Psssst! Want a hot tip? Are you looking for an industry that’s been in a bit of a down-cycle, but one poised for a major rebound? Well then it’s time to take another look at the game of Golf. Listen to the cavalcade of news stories in the mainstream media about this industry lately and images of old Wall Street might come to mind, complete with brokers in the pit signaling wildly and feverishly shouting, “Sell!, Sell!, Sell!”, but buying too much into the typical car-crash type coverage some in the press seem only too eager to heap on this industry lately would be a major mistake. It’s like the age old investment adage, “Buy on the rumor, sell on the news”, and with the disproportionately negative and often inaccurate news coverage being trotted out by many of the pundits who cover it there, predictably, has been a lot of selling going on. And so while it seems particularly in vogue at the moment to report on the industry’s recent challenges; the aftermath of the Great Recession, an aging Baby Boomer population, an ailing flagship attraction (Tiger Woods), and the short attention span of Millenials, that is in truth like so much yesterday’s news. So let me be the first to break from the herd and provide you with a few new rumors, or the other side of the story, and 5 reasons you should now be bullish on the game of golf.
1. Globalization. In case you haven’t been paying very close attention, golf is going global. Golf is now played in 118 different countries, according to the World Golf Foundation, and in many parts of the world they are experiencing a golf boom similar to what we saw in the U.S. in the 60’s and again in the 90’s. The 25 million players in this country now account for less than 40% of the people who play the game worldwide. And even if we are able to tap into the 90+ million Americans that claim to be interested in playing, that percentage is still likely to drop because we are only in the the very early stages of its increase in popularity globally. In 2016 golf will be included in the Olympics for the first time ever, an inclusion that is expected to increase the game’s international popularity exponentially. When Se Ri Pak won the Women’s U.S. Open in 1998, it sparked a massive golf boom in South Korea, a former golf wasteland that now boasts having over 50 women competing on the LPGA Tour alone. And South Korea only has a population of about 50 million people. Can you imagine what will happen in China, a country of over 2 billion people that has been experiencing rapid golf development, if young Chinese phenom Tianlang Guan wins a couple of matches against say, the aforementioned Tiger Woods, or some other prominent international player before a worldwide audience?
2. Charity- The game of golf is engaged daily in the largest example of pay-it-forward that this planet has likely ever seen or will see by any one industry. Golf may be a bit more of an investment in time and money to play than some other sports, initially, but it simultaneously has the distinction of paying far greater dividends than other sports as well. The game of Golf not only donates more money to charity than sports like baseball, basketball, soccer or football, but more money to charity than all other sports combined. There are literally millions of people who don’t even play the game (yet) who benefit from that fact that millions of others do and in many cases it wouldn’t be too far of a stretch to say their very lives depend upon the fact that people play golf. Ask St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, The Boys & Girls Club, The Folds of Honor Foundation and thousands of others charities worldwide which sport is most important to their continued existence and the conversation begins and ends with the game of golf. From children with cancer, to the surviving family of our killed and wounded servicemen and women, to handicapped men, women, and children in countries around the globe who aren’t able to afford a wheelchair, the game of golf gives at a rate that consistently inspires many of its beneficiaries to get involved and to find their owns ways to give back to the game.
3. Accessibility – Many in the media love to champion the accessibility of sports like tennis, soccer and, basketball due to their low barrier for initial participation, but this is a bit of a non-starter when you look at the bigger picture. Sure there are many people around the world who might initially be exposed to games like tennis, soccer, and basketball before golf due to their location or certain economic realities of their situations, but to call those sports more accessible than golf completely turns a blind eye to their inherent physicality and what it takes to play them. There is a reason golf is known as the game of a lifetime. Millions of people who are either of advanced age, or possessing of certain physical disabilities enjoy playing golf. And there are billions more around the world like them who will never be able to participate in sports like tennis, soccer, or basketball in any meaningful way other than as a spectator. And let’s not forget certain after-effects of the aforementioned Great Recession. Over-development in the latter half of the 1990’s and first half of the 2000’s has to a certain extent left the supply of available golf, at least in this country, exceeding the current demand and as a result there more places to play than ever and greens fees have never been more affordable. Combine this with the availability of a lot of reasonably priced and quality 2nd hand equipment through non-traditional sites like eBay and you have a situation where the financial bar for participation in the U.S. has never been lower.
