Golf’s Post Pandemic Power Play – Positive Progress or False Dawn?  

Mike Wilson
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Golf’s Post Pandemic Power Play – Positive Progress or False Dawn?  

The 8th green on Montgomerie at Carton House - By Kevin Markham

Intro 

For the first two decades of the 21st century, the prognosis for grass roots golf, the recreational side of the royal and ancient game built around established clubs and an increasing number of pay-to-play facilities had offered a gloomy outlook as time and cost pressures, together with an ever-increasing range of other leisure-time activities, saw numbers of regular players if not falling off a cliff, then certainly suffering the slow erosion of mostly older people giving up the game, with far fewer youngsters taking it up to replace them. 

Then, with clubs and courses closing at an alarming rate, at home and abroad, and some of the more pessimistic analysis predicting the end of golf as we know it, reading the last rites to a sport that appeared to have squandered its birth-right and failed to adapt to the times, what appeared to be a further hammer blow – the COVID global pandemic – arrived on the scene and all but shut golf down in keeping with strict lockdown regulations as deaths and serious illness mounted and took their personal and political toll. 

Many in the game – rightly so – railed against the closure of golf courses, the game arguably one of the safest means of getting out, socialising and keeping fit, but over-cautious politicians prevailed, golf, like many other parts of the fabric of life as we thought we knew it, was on its knees, down and close to out. 

But as vaccines were found and administered, effective treatments for the virus became available, both combining to slowly see a downturn in the awful toll COVID-19 would take; subsequently, golf facilities opened up with the realisation that a game played in wide open outdoor spaces and in the clean fresh air was in fact about as safe as things got, clubs and courses seeing an upturn in their fortunes as existing players returned and new converts took to the tees, fairways and greens. 

And even though a game that had been on its knees when COVID-19 struck, potentially an unexpected and unseen saviour came riding to golf’s rescue, and, while the game is not yet out of the woods and the naysayers predicting a bleak future may yet be proved right, the short to medium term portents are as good as they have been for a generation, course owners and operators scarcely believing their good fortune, as, out of doom and gloom has emerged an unexpected and most welcome boom and bloom. 

Post-pandemic, rapid recent recovery is a get-out-of-jail free card for the game and those who run it, a surprise but welcome opportunity to halt the decline and even grow the game for generations to come, ‘Great news,’ says Bunker Mentality, but those responsible for what was as much a stay of execution as it was an opportunity to learn lessons from past decline, let’s just hope those shaping the future of the greatest game in the world avoid past mistakes and grasp with gratitude the fresh start with both hands. 

 

One does not need to cast one’s mind back too far to recall that the recreational side of the game of golf was in trouble, deep trouble, and, whilst a golfing Armageddon was not yet on the cards, a serious and sustained decline in participation was there in plain sight, clear and obvious for all to see, a steadfast refusal to change with the times and in some cases even a denial that trouble was afoot simply perpetuated the predicament, turning a problem into a crisis. 

Just a decade ago, a report by KPMG’s Golf Benchmark consultancy painted a bleak and depressing picture of where the game was at grass roots level – the version played by some 70-million of us around the world as opposed to few thousand who make their living either playing or teaching the game – suggesting that recreational golf and the club and course system that sustain it were in terminal decline.  

In short, The KPMG Golf Benchmark Survey canvassed the views of 350 clubs across Europe and the Middle East, reaching some grim conclusions, namely that both rounds played and revenues generated were down for the calendar year, with under half of all golf facilities – many of which were officially or unofficially up for sale – turned any sort of profit.  

Drilling further down, of those responding to the survey, 43% of clubs and courses in Europe and the Middle East reported a drop in the number of rounds played, 44% saying their revenues had fallen, while less than half (49%) were profitable, a quarter of all respondents posting an actual operating loss. 

Around 65% of golf facilities contacted had slashed operating costs, 45% reducing staff levels, while, in an effort to at least maintain the status quo if not stimulate growth, nearly a fifth (18%) had reduced or even removed joining fees altogether in a last gasp shot at survival. 

In a report that set golf’s alarm bells ringing, course owners and operators in the region’s largest market, Great Britain and Ireland, were the most pessimistic about future prospects, less than half – 44% – envisaged stronger business performance in 2011, with 15% forecasting an actual downturn in commercial prospects going forward. 

The subsequent years between 2011 and 2019, the game of golf in its recreational guise reflected the straitened financial circumstances of the times; following the 2008 global financial crisis, golf clubs and courses inevitably continued to struggle, more of a gradual erosion than a tidal wave of defectors, in essence, members of the ‘baby boomer’ generation were quitting the game, while, it seemed, large swathes of ‘Generation X’ eschewed the game, viewing it as less than cool, unwelcoming and fusty, time consuming and costly and no comparison with more fashionable sports like cycling, or, indeed, online gaming. 

