The future of golf

The future of golf: 10 great enhancing strategies

Over the last year golf has shown a very strong rebound on the back of Covid 19. Does it mean the sports is out of the woods after several years of lacklustre growth? Definitely not! The question is very much if new participants are here to stay. In order to do just that, the golfindustry has to change. In case it is willing to change its (sometimes) archaic habits, the future of golf should be bright. We discuss 10 strategies that could help improve the future of golf.

Golf back in business again?

Too expensive, taking up far too much time, too many old people, consuming too much space and definitely not social enough. Have you heard this before? These were clearly the main arguments behind the lacklustre growth in golf before Covid 19 kicked in. However since the outbreak of the pandemic, golf has witnessed a phenomenal return back with strong growth across the board. Whether it is equipment sales, memberships, greenfees, lessons taken, all major KPI’s have turned positive, which might be a positive sign for the future of golf.

Why is this? Because golf is not only seen as a fun game, people also have discovered the outdoors again, regard the sport as an easy way to keep distance and relatively safe.

That’s good news for the future of golf, I would imagine. Whether young or old, loads of people have discovered the fun factor behind golf, which purists knew all along. Does it mean that golf is out of the woods and that the future of golf is safe now? No way! Why not? Because there is more than just numbers.

Firstly recent statistics may be a bit blurred. I am sure that for example the KPI “average number of players per round” has come down, as in many countries the number of players per flight is limited to just two. Yes, utilization levels in terms of number of rounds have been phenomenal but in terms of total players, it may be a slightly different story. Secondly, it remains the question whether all these new outdoor addicts will continue to play once we turn back to normal. Surely some of the newbies will continue to play, but many will also leave the course again.

Golf has definitely seen positive effects of Covid, but in order to maintain momentum and keeping new players coming back, the golf industry has to implement change. It has shown it can adjust quickly to new situations but the challenge now is to gear up in order to safeguard the future of golf. If the industry does not turn back to its (sometimes) archaic habits and if it is willing to change, Covid might in hindsight actually have been the catalyst for the revitalization of golf.

Golf showed lacklustre growth pre Covid 19…

The golf industry is huge! Around 60 mln people (and I am definitely one of them) play a round of golf from time to time. Nevertheless, pre-Covid the sport was not growing any longer and the future of golf seemed somewhat bleak. Statistics showed that growth was lacklustre, if not negative. Were it not for Asia, the numbers would have been even worse. The US and Europe were the regions to blame. Similar to several other sports, this mainly had to do with demographic issues as well a changes in consumer preferences.

….but Covid 19 has given the sport new momentum

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, golf has experienced a dramatic change. Many have discovered golf as the ideal sport combining outdoors, social distance and social engagement. Teetimes are increasingly difficult to book, whilst golf equipment sales have gone through the roof. Look at the following findings of the National Golf Foundation in the US and you know what I mean.

  • 14% year-over-year increase in rounds despite March/April course shutdowns
  • Total golf participation (on/off-course combined) up 8% Y.O.Y. to 36.9 million participants
  • Net gain of 500K on-course golfers, the largest lift in 17 years, up to 24.8M
  • An increasing number of interested green grass prospects, up 10% Y.O.Y.
  • Significant decrease in the number of course closures as the financial health of facilities nationwide has improved   

If you think that this is an exception you are wrong. The sports has seen a revival everywhere, which should be seen as a positive for the future of golf. However, there is more than just one year with positive numbers.

Still confronted with major problems and perceptions

A round of golf is taking too much time…

A round of 18 holes of golf is taking about 4 hours and most people simply do not have the time nowadays. Particularly the attention span of younger generations like the millenials and GenZ is far too short to play golf.