4. Business – It’s no state secret that the typically squeaky-clean images of golf’s brightest stars have made them the darlings of corporate America and ideal pitchpersons since the days of Arnold Palmer, but that only scratches the surface of the almost mutually dependent relationship golf and business have in this country. No other sport is even remotely as closely tied with business in the U.S. and more essential to how business is done than golf is. And that’s not just everyday small business. Politicians and business leaders from around the globe and from all walks of life participate in the sport. The last 4 U.S. Presidents have all been avid golfers and if you listed the number of business tycoons who are afflicted with the golf bug it reads like a veritable who’s who, including Donald Trump, Richard Branson, and Jack Welch to name few. There is a reason the occasional politician or business leader is slammed for taking part in an ill-advised corporate golf junket. There are literally thousands of them going on in every part of the world every week. And while there are those who love to slam us lazy Americans and our penchant for driving in carts, smoking cigars, having a cocktail or two, and generally spending as much time socializing on the links as playing, the cold reality is that you can’t overvalue the opportunity to sit next to a potential client or prospective employee for 4-5 hours. It may be arguable as to whether or not golf builds character, but it definitely reveals it and so it is an ideal setting in which to get to really know someone, something you just don’t get standing 60 feet away on the other side of a net, or going to a local park and kicking around a soccer ball. More business deals are done on the course than in any other sporting environment, so even though it may have become cliché to say what a great business tool the game of golf is, there remains a very good reason for that. It is.
5. Women – And finally, the game’s historical lack of retention of women players in this country looks to finally be on the verge of changing. Women have for at least three decades now accounted for close to half the people that take up the game each year, yet in this country still only account for 20% of its participants. The reasons for this are numerous, and the downturn in overall participation these past five years has resulted in some of the games largest organizations like the P.G.A. of America investing major money in the attempt to unlock the secrets of keeping women engaged. With the P.G.A.’s Golf 2.0 Initiative and the formation of the National Player Development Task Force every stone is being turned over in the effort to tap into what women want and need to get past their initial excitement about playing and develop a long-term relationship with the game. The National Golf Foundation has been studying programs in other countries that retain women golfers at a much higher rate to identify what can be done differently here at home to make long-term participation the norm. And having identified many of the best practices of successful clubs both at home and abroad the early-adopters of these practices, such as on-site daycare, relaxed dress codes, a focus on fitness, and the employment of more women in front-line positions (like golf professionals and golf shop assistants) are seeing it pay huge dividends. The game has long embraced women, but its leaders are just now starting to identify the formula to keep them at the course and the impact of this is likely to change the face of the game we play for good.
No, golf is not going the way of the Dodo Bird, the Record Industry, or Canasta! It wouldn’t be intellectually honest to not recognize there are a few challenges at the moment, but many of these are not dissimilar to any industry dependent upon leisure time and disposable income during difficult economic times. Golf has been around for close to 500 years now, survived revolutions, world wars, and Great Depressions and it will adapt and survive the impact of the Great Recession, the passing of the Baby Boomers, The aging of Tiger Woods, and all the many whims of the Instant Gratification Generation. Not just because it always has and not just because the game’s leaders understand the need to adapt to certain realities of the current economic and cultural situations both in this country and abroad. The game of golf will ultimately survive and thrive because of us, the people who play it, the people who are emotionally invested in it, the people who have been raised by it, and the people for whom it would not be too big of an exaggeration to say owe just about everything we have to it. So there are plenty of reasons it’s time to be bullish on the game of golf again, but if you are looking for the biggest reason it is because those of us who have been raised on the values the game so inherently teaches understand exactly this. You always leave something better than you found it. See you on the links,