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December 2020

Standing Together

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Growth In Golf Is Biggest Surprise Of 2020 

By Steve Eubanks

Most of 2020 felt like being beaten with a bat. From the tragic loss of life to the economic devastation of the shutdowns to the civil unrest that burned throughout the summer to the rancor that infused so much of society, 2020 was, in summary, a mess.

And as happens often during messes, whether it’s war or economic depression, people retreated to the things that mattered most: time with family and nature.

To the surprise of many in our industry, golf became the perfect respite.

According to early statistics compiled by Golf DataTech, the only analytics firm that compiles data on a monthly basis, nationwide year-to-date rounds through the end of July were up 3% despite courses in many states, including New York, California and Michigan as well as some counties in Florida, being closed for months. In July, for example, 10 million more rounds were played in 2020 than in 2019. Play was up 6% in May when many courses were still closed, and 14% in June.

According to Dr. Joe Beditz, CEO of the National Golf Foundation, “There’s no question the leading driver of golf’s nationwide surge is less resource competition – fewer commitments, fewer trips, fewer available activities, and fewer ways to spend disposable income. There has been other transient factors too, like favorable weather, extended shutdowns at golf entertainment venues, and perhaps even a pandemic-induced need for mental and physical escape.” 

That last factor, while being the hardest to measure, might be the most important. Psychiatrists everywhere will tell you that stress needs an outlet. Long nature walks away from the bombardment of technology affect both physical and mental healing. Golf provided that from the outset.
 
In the markets where ClubCorp courses were allowed to remain open, there was a substantial increase in rounds, in some cases well north of 30%. The same was true of courses managed by Kemper and Troon. If it was between worrying at home and taking the family out for a round of golf, the game won in almost every market. 

“We never really shut down in Atlanta,” said John Spiess, general manager of the Country Club of Roswell, a family club in a golf-rich Georgia suburb north of the city. “We closed the clubhouse down on March 17, but golf remained open. We had record months for rounds in both April and May. That was even doing single-rider carts.

“A crushing day for us (in the past) was 200 rounds a day. We’d do that a few times a year. This year we have had numerous days well north of 200 rounds. On Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays we’ve been doing 240 to 250 rounds on a regular basis.”

And throughout the country, the growth in the game continued, even as schools reopened and other competitive venues like theaters and bowling alleys turned on the lights for the first time since March.   

It is only one example, but CC of Roswell is illustrative of the nationwide trend. According to Spiess, “We’ve been up 30% on rounds and probably 15% on membership. That is a big jump for us. The last several years our membership numbers have been flat in that we’ve seen as many people leave the club as came in. But this year we’re up 15% net in membership. That’s extraordinary.”

Also extraordinary is the demographic of that new membership. It took a pandemic for millennials, the group the industry has been courting for more than a decade, to discover golf.  

“Yes, it’s definitely a lot of young adults in the 25- to 35-year-old age group,” Spiess said. “It’s a group that, for them, joining a club is a new thing. And, we’re seeing a lot of traffic from that group knocking on the door and asking about becoming members.”

Spiess agreed with Beditz about the lack of competition helped. “Golf has been one of the few things they can do,” Spiess said. “I’ve been in the industry 30 years and the one thing that hurt us was competition from everything else. Soccer and t-ball and those kinds of things hurt the club business because it took core golfers away from the clubs. Those other activities went away during COVID-19 so we have a lot of wives and kids coming out and playing that we haven’t seen before.

“In May, for example, our starting times on Saturday were booked all the way until 6:20 in the evening. In a normal year, by 2:00 or 3:00 we were slowing down. That didn’t happen this year.”
All those new golfers needed equipment, too. According to Golf DataTech, equipment sales nationwide reached $388.6 million in the month of July, the largest single month since the firm began tracking sales in 1997. 

Membership will likely keep a large segment of those new golfers in the game. Every month, the club bill is a gentle reminder to make a tee time for the family. Plus, habits form in a matter of weeks. Nine months of going out on the course with the family will be a tough habit to break. Plus, as Spiess points out, “We, as an industry, have done a lot to welcome the new golfer with open arms. At our place, we’ve added forward tees that are about 4,000 yards and we’ve really made our lesson business more welcoming. There are a lot of things we’ve done and will continue to do to keep that golfer now that they’re here.”

Beditz sounded a little more pessimistic. “The ability to retain customers has been golf’s Achilles heel for some time now,” he said. “In the past five years alone we’ve ‘welcomed’ more than 12 million people to the traditional game, and yet our ‘sea level’ has risen by only 200,000, give or take. It’s almost inexplicable and signals a serious issue with the experience and/or perceived value among new customers.

“We can certainly hope that the pandemic reorients consumers – making them appreciate open space, fresh air and less crowded activities than before. But those are probably fleeting effects.”
Beditz missed one key element in his analysis, as did Golf DataTech. That’s because it can’t be measured.

Two, three or four hours of uninterrupted family time without phones, tablets or televisions is worth more than the price of a tee time. As most parents will tell you, it’s invaluable.

It took a global pandemic for everyone to remember that fact. And that, in the end, is the biggest surprise of all.

 

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