Golf is too expensive…

For many people a round of golf does not come cheap. Greenfees, equipment, balls and the 19th hole! You can do the math yourself to realise it is not for everybody! That is a problem for the future of golf in a time where equality, gender etc is becoming ever more important

Golf is for older people…

You can argue it is not and I am with you, it is a great game for everybody! Nevertheless if you look at the numbers, you will notice that it is mainly older people that are often (slowly) strolling along the golfcourse or watching golf at home. In this perspective, it is all the more promising that during Covid 19 the younger generation has discovered golf again! Great news for the future of golf, but how to keep them?

the future of golf

Golf is taking up too much space and is not always environment friendly

Obviously, there are many exceptions and sustainability definitely is on the agenda of most clubs. However, it is also true that in densely populated areas, space is scarce and in this perspective we have seen many closures of courses. Golf courses that take up a lot of space may raise some eyebrows, particularly with those who are not playing. For the future of golf, it will be important that this issue will be addressed.

Golf is somewhat elitist and not socially engaged

The sport is still suffering somewhat from an identity problem, which continues to be a hurdle for the future of golf. Especially the younger generations (milennials, gen Z etc) don’t regard a golfcourse as a sociable place where you can meet up and chill with friends. Of course this isn’t always true, but it is their perception. They have a problem with issues such as dresscode and the lack of music etc. They also regard golf as somewhat elitist. Obviously this is not the case everywhere but this perception is not taken away easily.

Clearly, these problems can be resolved and there are plenty of initiatives that could address most of these issues. If traditional thinking is left behind, I am sure the future of golf will be bright and that regained momentum might stick. Obviously, numbers might come down once Covid is over, but al least a lot of people have had a taste and will stick around. However, a prerequisite to this all is that the golfing world is willing to embrace change and that the road which has been taken in 2020, will also be the road forward. Only in such case the future of golf should be bright again.

This particularly may be a challenge for the still many traditional golfers, who in many cases still call the shots. Hopefully they won’t turn back the clock. I truly believe it can be done! The wave can be ridden! Let’s look at several changes that I believe can be implemented in order to safeguard the future of golf and which simultaneously address the issues above.

Possible changes and inovations in the future of golf

The future of golf strategy 1: Revenue and business models have to change

The traditional revenue stream of a golfcourse consists for a large part of membership fees, greenfees, driving range revenues and food and beverage income. This traditional business model is unlikely to survive for most of the current golfclubs. Yes, some of the old traditional clubs probably will survive, but elsewhere new models have already been adopted on the back of Covid 19 and I am sure the ones that have not, will follow soon. There have already been loads of different experiments with for example flexible memberships, flexible pricing etc. Some of them were a success and some were not. Don’t be surprised if new initiatives will come to the fore.

What to think of the dynamic pricing models that are common in the hotel and airline industry? Often you can get yourself an excellent deal. A round of golf is ideally suited for such a strategy and I believe this will find many followers in the future. Quite often golfcourses (pre Covid) were empty, no visitors at all! If such a situation occurs again, lower or increase the greenfee in line with demand! You pay more when it is crowded and less when it’s not. This way revenues will increase through time and courses will be better utilized.

Everybody will understand! It will be important for the future of golf as for participants a round of golf may suddenly become more affordable and hence new groups of golfers might be lured into the game

The future of golf strategy 2: Embrace new types of golf

Traditional golf does not appeal to everyone, but new formats might come forward. This is important for the future of golf!I still love the idea behind Topgolf! This is a hugely successful initiative build around a driving range. It originated in the US and is based on golf, games, food and fun. It particularly appeals to young adults (Gen Z and no doubt Gen Alpha will also embrace it).

The game can be played by anyone. You can score points by hitting microchip containing golfballs at giant dartboard-like targets at an outfield. The closer you get your ball to the centre or to the ‘bullseye’ and the further the distance, the more points (or beers) you can earn. Fireworks if you hit bullseye! To some extent you can compare it to a bowling alley. It is an excellent way to lure young people into the sport of golf and might well be a nice intro to the real deal, which you and I know is even more fun!

Another concept, this one is from Australia, is Future golf. It is a golf community for everybody, from golfer to non-golfer and is based on flexibility, accessability. It is barrels of fun. Building communities does well with the younger generations such as Gen Z. They love social media and connecting! So, similar to the first initiative, this may be a good way to get new addicts to the game, helping the future of golf.

