Will golf ever thrive again?

“Golf is a game whose sins shine brightest. All sporting codes have elitism, arrogance a sanctimonious air and some dodgy lines of clothing. But, in every respect, none quite matches golf.”[i]

The sport may have come some way since those sentiments were published in 2008. However, most people’s thoughts about golf, especially those who don’t play or watch the sport, remain unchanged. And even some of those within the game still believe it to have a strong sense of elitism and arrogance.

Jacob Hassan, a club professional at Royal Blackheath Golf Club, is one of those.

“Golf, unfortunately, has and will always have an elitist reputation, which to me is justified,” he said.

“It is no surprise that the majority of people you see at a golf club are middle/upper class white men. These are often the only people who can afford the luxury.”[ii]

It may be a cliché and a traditional view to suggest that a historical, male-dominated sport is elitist, but what has changed to suggest otherwise?

At most courses it’s still frowned upon to have your shirt untucked. At some courses if you wear shorts, you have to wear long socks that come up to your knee. It’s frowned upon to wear a shirt without a collar, even though golfing brands make tops without them.

At most golf clubs there’s a strict ruling that insists you are not allowed to change your shoes in the car park, you have to use the changing room. Is it any wonder that people think this sport is not for them?

People take up golf to enjoy the sport and try to get better at it. They start the game because they realise how difficult it is and they want to prove that they can be good at it. But outdated rulings can immediately make people feel reluctant to try the sport.

“It angers me when members go mad over a young guest wearing the wrong colour socks or wrong attire. No wonder young people turn their nose up at the thought of golf,” Hassan added.

Pete Cowen said to The Daily Telegraph: “We need to do whatever it takes. Let the kids wear trainers, let them play computer games in the clubhouse. Most kids don’t even have shoes, let alone golf shoes. It’s ridiculous.”[iii]

Professional golfer on both the Jamega and Europro tour Joe Kelly has experienced a situation where he was effectively told off by a member for poor etiquette.

“I was changing my shoes quickly as I was running late for my tee time. Then a senior member of the club approached me and informed me that it isn’t allowed and that I had to change them in the changing rooms,” he said.

“Rules like that I find a bit over the top and dated. They are a bit unnecessary and I think are mainly in place to make the golf course seem more prestigious then it perhaps is.”[iv]

Similarly, Tom Lawrence, a college golfer at Thomas University in Georgia, has suffered from a similar experience in the UK.

“At my home club I was once forced to buy a pair of socks as mine were light grey and not white,” he said.

“A reminder to wear white socks next time would be good enough, instead of antagonising and humiliating members.”[v]

With members “humiliating” people like this, it makes young people feel uncomfortable.

When discussing the final findings of The Opportunity to Grow Golf: Youth Participation, Sue Gledhill, someone who understands the golf club environment and managed the youth research in the report, admitted it makes her feel sad how juniors don’t feel like they fit in at a golf course.

“They felt they had to behave in a particular way and if they didn’t, they were
a nuisance,” she said.

“I felt a little bit sad that they wanted to be part of the golf world yet they didn’t feel they fitted in and couldn’t behave in the way they felt comfortable with.

“Not being able to express themselves naturally at a golf club takes the fun out of the sport.”[vi]

Recent golf data from Statista suggests that over the past eight years, people playing golf in England on a monthly basis has declined by around 27%. Additionally, In KPMG’s Golf Participation Report for Europe 2018, it reveals that between 2016 and 2017, the UK and Ireland lost 62 golf courses in total, with 35 of them in England alone. Not only is it a huge number of courses to close down, it was 22 more than in the 2017 report.[vii]

Alistair Dunsmuir, editor of the golf business magazine, said: “The industry has been suffering tremendously over the last 20 years or so.”

“Golf clubs rely on not just participation but membership numbers for their financial survival, and they’ve been hit,” he added.[viii]

Ryan Curtis, founder of the @TheClub on Twitter, who pride themselves on #GrowingTheGame and trying to reach out to a younger audience, also hinted that a huge reason as to why people aren’t playing golf is because of the struggles to be able to afford housing currently.

“Young people especially can’t get on the housing ladder and in attempts to do so have to work long hours leaving little time for golf, or playing enough to justify a full golf membership,” he said.

“If golf clubs don’t realise this then the trend may continue.”

21-year-old club professional Hassan had similar views to Curtis on the subject and has suffered himself from the huge jump from a junior to intermediate membership.

“Although I work at Blackheath, I am a full paying member of Sundridge Park GC. I pay £800,” he said.

“I actually seriously considered leaving because this is a lot of money for someone of my age, despite the fact I would get serious value for money, playing and practicing every day almost.

“Membership prices for juniors are very reasonable, just extortionate for those that fall in the intermediate category of 18-25. I am always talking to members of the committee at RBGC, and a concern is always quantity of members in the range of 18-25.

