Whilst the effects of Coronavirus on the game of golf means little by comparison with its deadly impact on human lives, it is clear that this is no ordinary emergency, either for the world in general or the royal and ancient game.
With courses closed in many countries, the knock-on effect on the game’s supply chain, from retail to club pro’s teaching fees, the multi-billion-dollar golf tourism industry and elite events cancelled or postponed on all the professional circuits, it is clear the game of golf has been driven to a grinding halt by an invisible, previously unknown microscopic virus.
And, with the game already, at best holding its own, and at worst, in slow, terminal decline, here Mike Wilson looks at the evidence and attempts to assess the true ramifications of the viral phenomenon known as ‘COVID-19.’
Out with the old, in with the new, and not simply in the context of consigning 2019 to history and ushering in its replacement, 2020; it was on 31st December last year that the World Health Organisation (WHO) office in China began hearing the first reports of a hitherto-unrecognised virus behind a number of pneumonia cases in Wuhan, a city in Eastern China of over 11-million people.
For context, at the time of writing, the virus named by the WHO as,‘COVID-19’ has charged through the world in the same way as Tiger Woods – in his prime – would surely and steadily march his way through a Sunday leaderboard, only to much more sinister and deadly effect.
Come Easter-time, the virus had claimed almost 100,000 lives worldwide with two-million confirmed cases, an underestimate some say of as much as 100%, taking into account those suffering COVID-19 symptoms but not included in these already grizzly statistics as testing had not been widely carried out.
Barely a country in the world remains unaffected; complex national, international and intercontinental travel has ensured this virulent disease has spread with alarming speed and deadly effect. China, which suffered first is now recovering, same in South Korea, but in Europe in general, and especially in Spain, France, Italy and the UK – four affluent countries with well-developed public health systems – combined deaths have reached 60,000 and still rising.
Meanwhile, in the USA, the heartbeat of the global economy and the epicentre of ‘Planet Golf,’ 20,000 deaths have already been reported, more are expected to follow, but yet, remarkably, where three-quarters of her 50 states are still permitting golf to be played, including, incredibly, New York State where around 10,000 people have already lost their lives to the virus.
All of which is very interesting – indeed shocking – and provides context, but back here on the aforementioned ‘Planet Golf,’ the game is now in the most perilous condition it has arguably ever been, certainly since World War II.
The big difference between then and now is that golf is a fully-fledged member of the international sports entertainment industry, whereas, in the 1940s, it was a smaller, more one-dimensional pastime, which mostly affluent people played near to their homes, a handful of elite players making a modest living out of competitive golf, an afterthought in media and marketing terms.
Looking at golf, 21st century style, the game has grown into a global sport, played regularly by at least 70-million people in members’ clubs, country clubs, pay-as-you-play facilities, courses on real-estate condominiums, public courses, new-fangled Top Golf family entertainment centres, even driving ranges.
According to the R&A Golf Around the World Report, as of the end of 2018, there were 38,864 golf courses in 209 of the world’s 249 countries; many reported an initial COVID-19 surge in footfall as people were encouraged to, ‘Work from home,’ but once the deadly effects of the virus became clear, first in their F&B operations and then onto their golf courses themselves, numbers have plummeted.
The 2018 R&A report says, ‘The sport is geographically concentrated, with 78% of the world supply of courses located in the top 10 golfing countries, namely the United States, Japan, Canada, England, Australia, Germany, France, Republic of Korea, Sweden and Scotland,’ and there will not be a single one of those facilities not feeling a very painful pinch from COVID-19.
And, don’t forget, the game of golf went into 2020 and what was rapidly to become a pandemic and public health emergency in less than rude health. Participation levels were said to be stalled, an over-optimistic analysis according to many, especially in traditional markets such as Europe, North America, Australasia and South Africa.
A dozen years on from the crippling 2008 global financial crash, from which a significant number of clubs closed, never to re-open. In the USA alone, 205 golf facilities shut down in 2017, reducing the total to 14,800, a further 100 in both 2018 and 2019, and a 2020 dominated and enfeebled by COVID-19 could easily see two, three or even four times those numbers go to the wall.
Indeed, it would not be surprising, if the depth of the economic impact of COVID-19 is as grave as many commentators are predicting, those 38,864 courses operating in 2018 could fall to 35,000, or even, in a Doomsday scenario, 30,000 and reducing to 25,000 as the cash-strapped and time-poor amongst us stick to those cheaper, less time consuming lockdown activities we chose while golf was away.