Or what about Popstroke? This is a new initiative of Tiger Woods and his TGR design team. It is excellent! It combines the noble art of putting, technology, entertainment and dining! It is totally in the sweet spot of what new generations want. Those are the elements they are interested in! Moreover, it takes a hell of a lot less time! For the purists, if you want to practice your putting skills, this is a fun way to do it! You may be bad with your driver, but here you can be the king of putting!

These are clear examples of gamification. It is something the new game generation likes and in my opinion is essential for the future of golf. Hence these new initiatives should be embraced and stimulated to attract new consumers. Change never has been a bad thing if it means adjusting to demand.

The future of golf strategy 3: Prioritize technology

Technology might well be the saviour for the sport of golf, particularly as Gen Z and Gen Alpha are the technology generations. It will be extremely important for the future of golf. Get asleep and wake up in 10-15 years time and the golfing world might look totally different. What to expect? Do you have a minute (or two)? It goes far beyond your average GPS watch which is tracking your distances and rounds and keeps an eye on your stats. Just a few examples to warm you up that might become important for the future of golf:

  • Software will facilitate dynamic pricing and dynamic routing over different loops of holes.
  • Augmented reality will become a huge thing. What to expect? For example, imagine yourself wearing ordinary glasses in which you can see distances displayed to whatever target on the golfcourse. Arriving at the green, you can see precisely where the breaks are, as it is in a game etc etc. You can see your own swing live or with a slight delay as it happens! You can even do it with an overlay of either your own perfect swing or of a person you want to imitate, say Ernie Els. Imagine what that will do to practicing your swing!
  • Expect robotics to enter the stage. Robots already do exist, but besides mowing grass, an entire range of other greenkeeping tasks will be taken over by robots. It will definitely bring greenkeeping costs down substantially, which will be important to making the sports more accessible!
  • Sensors (see my blog on sensors) and microchips will not only be placed in golfballs but also in textiles, equipment and on the course. Ok, you might say, big deal! We have been talking on sensors in golfballs for ages. When will they be finally there? They will come, rest assured! And you will lose a hell of a lot fewer balls than before. Also expect sensors in golfclubs, which measure smashfactor, rotation, distance etc. In fact they are already there. Cobra has already introduced a sensor in one of their drivers, the other manufacturers will follow suit. It is offering great analytics. If there are sensors in the ball and on the course, electronic fencing might not only keep your ball in place but also protect neighbouring properties. Imagine you have adjustable electronic clubs. You only need one iron, which makes your bag substantially less heavy.
  • Imagine you will play with a hologram of your favourite player who will give you tips during your round or alternatively, maybe you can have a chat with your new golf buddy Tiger when strolling along the fairway? This technology is already there: watch this video where you see a hologram running together with a runner!
  • How about smart digital flags in the holes? Yes they are already existent. On those flags you can display info or advertise, which might again generate additional revenues.You got the picture I suppose.
  • Data analytics will streamline services and analyse customer satisfaction. In the future you will be equipped with watches or tags which measure your swing, routing, stats etc. This info is wirelessly fed into systems through which you can see your progress. Nothing new there, you would say. True but for club management, the aggregation of data of all players will be extremely important. It gives them the tools on whatever info they need, which will have huge consequences for for example architectural designs, the speed of the game etc. Data will become extremely important for the future of golf as for any other sports.
  • Tracking software will become increasingly important in the future of golf. Artificial intelligence will keep track whether players are playing quick enough. This self learning platform will know which holes with what kind of weather will take which span of time. If it tracks discrepancies, golfers will receive a warning that they have to play quicker or let other golfers through. This will reduce slowplay, which should be good news for the future of golf.
  • Expect smart clothing to facilitate training! Watch out golf teachers! There are already experiments with sensor equipped textiles that will guide you towards the perfect golfswing by activating sensors so you can feel what the perfect posture is. Artificial Intelligence will quickly play an important role in golf teaching. We all know we do not have the same biomechanics and hence each and every person has a different ideal swing. There is no one for all! It means that with the help of technology you can master your own ideal swing!
  • Expect drones (see blogpost)  to enter the golfcourse. They can deliver your snacks and drinks at the hole where you are or may even make a video of your perfect or not so perfect round!

