National Golf Foundation sees signs of encouragement in latest annual participation report

Senior golfer teeing off on golf course.

Dougal Waters

Following the recent report that the golf industry drove $84.1 billion in economic activity in the United States in 2016, an increase of 22.1 percent since 2011, the National Golf Foundation offered more modestly encouraging numbers about the health of the game with Tuesday’s release of its annual Golf Industry Report.

In 2017, 23.8 million people played golf on a course, roughly the same number as the previous year. Participation off-course, in the form of play at facilities such as Topgolf or at facilities with on-screen simulators, though, rose 7 percent, to 21.7 million. The total number of golfers who played on-course or exclusively off-course settled at 32.1 million, slightly more than in 2016.

Of the 23.8 million on-course players, the NGF defined 19.5 million (roughly 95 percent) as “committed” golfers, individuals who say golf is one of several ways they like to spend their recreational time. That number was down from 20.1 million from the previous year, but 2016 had been the first time since 2011 that the industry had seen year-over-year growth. These golfers account for approximately 95 percent of all rounds played, so they are viewed as a critical group, and according to World Golf Foundation CEO Steve Mona.

“That number remains a solid number, it’s stayed pretty steady," Mona said. “And those people are not going anywhere. Unless they have a health problem, they’re going to be golfers until they can’t be any more. It’s part of their lifestyle and who they are.”

Breaking down participation by age, young adults (ages 18 to 34) accounted for 6.2 million of the on-course golfers (or 26 percent). That total remains the same from 2016, “contradicting claims that the sport continues to lose millennial golfers” according to the NGF.

Meanwhile, the number of newcomers to the game continued a four-year increase, rising to 2.6 million. These beginners are a more diverse lot than the overall golf population in that 35 percent are women (compared to 24 percent overall), 26 percent are non-caucasian (18 percent overall) and 70 percent are under age 35 (37 percent overall).

In looking at the breakdown of participation seen in the report, Mona describes the population of golfers in the U.S. as "evolving."

“We’re going to be at a tipping point pretty soon,” Mona said. “What we’re seeing now is participation in off-course activities is getting close to the same amount as on-course. I’m guessing in the next two or three years you’re going to see as many people total participating off course than on course.”

While the number of overall golfers saw a small increase, rounds played for 2017 fell to 456 million from 469 million in 2016, a 2.7 percent decline. According to the NGF, that decrease “is consistent within average weather-related fluctuation of 2 to 3 percent.” However, it was a lower number than was reported in 2014 (458 million) and 2015 (466 million).

The industry continued to see a retraction in golf facilities, with 205.5 courses closing in 2017 while 15.5 courses opened, a 1.5 percent net decline to 14,794 facilites. Renovation, rather than new construction, is the largest current source of U.S. golf course development activiating with roughly 1,100 course renovations taking place since 2006.

As for golf’s overall reach, that number was calculated at 97.6 million, a 3.2 percent increase from 2016, thanks to a rise in the number of people who watch and or read about golf, but don’t play, to 65.5 million.