Encouraging golf participation trends for 2019—a 30-plus-year golf executive dishes on an optimistic state of the industry

February 26, 2019
Getty creative images

Steve Debenport/Getty Images

Just like any industry, golf has had its share of disruption over the past decade or so. Most golfers and casual observers of the industry would agree that our sport has a ways to go in terms of improving participation numbers, making our game more diverse and embracing technology in other ways. But most golfers would also be interested to know that the conversations about continuing to make golf more progressive continue to be happening. And they're probably stronger than ever before. After last month's PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, we caught up with CEO of the World Golf Foundation, Steve Mona, who as its leader, sits on a number of significant committees and has unique insights to the conversations going on at the highest levels of golf, particularly participation. Mona has attended every PGA Show since 1994—and his first was 1984, having missed just a handful in between, so we sought his perspective on the industry.

Steve Mona NGF.jpg


Having attended many PGA Shows in your time, how would you gauge the PGA Show and the sense of optimism of the industry?

"My general impressions, I felt like there was a good, strong energy level there just in terms of the exhibits themselves and the people who were present. And I think that was reflective of a good, general sense of optimism in the industry for 2019. Keep in mind that my time at the Show is not really spent on the Show floor talking to exhibitors—it's mostly spent in meeting rooms during those three days. So I can speak better to that piece, and to that end, I was very encouraged by what took place. We have, in my mind anyway, several important initiatives that are gaining momentum.

"One of them is #InviteHer, which is an initiative that was jointly founded by the World Golf Foundation and the LPGA Women's Network to invite women to the game. The 24 million or so of us who play the game, we have women in our lives—whether it's a spouse, co-worker, friend, fellow community member—who we can encourage and really ask one of them to play the game with us in 2019. And to actively do it. It's not, 'Hey, we should play golf some time.' But more so: 'Hey, I have a tee time at this time, would you like to join me?' Or, 'Hey, there's a clinic that's coming to town in a couple of weeks, let's go.' Or, 'Hey, let's go to a Topgolf.'

"The second thing I wanted to mention is we've been doing a substantial amount of work around diversity and inclusion in the game. Last week, we hosted a diversity roundtable at which over 100 people were present. And that included two types of people: One, people from the industry representing most of the major golf organizations. But what made it unique were a lot of people attended from local grassroots programs around the country that are bringing minorities into the game. And these are various initiatives from various communities across the country. This is the second year we did this, and we're making substantial progress as a linking agent, as we like to call ourselves, between these grassroots programs and the national organizations. And I can tell you, without any fear of contradiction, that for just about everyone in that room, that was the first time that particular group of people have been in a room together. And they're passionate about the game. And usually when that happens, good things come of that. And that's been the case. So I point to those couple of things as examples I was encouraged about the PGA Show."

How do you assess our efforts thus far in attracting women golfers and minorities, and how important is that going forward?

"It's critically important in golf. One of our stated objectives is for golf to look like America does. And the two areas where we do not align with how America looks, generally, are in respect to women and minorities. With respect to women, as you know, they are 50+ percent of the U.S. population, but 24 percent of the golf population. But encouragingly, more than 35 percent of beginners are women. That's really encouraging. Similarly, as it relates to junior golfers, it's actually the same number—35 percent of junior golfers are women. So if you subscribe to the notion that today's juniors are tomorrow's golfers, then the face of golf will change. On the women's side, 41 percent of off-course-only participants are women. (Off-course being Topgolf, simulators, ranges.) Not to get too lost in the stats, but if you study them like we do, it really bodes well for the future of the game—if these pathways end up bringing women into the game on what I would call a permanent basis, so they become committed golfers. Introducing them to the game, getting them involved off-course is good, getting them involved is a junior is a tremendous pathway, that's how a lot of us got started. And as a general beginner, that's a pathway, too. But as any golfer knows, there's a pathway from going through trial to commitment, and that's really where we have to do our best work as an industry. So I'm very encouraged by the numbers that show us women are coming into the game. And in the area of non-Caucasian participants, 26 percent of beginners are non-Caucasian, compared to 18 percent in golf generally. And 38 of off-course-only participants are non-Caucasian, again, compared to 18 percent. So that's more than double. Again, that's very encouraging. That means we have the opportunity to really convert these interested golfers into truly committed golfers. Now we have so many outlets folks can try golf, including the fact that 75 percent of courses in this country are public golf facilities. Trial is easy. There's still a long way between trial and commitment. And that's where the future success of the game will be won or lost is moving people from trial to commitment.

"I would also point to the beginning of the PGA Show at the main stage on Wednesday morning. When the Show first opened. I've been a number of these panels and delivered quick speeches over the years. The first two presentations/panels this year were all about women's golfer. And all the panels, in exception to yours truly who made some introductory remarks, were all women as well. And I was sitting with half a dozen or so women in the "green room" before we went on for the second presentation. And I made the observation: "Do you think in the history of the PGA Show, has there been two panels in a row, let alone opening the Show, that have been strictly made up of women, and strictly devoted to discussing women's golf? The point is, to me, that was impressive for two perspectives: We just discussed how important female golfers can be for the future growth of our game. But secondly, it shows me the progressiveness of the PGA of America, and how they understand how important this sector is to do that. Ultimately, it was their decision to have those panels and lead with them, and create that level of visibility. So that, to me, was heartening and impressive to see. And it gives me optimism—because golf industry gets accused of just giving lip service to things when it comes to certain initiatives or areas of focus. But this tells me that this most definitely isn't the case as it relates to growing women's golf. And I think that's critically important."