Maybe not all of these ideas will materialise but don’t be surprised if most of them do. All of this will particularly appeal to the younger game- and techsavvy generations, which are important for the future of golf. They embrace technology and this could well be one of the catalysts to lure them into the game. Golf federations should continue to embrace technology in order to facilitate their needs.

Also interesting to read: 10 great technologies that will change sports

The future of golf strategy 4: Improve utilisation of courses

Golf courses are taking up a lot of space, often used only for golf. Golf course owners should be creative and look if there are alternative ways to exploit their courses. Just of the cough a few ideas: start beekeeping and produce honey from your own course, use the olive trees for olive oil harvested at your course, find alternatives for golf such as footgolf, use the ponds for keeping trout and let families with children reel them in (lures them into the clubhouse again and spend extra bugs), use land for farming purposes, play movies at night on the parking place, etc etc. Be creative and create a social and sustainable atmosphere.

Watch this extremely interesting interactive map of the American Society of Golf Architects. They also have an interesting view on what the future course will look like. Enjoy!

The future of golf strategy 5: Make ecofriendliness and cost efficiency of golf courses more important

Investment into golf courses and related maintenance costs often take away a big chunk of the available cash. Expect more cost efficient solutions in the future. Artificial grass is cheaper than ordinary grass and definitely requires less maintenance. Golf purists won’t like it, but should relax, you don’t see and experience the difference with the newest alternatives. No, this is not the same as the grass you see on driving ranges. Think differently and ask yourself how much water needed for sprinkling purposes can be saved this way! Whether you like it or not, it is a matter of time and it will be there!

What to think of new state-of-the-art bunkers? Epping golf club build 5 bunkers for less than GBP 5000 by using environment friendly crushed quartz sand. And there are more good, cheap and ecofriendly alternatives. Again, it means cost reductions, which should be beneficial for pricing and hence makes it more attractive to play a round. Simultaneously it fulfills the needs of new generations for which sustainability is a key requirement. Durabunker is another example of this.

Golfballs will also change. Think about the millions of golfballs lost every year. This is not particularly good news for the environment. Well, ecofriendly biodegradable balls already exist and will no doubt get better and gain traction amongst golfers. Reducing the footprint will be key in making the sports attractive and socially responsible. In my opinion, it is essential for the future of golf.

The future of golf strategy 6: Change the clubhouse

The 19th hole takes place in the clubhouse and obviously you want to have your drink there after a round of golf. Reality is that clubhouses (often members only) are often underutilized during your round. They are frequently mainly empty and for many not attractive to visit at all. The younger generation even regards it as plain boring. The clubhouse should target itself on groups of people rather than on individuals. It should become more of a social meeting place. Expect therefore huge changes in the future which make the clubhouse lively again and better utilised. This also means more revenues from alternative resources which in turn might reduce the price of a round of golf.

What to expect? Expect the life in- and oustside the clubhouse to be more centered around the driving range. Expect music, lounge seats and tables in this area. This way it will be a much better experience to hit some practice balls on the range with friends or family making the nasty one or two comments whilst sipping their cocktails.

Certainly Gen Y and Gen Z would welcome this. They would also enjoy a change in dresscode, which often is a huge hurdle to many! Also expect clubhouses to become multi-sport facilities. Why not integrate fitness facilities in a club in order to have more reasons to visit the club. If you start fantasizing, there are loads of other opportunities to better exploit your clubhouse. Treat it as a social asset where people meet and atmosphere is great! Again, this is essential for the future of golf.

Also interesting to read: How GenZ will change the world of sports

The future of golf strategy 7: Stimulate alternative set-up of courses

Newly build golfcourses will be different. Expect a higher number of golfcourses facilitating 9 holes rather than the more traditional 18 holes. In many cases these 9 holes will contain huge greens with different flagpositions. This way you will have a different second nine holes experience if you want to play 18 holes anyway. Also expect new courses to facilitate 6 and 12 hole loops. This way you can be much more flexible as far as time and utilisation is concerned.

Additionally I expect Jack Nicklaus’ view on golfballs being changed rather than the golfcourses, will gain traction. The ever increasing hitting distances have resulted in expansion of golffacilities rather than in downsizing them. Society will increasingly put the brakes on hugely underutilised land…..and golfcourses definitely fit this category. Reducing hitting distances by adjustments to the golfball will help.

