And the notion of the Tiger Effect, created in the 1990s to explain the sudden surge in golf's popularity on courses nationwide, was largely a myth. A transcendent sports figure was the reason people watched more golf on TV, not why they played it. So what was the reason?

Older folks had Empty Nest Syndrome.

When their children left the house, the AARP crowd went to play golf, accounting for some 6.4 million of the 25 million players in 1996. They played a lot, with 55-plus golfers playing twice as often as their younger peers before peaking around 75.

The golf industry saw a potential gold mine on the horizon. The Baby Boomers were heading quickly for their golden years and, hopefully, a life of links leisure.

"We've been saying for several years now that, when they leave their child-rearing years and begin to approach retirement, today's 78 million baby boomers will be one of the driving economic forces in golf," said NGF vice-president of research Richard Norton in 1996, the first year that generation began to turn 50.

Over the next 18 years, a total of 78 million Americans were set to turn 50. If they were anything like their parents, the golf industry would experience a gold rush that would rival the 49ers. Couple that added free and predictions on how they'd spend that time with the good vibrations of the Clinton-era economy in full boom mode. How could golf miss?

Real-estate developers saw the same massive cohort approaching with, they hoped, a ton of expendable income and a desire to upgrade their lifestyle after a couple of decades or more raising children. They began to construct residential developments, thousands of them, around golf courses. It was a selling point to attract buyers at a higher price -- jacking up asking prices by anywhere from 30-200 percent.

In 2003, the National Golf Foundation said 391 golf facilities opened. Of those, 48 percent were attached to housing developments. The prospect of playing on the course where your house sits, however, was really only appealing to about one-third of buyers. The rest? They just wanted to brag to their friends that they had a golf-course home.

Their real-estate excess aside, Boomers are different than their parents' generation. They work longer in life, even if in a part-time capacity. They own larger, more expensive houses. They have children later in life, meaning turning 50 doesn't quite mean the same to them as the prior generation. Many retire with 401(k)s and are personally on the hook to manage their retirement savings instead of enjoying the luxury of permanent pensions from long-time employers. They like to travel and do other things, meaning golf isn't the only thing they're doing with their time.

Boomers also don't spend on golf like their parents. They are more price sensitive and don't budget, more or less, fixed amounts to play golf.

Nevertheless, the Boomer boost to golf's bottom line was substantial, taking the game the never-before-seen heights of economic impact. In 2005, golf's economic impact was $75 billion, thanks in great part to the influx of Boomers to the game from cubicles across industrial parks around America. In 2011, approximately 9 million golfers -- 1 in 3 players nationwide -- were Boomers.

Then things went south, for Boomers, golf courses and the real-estate developers that used golf to sell model homes.

Factor in three major stock market corrections since the mid-90s, including the Dot-Com Crash, the post 9/11 recession and the Great Recession. Those drastic shifts in the stock market dramatically impacted Boomers now on the verge of retirement, if not a few years away from the daily grind. In particular, the overwhelming percentage of gains in the stock market's recovery went to the richest Americans, leaving amateur, blue-collar investors still at a significant loss at a time when they need most the money they managed to scrounge together. After all, their house is probably worth less than it once was. They're taking care of their parents, and their kids are coming home with a college degree to live -- mostly for free -- in their basements.

The National Golf Foundation read the writing on the wall last year in proclaiming that the Boomers will, in fact, be a bust for golf.

“Golf courses and golf businesses should curb their expectations,because this generation of retirees may not be golfing as much as their predecessors,” said the NGF in 2013.

The banks saw the oversaturation of golf-course development well before the real-estate sector did. Lending for course construction dried up at least 5 years before the eventual crash of the residential real-estate market. By the time the Great Recession began, developers and course owners were over-leveraged and unable to sell off enough assets to pay back their lenders.

With everyone strangled by the economy, all involved responded how you'd expect. Golfers teed it up less. To attract the now more fickle players, courses cut green fees, raking in less for each player than they intended -- and their very existence was predicated upon getting. The result has been a net closure of golf courses every year for nearly a decade, and it will continue.

(Side note: That depreciation of golf prices almost directly led to the rise of GolfNow. Sensing an opening that golf-course owners and operators couldn't fill their tee sheets at their preferred price, GolfNow offered to fill the tee sheet, though at a discounted rate and almost exclusively to their benefit. They're still reaping those rewards now.)

In 2014, the last of the Baby Boomers will turn 50. They're not golf's Lost Generation, but the Lost Opportunity Generation. In response, the industry has focused on trying to encourage young people and women to play -- untapped demographics that both are seen to have a lot of spending power.

While there is encouraging data when it comes to women, golf can't seem to figure out those dreaded Millennials.

Like with the Baby Boomers, golf finds itself in the wrong place at the wrong time for Millennials -- albeit, in a different sense.

The city, urban areas are the place to live now. For all of the urban flight in the 70s, 80s and 90s, it has come full circle. Young people, if they can manage to find a decent-paying job out of school, cannot get out of the suburbs fast enough.