These pathways—Topgolf, Driveshack, etc.—have been so great at introducing people to golf. It's early still, but I'm wondering, based on your observations, and studying the data up to now, how is golf doing as a whole in terms of turning interested folks into true golfers?

"I would say there's more effort and resources devoted to this goal than there ever has been in my time in the industry, which is 39 years, not that I've been doing this my whole time. And of course, many of these off-course activities are relatively new. The truth is, we all understand the importance of it. The piece we think is encouraging, particularly when you look at the golf entertainment models, so Topgolf, Driveshack and in most cases simulator facilities with social components, that's introducing people to the game in a fun, relaxed, social and non-intimidating environment. And these things help to overcome some of the perceptions of golf as being not welcoming and too traditional. So to get people into it in an environment like that, it brings people into golf in a way they associate with it being fun and relaxing, and doing things with friends and the things we think will ultimately cause them into the on-course experience. I think it's like anything else: The way you get exposed to any activity has a direct influence on whether that's something you enjoy doing. Traditionally, golf was always a sport you were introduced at a golf course. And it was always hard at the start. Now, compare that to how people are getting their start to it. There's drinks involved, there's your friends involved, and it's a more welcoming experience. It's relaxed, there's no pressure. Lots of laughs. And some level of success, that's the beauty of Topgolf, for sure. You hit one of the targets, you get points and you contribute to the game. That's a long way of saying we understand the importance—there isn't a straight line conversion table set up, just yet. But we've had dozens and dozens of conversations with the people at Topgolf on how do you facilitate conversion of their loyal customers to becoming golfers. From their perspective, they're in the business of keeping people at their facilities. But at the same time, they see the bigger picture in golf, and they're great about that. It's happening—we're certainly highly, highly interested in seeing that conversion being successful."

The first returns, what has led to the initial success of converting folks?

"It's two things: The first is how they're exposed to it in the fun, low-pressure, relaxed environment. And they say, 'Well, I had one perception of the game, but that's not what I experienced here.' So now they're more likely to take it further. And the second piece, and this needs to be emphasized, is that on-course facilities are much more welcoming and customer-centric, and experience-centric than they've ever been. And I'm not saying all 15,000 courses weren't before and they all are now. But speaking in general terms, facilities understand they're in the entertainment business as much as they are in the golf business. And they're competing for discretionary dollars. Take the avid golfers out of the equation. Folks like us will always have golf as a part of our lives if we can. I'm talking about the casual golfer. They, very much, view golf as one of many things as they do. Avid golfers, it's in our DNA. It is what we do. So facility operators need to cater to the avid golfer, certainly, because that's driving the economic engine, but they're much more cognizant that there are people who want to play here and want to experience golf, and want to experience it differently, so they have to cater to that. So being a facility operator is no easy proposition these days. You have the core golfer and you have to make sure the experience is what they want. But if you do things at the expense of the casual golfer, you'll wake up one day and you won't have that pipeline of potential new golfers, who should be the stream of people behind the core golfers, who might be exiting the game at some point for a variety of reasons."

So it's very much a balance to appealing to both crowds. I wonder, too, because golf is so difficult—especially as a beginning golfer, how do we make it easier on them? And that's a tough question to answer because golf is such a difficult sport even for the avid player. But how we somehow make it easier to attract this level of golfer?

"There's no question it's critically important to figuring out this puzzle. And golf is sure difficult. But let me make this point: Golf isn't a tough sport to play. But it is a tough sport to play well. If you think about it, just to go out and play, provided you can make contact, you're playing golf by every definition. You might be shooting a big number, but you're still playing. It's funny: Do people say bowling is a tough sport? Because most people aren't going out there and bowling a 200 game the first time they go out there. What bowling alleys do, they throw up the bumpers in the gutters so you're guaranteed points. So that's pretty smart. I do maintain that, as a lifelong golfer, who's playing 50 years and never got below a 7-handicap, it's certainly a tough game to play well. But just to go out and whack it around, it's not tough to play. But to play well certainly.

"I think there are ways to learn the game that are more user-friendly than ever before. "Get Golf Ready" is a great example of that. It's an industry-branded, player-development, welcome-to-golf program for adults. And the beauty of it is threefold: One, it teaches golf from the hole backward. So your first lesson is literally on the putting green. And that's all it is. Let me play out a scenario: It's a husband and wife, and one of the spouses goes out and gets a lesson , and they come back and say, 'You know, that was fun. I made a 15-foot putt: I never thought I'd do that. Maybe this game isn't so hard.' How much more of an inviting experience is that, rather than putting a first-timer on the range, in front of a bunch of people, trying to hit 3-irons down the line? So that's one. Two, every lesson comes with an on-the-course experience with that instructor. And thirdly, they learn the conventions of the game. Some parts about golf are not intuitive. If you look at some of the survey data, some of the things that are most intimidating to beginners have nothing to do with swinging a golf club. It's: 'What's the deal with this bag drop? How much should I tip these guys?' It's mostly little etiquette things that come naturally to us, but are intimidating to someone who's never experienced it before. So 'Get Golf Ready' breaks that down. And the fourth thing is that these lessons are typically in groups, usually of eight, and that helps being in a big group. And that's a way to learn the game in a fun, relaxed setting.

"Golfers should keep an eye out for when "Get Golf Ready" goes live in the next couple of weeks. The program will be able to connect people directly to facilities where teachers can help them learn the game in a casual setting. It will be a great resource for anyone thinking about getting in the game."