While the National Golf Foundation's yearly study on participation may not be as statistically rigorous as a Fortune 500 company's annual report, it is as powerful an indication of the game's health -- and hope -- as any Presidential State of the Union speech.
And the review of 2014, despite indications from several quarters to the contrary during the year, seems to suggest the state of golf's union is at the very least stable, and may be trending in a surprisingly positive direction.
For the third straight year, the NGF reports the number of golfers in 2014 was near 25 million. This number (24.7 million) matches the figure for 2013, but is down from 2010 (26 million) and 17 percent off the peak in 2005 of 30 million. It also matches the pre-Tiger Woods number of 24.7 million in 1995. According to the report, that number has a margin of error of plus-or-minus 875,000 golfers.
Under the NGF's methodology, the participation rate number is based on the estimated number of people ages 6 and over who played golf, on a golf course, at least once during the survey year. The survey is part of a larger survey of 40,000 Americans conducted by the Physical Activity Council regarding their participation in over 100 sports and fitness activities.
According to the NGF, 8.5 percent of those surveyed indicated they played golf in 2014, but while participation rates have remained steady, the NGF cites data from PGA PerformanceTrak that says golfers played more often when conditions were playable. Rounds played per "playable day" were up nearly 1 percent in 2014 vs. 2013. The NGF says core golfers -- those who play eight rounds per year -- played two more rounds per year (32) than they did in 2005 when golf participation (in terms of numbers of golfers) was at its peak.
While the number of core golfers, occasional golfers and junior golfers all stayed relatively the same, the survey also tracked the number of golfers who played golf for the first time ever in 2014 at approximately 2 million, consistent with 2013. According to the report, the largest percentage of beginning golfers was in the 18-39 age group, accounting for more than half of all beginning golfers. The report says that roughly 4 million people began or returned to the game in 2014.
But the NGF report also tracked interest in the game among these latent golfers, what it calls "individuals who did not play golf during the survey year but expressed interest in playing golf now." The number of latent golfers (32 million) has grown every year since 2011, when it was 27 million.
Among other highlights of the NGF study:
-- The highest percentage of core golfers came in the 30-39 age group (18.8 percent of all golfers), followed by the 40-49 (17.6) group. There were a larger percentage of golfers under the age of 40 than there were over the age of 50 (47 percent to 35 percent).
-- The household income for the average golfer is $93,000, but nearly 40 percent have a household income less than $75,000. Still, the largest percentage of all golfers (27 percent) have a household income over $125,000.
-- Participation rates in New England and the Midwest regions (Ohio to North Dakota) were the highest. The lowest were in the South Central (Kentucky to Texas).