The problem is that golf is hard to find in cities. Golf Magazine and the NGF combined to rank the top 10 cities for golf in the U.S. The cities -- at least their generous definition of them -- combined to account for 633.5 facilities for a population of 26 million people. Conservatively estimating that six percent of urban dwellers play golf (as opposed to the eight percent nationwide), that's one golf course for every 2,467 players. The nationwide average is 1,630 players per course. In other words, there's not enough golf to go around for even paltry urban demand.

What little golf there is can be difficult to access, especially when fewer American households are owning multiple cars. According to a University of Michigan study released this year looking at 30 urban areas, one-fifth of those cities boast populations where 30 percent or more don't have a car. Compare that to the 9.2 percent of all U.S. households don't have a car at all. Schlepping a golf bag to a course while riding a rail-car line doesn't sound all that appealing.

Golf could face even more problems with the next generation as more kids are waiting longer to get their driver's license, if at all. A 2013 study by the Centers for Disease Control shows the number of high-school seniors having a driver's license dropped from 85 percent in 1996 to 73 percent in 2010. That number is projected to dip under 70 percent this year.

Young people can't get a job, don't have or want a car and want to spend what little money they have living with their friends in a cramped studio apartment in the city. That is a nightmare for golf.

And that brings us back to that holy trinity.

Golf is a difficult game and, despite dramatic advances in equipment in the last 20 years, the sport is fundamentally as tough to learn as ever. After all, the complicated motion that is the golf swing hasn't changed, merely what's held and hit with it. But golf added 15 million to its ranks from the late 80s into the new millenium -- starting back when were we still hitting balata golf balls with shined-up dead trees. If you think golf's hard now, trying playing with a set of persimmons, even if those used to be your sticks. Ugh, what were we thinking?

A round can take a long time, particularly on busy, publicly-accessible courses. A USGA study suggests the average round is 4 hours, 22 minutes -- a reasonable amount of time to play. The problem is that most beginners take up the game and learn to play at these reasonably priced facilities. They pack in more players at lower green fees, leading to crowding and delays, particularly when the more skilled golfers are elsewhere. A six-hour round is going to turn off any kind of player, but is especially brutal for a budding player who gets the extra time to brood about just how difficult golf is and wonder how they're ever going to improve if they're waiting five minutes between shots.

That leaves the expense of the game.

Not many people want to pay a premium to be frustrated all day and spent a lot of money. Otherwise, people would be having more children, and they're not really.

Green fees could go lower, but course owners must balance pace (because time is money) and conditioning with what they charge. So making access cheaper is tough to do. What we're not hearing from initiatives like the folks at HackGolf say is that equipment needs to be cheaper and easier to access.

There are 90 million so-called lapsed golfers in this country, according to the PGA of America. They've played and gone. A good deal of those probably left because they didn't like the prospect of paying up to $1,000 for a set of clubs they don't know how to use properly and don't have enough time to figure out. They probably don't like the idea of the $400 driver that comes out several times per year boasting technological advances they themselves are not advanced enough to benefit from or appreciate.

The game could benefit tremendously from the dawn of the Chevrolet of golf. No, not the Chevrolet recalling millions of vehicles because they kill people, but the Chevrolet that stood for high-quality vehicles at a modest price. Where is the $199 driver? (Don't make that crack about a insert-company-here closeout sale.) What about the $300 irons from a brand people have heard of or seen on TV as opposed to a knockoff like TailorMade?

A marketing executive at a major golf company once told me the only golf endemic that could pull such a thing off was Dick's Sporting Goods. The executive said they were the only ones who could control the full supply chain and drive down the cost. While Hopkins Golf has come along to disprove that theory, Dick's Sporting Goods just blamed golf and hunting for a terrible quarter. They're going to slash the retail square footage they dedicate to golf in each of their stores and consider not renewing expiring leases for several Golf Galaxy stores. So much for that idea.

If non-golfers don't have the time, money or patience to play and retailers and manufacturers don't have an interest in selling cheap, high-quality equipment (even if it's dated technology), then why are we doing this song and dance? Let's stop fooling ourselves and realizing that getting a few extra drivers off the rack to people who will hardly ever use them is bad business. Focus instead on keeping the players we already have.

Of the 25.7 million golfers in this country, half of them -- considered the core and avid golfers -- account for 95 percent of the now estimated $56 billion in spending. That means 13 million golfers spend an average of $4,092 each on golf each year, while the other 13 million spend about $215 each on the game. That's not even enough to buy a new driver, much less a set of clubs. Why are we chasing that money?

Instead, the industry should embrace its niche nature for now, focusing on retaining the golf crazy they already have and trying to convert prospective golf maniacs into avid players. If and when that next economic boom for the 99 percent comes, then the sport can focus on attracting new players to the game, but not before then.

In the last 20 years, golf has been counting its chickens before they hatched. The game now needs to sit on the good eggs it has, waiting for the right time to leave to coup again.

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