Some people argue that holes should get bigger in order to reduce slowplay. I don’t see this one happening. Puttting is an integral part of golf and fixing slowplay by altering the holes gets besides the issue. Besides there are different ways to solve this issue, such as tracking software.

the future of golf strategies

The future of golf strategy 8: Alternative formats

Alternative games and formats might become increasingly important for the future of golf. There already exists a golf putting tournament which seems to be very popular and can be done in a stadium. There have been experiments with sixes and on the clock playing. Whether this will work or not remains the question. In any case there are plenty of other ideas on how you can make golf tournaments faster and more appealing to the masses. I will come back to this in another blogpost in the future.

Also interesting to read: 9 powerful reasons why gamification of sports matters

The future of golf strategy 9: Connect, connect, connect!

Social media engagement will be extremely important for the future of golf. I cannot emphasize this enough. Gen Z and Gen Alpha will take up a large percentage of the population sooner than later. Together with the millenials they count already for more than half of the total population. If you want to attract these tech savvy and socially engaged generations you should be active on social media big time!

Engage, engage and engage! Gen Z and Gen Alpha are married with social platforms like Insta, Snapchat, Youtube and the likes. If you are not active on these platforms you are considered boring and they will switch to a zillions of other alternatives. Interesting and snappy content will be the name of the game!

E-sports are the sports of the future and will also play a role in the future of golf.Do you know there are already stadiums filled with capacity crowds just to see e-gamers at work. Connect with the younger generations by setting up interesting spectacular and social e-alternatives of golf. It will attract them and possibly lure them into a real game sooner or later.

The younger generations like rolemodels more so than clubs. Expect future brandvalues of golfers therefore to increase. These guys will have a huge responsibility in attracting new golfers. You can already see it happen with the Ricky Fowler’s and Rory’s of this world and a whole new techsavvy topgolf generation is waiting to step forward to fill in their gaps. These guys will and already are big influencers and will be key for the future of golf.

The future of golf strategy 10: Produce great content for all fans

Forget it! It is unthinkable that new generations will watch TV to watch 4 days of golf. They won’t! TV is not their cup of tea and golf is too slow. They are streaming their content and have a very short attention span. Actually it is only 8 seconds! It means you have to make an impression to lure them in. They are into brief highlights, influencers, bloopers, tricks and tips. Golf should be hip and happening! It means content has to change in order to facilitate this group.

It can be done. Both the European and PGA tour as well as rightsholders such as Discovery with GolfTv produce great videos, content and highlight shows and are keen to address this group, which is so important for the future of golf!

The future of golf is positive if change is embraced

Some of the ideas may seem far fetched and controversial. You might think, bullocks, not in my life! It won’t be there in 20 years time. I am not saying it will, but try to imagine how people reacted on visions such as a car, TV and PC’s before they were invented. Don’t exclude anything!

Whatever happens, I firmly believe the noble sport of golf is far from dead. There are loads of opportunities to reduce costs, make golf less expensive, attract new groups of young people, make the game socially appealing again and address the other major issues which the sport is facing.

Jan Kees Mons

Cricket managed to turnaround the rot by introducing the spectacular 20/20. If cricket can do it, golf can! However, the sport should be open to sometimes rigorous steps. I am a purist but also a realist. It means compromising I am afraid.

Traditional golfers (many of them from the babyboom generation) may have objections against many of the solutions mentioned here. They will have to adjust! This will be a major challenge in the near future. However, to their benefit, there will always be venues which will target their own cohort. No doubt for every demand there is supply, albeit very likely a whole lot more expensive.

All you golfers out there, what do you think? What do you believe is important for the future of golf?Let me know!

The post was originally published on October 2, 2019 and has been updated

Published by Jan Kees Mons

I am Jan Kees Mons. Just call me JK, that’s easier I guess. I am a Dutchman living in the heart of the city of Amsterdam. Right now I am living on my own. However, not for much longer, as I plan to live together with my lovely girlfriend.