There has been plenty of reason for concern with the state of golf during the past decade, but when it comes to the game's future, Steve Mona is the eternal optimist.
As the chief executive officer of the World Golf Foundation, Mona knows all the game's indicators backwards, forwards and sideways, and although the game has leaked players steadily for the past 12 years, he is confident that there are more reasons than ever to be encouraged about where the game is headed.
Nearly 15 million people in 2018 said they were interested in playing golf, and more than 2.5 million played the game for the first time last year, according to industry statistics. Off-course facilities attracted about 13 million people during that time, some of whom already are golfers, but many of whom are not.
"Two words I use to describe the game are stable and evolving," Mona said during a sitdown with TurfNet at this year's Golf Industry Show.
"Golf is riding a high of interest. Last year, almost 15 million people said they were interested in playing the game right now. Not when the kids get out of the house. Not when they retire. Not when they sell the house. That's right now. Interest is high, and trial is high. Last year, 2.6 million people tried golf for the first time. That was an all-time high in interest and trial. We don't have an issue with people interested in the game. We don't have an issue with people trying the game. The issue boils down to keeping them in the game."
Rounds played were down about 5 percent from 448 million in 2017 to 427 million last year, and are off by about 50 million since the turn of the century 19 years ago. According to Mona's statistics, the golfer population in the U.S. has dropped from 32 million to 24 million since 2002 (the National Golf Foundation puts those numbers at 30 million and 20.8 million, respectively). But of those 24 million, he said, 19.5 million are "committed to the game."
"Golf is part of their lifestyle," Mona said. "They are responsible for 95 percent of the spending and 95 percent of the rounds. The challenge for golf has been how to build on those numbers."
And new golf experiences such as Topgolf, Drive Shack and golf simulators can help introduce people to the game in new and different ways and maybe eventually generate interest in a more traditional on-course golf experience.
We have more people showing interest in the game and more people trying the game. But it's a conversion or retention issue. But at least now we have entry points into the game.
"If you were interested in the game 20 years ago, your ways of acting on that interest were fairly limited," Mona said. "Today, you can try Toopgolf, you can try Drive Shack, you can try a simulator. You've tried it, and that could lead to that green grass experience. That's why we view these entry points as complimentary to the game and not competitors.
"I actually think the future, we have a great opportunity. We have more people showing interest in the game and more people trying the game. But it's a conversion or retention issue. But at least now we have entry points into the game."
Millenials view golf - and just about everything else - differently than their parents do, and golf course operators would do well to tap into that, Mona said.
"Golf used to be 8 a.m. on the first tee on a Saturday morning at a private club with the same foursome you've played with for the last 10 years, steel spikes, khaki slacks, a golf shirt tucked in with a cap facing forward," Mona said. "Now, it can be 8 p.m., cargo shorts, flip flops, shirt untucked, hat on backwards and a beer in one hand at Topgolf. That is a golf experience and an entry point into the game."
Forcing newcomers to the game to conform to the rules of yesteryear could prevent them from becoming committed golfers.
"This way, they get introduced to the game and if they have fun the might want to pursue it further and eventually move to a green grass experience. Now, that's not going to be a Topgolf experience because it is different, but it needs to be more aligned with it than not," Mona said.
We have to be thinking that golf competes with any other form of discretionary spending, not just bowling or tennis. It also competes with going to a movie or going out to dinner. However you spend your discretionary income, we have to compete with that.
"What we have to recognize now is that there are different ways to experience golf and that the way in which people experience golf has to align with how they experience other forms of recreational time. We are compared against going to a football game, basketball game or the Lucky Strike Bowl, but those are all forms of entertainment. If there are rules that prohibit you from doing things freely at those other forms of entertainment and that bothers you at any level, then you are going to matriculate away from golf toward those other forms of recreation.
Attracting and retaining players is not just about bending the game's staid rules. A lot of it comes down to basic customer service.
"We call it the moments of truth at a golf course," Mona said. "Is there a bag drop? And if there is, what is that person like? You're probably going to have a starter. What is that person like? . . . It all matters in how welcoming are they. We have to be thinking that golf competes with any other form of discretionary spending, not just bowling or tennis. It also competes with going to a movie or going out to dinner. However you spend your discretionary income, we have to compete with that.
"The ingredients are in place to address this. It's a matter of us as an industry making sure that people have the right experiences at all these points along the way."