Cycling, walking, running, wild swimming and tennis can be expected to hoover-up a swathe of currently inactive golfers, whilst others will find alternative recreational, family-friendly pastimes more in keeping with their lifestyles and most-likely depleted disposable incomes.
And, from a participatory standpoint, golf already faced a serious structural challenge, even before Coronavirus had started its deadly and destructive rout of many nations social and economic fabric.
The game of golf blossomed and bloomed from the late 1960s / early 1970s onwards as the, ‘Baby boomer’ generation, blessed with more free time and discretionary spending power than their predecessors, and inspired first by the ‘Big 3,’ Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player.
Then a conveyor belt delivered the next wave of charismatic global players such as Seve Ballesteros, Greg Norman, Tom Watson, Ernie Els, Nick Faldo, Jose Maria Olazabal and Payne Stewart, before the advent of Tiger Woods, who, despite his global appeal, outstanding success and undoubted star-spangled value failed to halt a serious slide in participation in golf.
Even despite the Woods effect, this has not stopped the number of rounds played in the USA falling on average by 5% year-on-year since 2017, worse is now sure to follow, Tiger at best appearing to have slowed the decline, which now seems irreversible, a parallel with health experts currently attempting to slow the spread of the virus cannot be escaped.
For its part, Europe has lost around 150,000 regular golfers since 2017, a not insignificant number, whilst, in 2020 in Japan, which boasts almost half of Asia’s courses, golf participation has dropped by approaching 50% since 1996, according to the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper.
The direct, immediate effects of Coronavirus are certain to exacerbate the worldwide decline, whilst the consequential losses of disposable income and loss of recreational free time will see golf hit harder than most, especially as its core demographic, as the ‘Baby-boomers,’ either die or give up, whilst there appears little appetite amongst enough Millennials and members of Generation Z which might plug the gap, let alone force a turnaround in golf’s fortunes.
A significant proportion of the total turnover in global golf is equipment and apparel sales, worth US$13.4-billion in 2018, according to the World Golf Report but between the first COVID-19 seen in China towards the end of last year and the virus’s relentless progress into Europe and now the USA, sales are reported to be down a staggering 75% – 80% year-on-year as courses and on-site pro shops close, high street retail outlets are locked around the world takes a heavy toll.
Golf could count on retail therapy no more.
As a result, the Coronavirus outbreak has wiped US$17-billion off Nike’s Stock Market valuation, whilst Callaway, another big player in the golf equipment and apparel market saw a 21% fall in sales in February alone and continues to tumble as COVID-19 hits the golf sector in general and America in particular with brutal force.
And, with international travel off limits to all but essential journeys, the global golf tourism industry, worth, according to trade body, the International Association of Golf Tour Operators (IAGTO) a reported US$16 – US$18-billion annually has, as one major Asian tour operator who did not wish to be named, “Fallen off a cliff, and that’s just the impact of the virus itself,” adding, “Then we have the economic fallout and there’s no getting away from it. COVID-19 is going to take the industry a long time to get over.”
IAGTO CEO Peter Walton struck a slightly more optimistic tone in his annual golf tourism survey, saying, “While golf tourism is not immune to global or regional crises – be they economic, security, environmental or health by nature – a downturn in visitor arrivals often goes hand in hand with a tightening of belts [but] we have seen over the past two decades that golf travel bounces back quicker than most other tourism industry sectors once the risk or fear has run its course.”
That there is not a single aspect of the golf business, geographical, tourism, participation, professional circuits and events – including, it is possible, the once-postponed ‘Majors,’ and even possibly the 2020 Ryder Cup – manufacturing and retail, golf facilities, media and marketing, means the impact on the game is sure to be both long and deep.
Add into the mix that the world appeared to have – in part at least – not only fallen out of love with golf, but was also in serious and sustained decline over time, the royal and ancient game is being badly buffeted by what is a ‘Perfect storm.’
Whether golf will emerge once COVID-19 has either been at best defeated, or, at worst, a vaccine has been found, is not – yet – in serious doubt, but, in the same way as the world at large will be a different place when the Coronavirus pandemic has blown itself out or been mitigated against, so too will the game of golf. It’s not so much another brick out of an already crumbling wall but eroding and destabilising the very foundations on which a 500-year-old sporting pyramid has been built.
And, when the foundations are compromised, it does not take too many adverse headwinds to bring the entire edifice as we know it come tumbling down, but one can only hope that, to paraphrase the famous quote from iconic American author Mark Twain, ‘Reports of [golf’s] death has been greatly exaggerated.’
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