The Reader's Digest version of golf the past two years has been one of more players and more rounds played for an industry that desperately needed both. The part of the story that has yet to be written is how many of these new players are in it for the long term.
The annual State of the Industry report presented each year by Jim Koppenhaver and Stuart Lindsay during the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando revealed that two years of Pollyannaism in golf that was, in part, sparked by a global health crisis, has revealed a few things. Among those revelations are that a lot of people have entered golf in the past two years prompting an all-time high in rounds played, Baby Boomers continue to prop up the game and owners and operators better learn how to convince those newcomers into playing more golf, so they can replace older golfers who cycle out of the game.
"Fifty-five percent of golf is played by people over 55. That's been true for, I'd say, forever, however we've only been tracking it for 20 years," said Lindsay, of Edgehill Golf Advisors.
"The adage is those between 22 and 40 (years of age) play 12 rounds a year; those between 40 and 60 play 18 rounds a year and those over 60, they're playing 35 rounds a year. This has been true since I came into the industry in the late '80s, so that hasn't changed. The one that has changed is we had a lot more senior golfers in the Baby Boomer generation than we have coming behind them, so we better make sure we retain these younger golfers and make every effort to keep them in the game, because we've got a hole to fill."
We gained more than 800,000 golfers. We're usually shedding 400,000 to 500,000 golfers a year. We have more golfers playing at a higher frequency. That's the daily-double. Now, we have to convince them to stay."
A total of 518 million rounds were played last year, according to the report, which is a 5 percent increase over the 493 million rounds played in 2020. In two years of Covid golf, rounds played are up by 19 percent since 2019. The 518 million rounds played in 2021 matches the industry high previously set in 2000.
"As Stuart said, it took us 19 years to lose 85 million rounds, and we regained all of them in two years," said Koppenhaver of Pellucid Corp.
In the first year of Covid, 900,000 new golfers, including 400,000 women, entered the game in 2020 (the last year data available), bringing the total number of players up to 21.3 million. That number represents the highest number of players in the game since 22 million golfers played 451 million rounds in 2014. The all-time high for rounds played in a year was 29.8 million in 2002. Picking up nearly a million players in 2020 was more good news for the industry.
"We gained more than 800,000 golfers. We're usually shedding 400,000 to 500,000 golfers a year," Koppenhaver said.
"We have more golfers playing at a higher frequency. That's the daily-double. Now, we have to convince them to stay."
According to Koppenhaver, the perfect supply-demand equilibrium is 35,000 rounds for each of the country's 13,000 or so golf courses. With 518 million rounds played last year, that equates to nearly 40,000 rounds per 18-hole equivalent.
"It's saying we are 14 percent under supplied," Koppenhaver said. "Think about that; if we took that math to its not-logical conclusion, it says we can afford another 1,000 golf courses in the United States. We're not going to do that."
As Stuart said, it took us 19 years to lose 85 million rounds, and we regained all of them in two years.
Every year since 2006, more golf courses have closed than opened, and 2021 was no different. According to Koppenhaver, just 21 golf courses in 18-hole equivalents were built last year, while 93 closed for a net loss of 72.
From 2006 through 2020, 624 courses opened and 2,162 closed for a net loss of 1,538.
Rather than worry about supply, which still must contract, the presenters said a survey of golf facilities reveals what operators should spend their time on - retaining customers.
"It says, if they play only three to four rounds a year, they leave," Koppenhaver said. "If we can get them up to five rounds a year, our chance of retaining them goes up exponentially. We are building some stuff into a survey to find what the magic number is that we have to get people to so that we increase their odds of sticking."