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Why golf's trending demographics are a positive story for the future

July 11, 2023
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Illustration by Chloe Zola

Among golfers there is a belief that the world would be a better place if more people played golf. Part of the narrative for the PGA Tour-Saudi tortured alliance is that it will promote the game as a force of good in society. They’re right but not for the reasons they think.

It’s failure at golf that teaches us how to live, not the winning of trophies or millions. It’s falling down and getting back up and falling down again. It’s going for a green you cannot reach. It’s building confidence on a scrap heap of foozles, slices, chunks and misses. It’s loving a game that so often doesn’t love you back. It’s when the best player in the world loses nine out of 10 tournaments but still is No. 1. Bobby Jones called us “the dogged victims of inexorable fate.” It’s why the winner buys the drinks, not the loser. That’s the mad genius of golf.

I searched the sporting literature and found it in the writings of the Master himself, P.G. Wodehouse, who long ago told us:

• “It is one of the chief merits of golf that non-success at the game induces a certain amount of decent humility, which keeps a man from pluming himself on any petty triumphs he may achieve in other walks of life.”

• “Golf acts as a corrective against sinful pride. I attribute the insane arrogance of the later Roman emperors almost entirely to the fact that, never having played golf, they never knew that strange chastening humility which is engendered by a topped chip shot. If Cleopatra had been ousted in the first round of the Ladies’ Singles, we should have heard a lot less of her proud imperiousness.”

I suppose Wodehouse writing today would say: “If only Kim Jong Un had been told, ‘No, sir, you didn’t make 11 holes-in-one in your first round of golf. In fact, you didn’t even make any pars; you’re just a pathetic hacker like the rest of us.’ Or if Donald Trump had played in a real club championship instead of the 18 club championships he thought he won, he would not be wearing that hat. Or if any of the Kardashian women had to follow the club’s dress code or if Elon Musk had been a caddie, there’s no telling what world we would live in.”

For the first time off-course golfers exceed the number of on-course golfers in the United States.

That’s the world I imagine today when I read the National Golf Foundation’s latest report. The big news is that the number of off-course golfers for the first time ever exceeds the number of on-course golfers in the United States. The NGF now counts 41.1 million golfers in the U.S. overall—15.5 million off-course only, 13.2 million on-course only, and 12.4 million who play both.

This might leave you scratching your head. What’s an off-course golfer? These are people who play the game or hit balls by swinging a golf club at an entertainment center, indoors or outdoors, sometimes against a screen but often into an open field under lights at night using technology that allows players to measure their impact conditions and/or play computerized holes at famous golf courses. They’re playing golf just as surely as the kids at the playground shooting baskets are playing basketball.

The leading proponent of the off-course game is Topgolf, a kind of casino-meets-driving-range with lots of music, alcohol and chicken wings, which has 80 triple-decker facilities dotted strategically in urban environments across the country (up from three in 2006). It’s owned by Callaway, but to give you an idea of the expected reversal of fortune, the new corporate name is Topgolf Callaway, and its success has created a whole category of competitors like Drive Shack, Big-Shots Golf and Game Golf. In South Korea, the world’s third-largest golf market (behind the United States and Japan), more golf is played indoors than outdoors, and the leader is Golfzon.

A decade ago, when the NGF surveyed non-golfers, 7 million said they were “very interested” in taking up golf. Last year, with a kick from COVID, that number tripled to 21 million, and there’s a strong indication that off-course opportunities to play the game will provide a feeder system to golf on green grass.

If you look at the demographics, it’s a positive story for the future: Off-course golfers are on average 15 years younger, 50 percent more likely to be women and twice as likely to be non-white. In real numbers that means the average age is 31 off-course versus 46 on-course; 42 percent are women compared with 28 percent on-course; 41 percent are people of color versus only 22 percent on-course. Annual household income is equally affluent; 41 versus 42 percent earn more than $100,000 a year.

It’s only one sliver of evidence, but this hand-written letter on lined yellow paper says: “I am a 13-year-old boy that lives in Colorado. I have gone to Topgolf a bunch. When I go, I always have lots of fun. My first time when I walked in, my eyes were popping out from what you have created. I loved all the colors and the flags and the levels, and I really like how you can see how far you hit the ball. You made me fall in love with golf. You encouraged me to play golf professionally, and so I tried playing a real course, and I shot 102! So I thank you for starting my golf career. Sincerely, Donny Gettle, Englewood, Colo.”

As Wodehouse said, “Golf, like measles, should be caught young.” The differentiator seems to be whether people hit good golf shots early and often. NGF research confirms that most Topgolf participants (88 percent) are experiencing “shot euphoria.” Among those who played Topgolf first, 89 percent said it got them to try green-grass golf. “There’s every reason to believe,” says Artie Starrs, Topgolf ’s CEO, “it’s going to grow the pie rather than simply compete for the same time and money.”

We need to practice the same humility that the game teaches us so that new golfers feel welcome to come in and stick around. Are they real or a mirage? Wodehouse once postulated: “They were real golfers, for real golf is a thing of the spirit, not of mere mechanical excellence of a stroke.”