“But still nothing is done about it. For starters membership is far too expensive. Asking for close to £1000 to play golf for a year from someone who is trying to find a career, move out from home, start a family and just generally afford to live is ridiculous.”

While Curtis went on to add that he believes courses are shutting down because they come across as “too stuffy” and don’t offer things that appeal to young people.

“They have to offer different things to different people and appeal to a broad range of people, especially young people,” he said.

“Forget going and attracting young people, first of all golf clubs need to be places where young people don’t feel uncomfortable. Whether that be relaxing of dress codes, relatable and welcoming staff and social surroundings.”[ix]

Curtis gave a passionate view, as he did throughout the interview, that golf clubs just aren’t listening and taking into account the difficulty that comes with being a member of a club as a young person.

It is not only financially that people struggle, there are time constraints. Most people now probably working into the evening, meaning they will only have time at the weekend, or little time at all to play golf.

Golf clubs often fail to adjust to this type of member who can rarely play outside of the summer when they may have a small amount of time to play after work. This then results in people not joining golf clubs, and eventually leads to golf clubs struggling, suggesting why so many courses have ended up closing down in the past decade.

“Golf clubs have to realise people under 40 cannot often justify a full golf membership if they can only play once a month,” Curtis said.

“Also lots of golf clubs are poor at reaching out to the local community to bring in members and are poor at communicating or evolving to current trends.”

Life is expensive now. Young people are finding it harder than ever to get on the housing ladder, it’s statistically proven. Analysis of government data found that the average property costs more than ever before, house price values and average earnings have not grown reflectively, mortgage applications are fewer than in the past and first time buyers are getting older. [x]

Therefore, there is one answer for golf to help these people who have to stop playing when they eventually move out and get a job after being a junior, make it more affordable.

Asked whether he thinks that the game is struggling to reach out to the younger generation, Chris Solomon, a member of No Laying Up, who are known for their modern, fun outlook on the game of golf, said: “It’s an issue the game is always going to have.”

“It’s expensive, and it’s time consuming. And that’s just on the playing side. On the entertainment side, there’s just way too many things to do that are much more fun than watching golf on television.” [xi]

Marie Llewellin, co-founder of golf’s missing links, a website dedicated to closed golf courses agrees that young people feel uncomfortable and are no longer joining golf clubs.

“Now we’re finding there are many many fewer junior members joining golf courses,” she said.[xii]

There are no statistics to back up this claim, but it’s not very surprising. Golf isn’t easily accessible, isn’t usually taught in school, and if young people’s parents or family member’s aren’t interested, it’s unlikely they’re going to gain much attraction to the sport.

With data proving that in the last eight years people playing golf monthly has declined by 27%, it is going to have a domino effect on the future generation, who mostly need to be enticed into the sport by others.

The Opportunity to Grow golf: Youth Participation is a slightly old report, but its findings are extremely useful in determining why young people avoid golf and what will help them gain interest in the sport.

And unsurprisingly from the report, the same problems cropped up.

What’s stopping young people from taking up the sport? Three of the common answers by children with ages ranging between 14 and 18, male and female, were lack of adaptability, stuffy venues and it being a game for old professionals.

What would help them take interest? The common answers were make it more affordable, fast-track learning on basic skills, shorter courses and casual dress.

What’s also important to deduce from the report is that both non-golfers and golfers participated, suggesting although some of the juniors already played the sport, they saw the need for changes still to be made.

Keith Pelley, chief executive of the European Tour, who was appointed in 2015, has spoken about the need for change for the sport to progress. “If you are not prepared to change, you are not prepared to be innovative. If you are not prepared to take chances, then I do believe that the sport will fall behind.” Pelley said.[xiii]

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. In the professional game, the sport is getting considerably younger at the top level.

At the beginning of 2019, the average age of the world’s top 10 in golf was 29.3, the youngest it has ever been. While in comparison, the world’s top 10’s average age in tennis was 29.7, the oldest it had ever been.

This suggests that it isn’t an ‘old person’s sport’ like people often claim.[xiv]

Hassan had some praise about Royal Blackheath’s ways of encouraging young golfers, saying: “The junior organisers have organised an event that they label as ‘junior fun golf’.

“It has attracted lots of juniors who are either too young or inexperienced to play on the golf course. This involves putting and short game competitions, which to my knowledge has been received very well.”

When it comes to funding the sport for young golfers, the R&A have decided to take some action and have committed to providing £2 million to the Golf Foundation over the next four years. Their plan is to help inspire more young people to play golf and to encourage them to stay within the sport to boost membership.

The Golf Foundation will give over two million young people the chance to try golf for the first time using its Tri-Golf and Street Golf participation initiatives.[xv]

This is the first time that the R&A have decided to commit funds to help increase participation and inspire a future generation.

