It's never a good thing to be compared to the Titanic regardless of the context.
Nevertheless, that was one of the messages Jim Koppenhaver of Pellucid Corp. and Edgehill Consulting's Stuart Lindsay latched onto during their annual state of the golf industry presentation at the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando.
The comparison between golf and a sinking ship actually was made by Stewart Darling, the non-executive director of Scottish Golf, that country's governing body of golf, during its recent Future of Golf in Scotland conference.
Koppenhaver and Lindsay just recognized the uncanny accuracy of the analogy.
The number of golfers, rounds played and golf courses in the market all were down in the past year in this country, echoing an all-too-familiar trend in place for more than a decade.
According to the Koppenhaver-Lindsay report, U.S. rounds played in 2017 slipped to 447.4 million, down 13.4 million from 460.8 million rounds in 2016 and erasing the gains of 2.7 million rounds from 2015 to 2016. Last year's figures also are down 12 million rounds from the 10-year historic average and a staggering 71 million rounds from the game's high-water mark of 518.4 million rounds played in 2000.
Leading up to the drop in rounds played is a slow leak in the number of golfers. The number of players in the market dropped by 150,000 in 2016 to about 21 million, the latest figures available.
Men comprise the largest single demographic, with 15.4 million players, and their numbers increased up by a modest 1.6 percent in 2016. Women, on the other hand, make up just 26 percent of the golf market. And although they are an audience many golf course operators are trying to court, they left the game in 2016 at a rate of 6.6 percent, more than offsetting any gains made by men.
Equally disturbing is that juniors and those age 18-34 also are dropping out. In 2016, the number of juniors playing golf dropped by 9 percent, while those aged 18-34 were down by 4.5 percent.
Baby boomers, particularly male baby boomers, continue to carry the game on their collective backs, a trend that eventually will reverse for a generation in decline. Millennials overtook baby boomers as the country's largest generation in 2015. As the baby boomer generation's numbers continue to decline, they will be surpassed by Generation X in about another decade, according to the Pew Research Center.
Fewer golfers and fewer rounds played have had a predictable outcome.
Before 2006, one had to revert back 60 years to the Truman Administration to find a year in which more golf courses closed than had opened. Since 2006, golf course closings have outpaced openings for each of the past 12 years. I
We can discuss who gets to sit at the Captain's Table or who gets the best deck chair; but at the end of the day, we're all on the Titanic."
Last year, 25 new courses were built and 175 established ones closed for a net loss of 150. Since 2006, there has been a net loss of 1,298 golf courses as the market self-corrects to supply-demand equilibrium.
But is supply really the problem, or is it demand - or lack of it?
In the early 1960s, there were 5,600 golf courses nationwide, and that number swelled to nearly 8,500 by 1970. In those days, there were only about 900 golfers per course. Today, there are about 13,500 golf courses with 1,300 players per course.
The report wasn't all bad news.
For the first time in 2017, the NGF last year began measuring data collected from off-course golf-related activities including Topgolf, Flying Tee and indoor simulators.
In a survey of Topgolf participants show, 29 percent of golfers say that playing Topgolf leads them to play more traditional golf. The survey also shows that 23 percent of golfers follow the game more closely as a result of playing Topgolf. Finally, 53 percent of non-golfers surveyed said that playing Topgolf has positively influenced their intentions of playing golf.
It remains to be seen whether this new data reflect a potentially larger golfer database and an avenue to grow participation, or if it is as hopeless as a stowaway on the Titanic.