Additionally, right now is the time to take advantage of a huge influx of new, hopefully young, golfers. When Tiger Woods first won the Masters in 1997 and had his first taste of success in the late 1990s and into the 2000s, it helped create a craze like never before in the sport. But, with his decline, it led to a drop in participation, especially at a grassroots level.

With him now returning to the very top level and him having one of the most famous comeback stories of all time, the 43-year-old could now inspire a whole new generation.

A spokesperson for the British Golf Industry Association (BGIA), which represents some of the biggest brands in the golf industry, said: “The BGIA works very closely with other organisations in the golf industry to attract younger people to the game, on programmes with the PGA [Professional Golfers’ Association] and the Golf Foundation amongst others. There can be little doubt that golf will receive a boost from Woods’s win and attract new, young players to golf.”

Not only will he have helped boost the sport’s participation levels, he makes the sport come across as cooler and more athletic too, with him being the first golfer to really put time and effort in the gym to improve his golf game.

Paul Wiseman, executive director for education at the PGA, thinks a surge in youth participation is not a prediction but a given.

“Whenever Tiger’s involved there’s always an increase in people getting involved in the sport,” said Wiseman. “He always draws people in who’ve never watched golf on TV.

“When anybody gives that intensity to achieve something, I think it has an impact on people who are just ticking along to push themselves.

“He’s definitely made it cooler – just look at the clothes he’s wearing. The cool factor is inevitably part of making young people want to play.”[xvi]

But Woods, referred to as “the needle” with golf coverage as people tune in whenever he plays, cannot inspire the new generation alone. He needs golf clubs to now take advantage of the fact people are currently interested. To add to that, club manufacturers need to reduce prices of clubs, bags, balls and even clothing.

In the early 2000s when people were inspired to play golf, a lot of people felt rejected by unwelcoming golf clubs and old-fashioned rules. Now, people in the golf industry have the opportunity to rectify that, and make this incredible sport one of the most played around the world again.

Prices need to fall and innovative ideas are required to make golf more enjoyable and faster than it currently is, because otherwise this iconic sport risks falling by the wayside in a generation that has very little time on their hands.

[i] Humphreys, J (2008), Foul Play, Icon Books, Cambridge, p.138

[ii] Hassan, J (2019), 12/01/19, Royal Blackheath Golf Club, 07473141511, jacob.hassangolf@gmail.com

[iii] Morgan, T (2018), Why golf needs to modernise to halt its steady decline – the experts have their say, The Telegraph,https://www.telegraph.co.uk/golf/2018/09/25/golf-needs-modernised-halt-steady-decline-experts-have-say/

[iv] Kelly, J (2019), 01/04/19, Phone call, 07779458936

[v] Lawrence, T (2019), 02/04/19, Royal Blackheath Golf Club, tomlawrence99@icloud.com

[vi] Elsworth, S (2014), The Opportunity to Grow Golf: Youth Participation, Syngenta, https://sustainable.golf/assets/0003/3124/syngenta_golf_youth_report_final.pdf

[vii] Golf Participation Report for Europe 2018 (2018), KPMG, p.12, https://assets.kpmg/content/dam/kpmg/xx/pdf/2018/11/golf-participation-report-for-europe-2018.pdf

[viii] Dunsmuir, A (2017), In The Rough: Golf’s Uncertain Future, BBC Radio 4, https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/b08wn9mj

[ix] Curtis, R (2018), 16/11/18, Phone call, 07752531728, ryan@theclub.media

[x] Allcock, S (2017), It’s Harder Than Ever to Get onto the Property Ladder, News Anyway, https://www.newsanyway.com/2017/12/08/harder-ever-get-onto-property-ladder/

[xi] Solomon, C (2019), 27/03/19, Email, soly@nolayingup.com

[xii] Llewellin, M (2017), In The Rough: Golf’s Uncertain Future, BBC Radio 4, https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/b08wn9mj

[xiii] Bisset, F (2016), Keith Pelley says Tour could trial six hole events in 2017, Golf Monthly, https://www.golf-monthly.co.uk/news/tour-news/keith-pelley-says-tour-trial-six-hole-events-2017-110401

[xiv] Perry, A (2019), It’s official: Golf’s a young person’s sport,  National Club Golfer, https://www.nationalclubgolfer.com/news/dialled-in-golf-is-a-young-person-sport/

[xv] Golf Foundation (2019), R&A funding of £2 million to boost junior golf in Great Britain and Ireland, https://www.golf-foundation.org/news/ra-funding-of-2-million-to-boost-junior-golf-in-great-britain-and-ireland/

[xvi] Walker, A (2019), Why Tiger Woods’s Masters win could inspire a new generation of golfers, The Guardianhttps://www.theguardian.com/sport/2019/apr/15/tiger-woods-masters-win-how-a-new-generation-of-golfers-could-be-inspired

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