But, as Irish Golfer magazine reported recently, a mini-revival – at worst, more of a slowing of the rate of desertion, at best, standing still than sustained growth – was already underway when the cataclysm that was COVID-19 first reared its ugly head in Ireland, February / March 2020 signalling the start of a two-year rollercoaster for the country, its citizens and its golf industry.  

In keeping with many countries around the world, politicians, admittedly confronted with an unknown and inestimable health emergency reacted – many might say ‘Overreacted,’ the Republic of Ireland, and to a lesser extent Northern Ireland subjected to the most stringent and restrictive of golf course closures anywhere in the world, all courses closed by Governmental decree for a total of 189 days – 27 weeks – between March 2020 and March 2021. 

For its part, Scotland, the so-called, ‘Home of Golf,’ recognised relatively early on that playing golf, with strict restrictions remaining on changing rooms and social facilities as well as playing group numbers – a maximum of three – and common sense rules about social distancing and handling flag-sticks was about as safe as it got, essential exercise and minimal-risk fresh air reopening almost a full year before their Irish counterparts when courses – as opposed to clubhouses and locker rooms – were eventually – and belatedly in many peoples’ minds – permitted to re-open. 

While major championships such as the 2020 Open Championship and a host of European Tour events were either cancelled or postponed, the R&A took stock, commissioning a landmark study by Sports Marketing Surveys in an attempt to gauge the impact of COVID-19 on the game at grass roots level, and the findings were remarkable. 

While the slow and uncertain recovery from those dark days of 2011 was underway, those green shoots of recovery were well and truly flattened, stopped in their tracks as COVID-19 struck as golf facilities were summarily – and with the benefit of hindsight, questionably – closed, the subsequent easing of restrictions on play in 2021 revealed some startling – and welcome – evidence of recovery. 

New figures revealed that rounds played by committed, regular golfers had more than doubled, the result of pent-up demand and a recognition that golf was in fact the ideal sport for otherwise straightened COVID-19 times, while there was also a significant increase in rounds played by female golfers, while the use of driving ranges and Par-3 courses recovered well. 

In the UK, the number of on-course rounds played by adults, which had already started to increase gradually pre-Covid-19, rising from 2.5 million in 2017 to 3 million in 2019 and surging to a high-water-mark of 5.2 million in 2020, the R&A’s latest statistics revealed that 4.8 million golfers played golf in the UK in 2021. 

Speaking exclusively to Irish Golfer, Phil Anderton, Chief Development Officer at The R&A, said, “The data we have collected from the R&A / SMS Sports Marketing Surveys is extremely encouraging, especially in the UK and Ireland, and the game of golf emerges from the human catastrophe of COVID-19 in a remarkably strong position and with the potential to develop even further going forward. 

“We need to make the game more attractive to female golfers and appealing to more and more younger people, and to be innovative in our thinking as to how existing golfers and to those who are new to the game can access and enjoy what I believe is the best game in the world, a sport literally for life,” continued former Scottish Rugby CEO Anderton, who took up the key development role at the St Andrews-based governing body in August 2020 during the height of the pandemic. 

“The R&A has recently broken new ground by taking over and developing a new community golf facility at Lethamhill in Glasgow, which will offer a new and different experience for both existing golfers and new entrants to the game, while the expansion of the TopGolf portfolio in Europe is also exciting.” 

With three TopGolf facilities already operational in the south of England, a new TopGolf Glasgow will open later this year, offering a different sports entertainment perspective and a unique, immersive golf experience aimed at family and friends with a strong sports-related food and drink dimension, with rumours that the US-based company is scoping other possible European sites including, it is rumoured, in Dublin. 

Further evidence that golf may have learned lessons from its past intransigence and strict formality and is thinking – and acting – outside the box became clear with the regular sight of players at Anderton’s home course, the long-established and hitherto uber-traditional Gullane Golf Club now permitting members to walk their dog whilst enjoying a round over one of its three links courses. 

Meanwhile, although floodlit golf is yet to take off in Europe, there are plenty of examples of innovation and creativity as owners and operators adapt to the new post-COVID-19 reality, offering shorter combinations of holes, even in 18-hole courses, greater access to and use of technology including virtual reality, tapping into golf’s huge social media potential, more relaxed etiquette and rules, more pay-to-play and less up-front fees, younger and female coaches, fashion-conscious attire and footwear, equipment rental and, of even-greater significance to youngsters entering the game, more environmentally friendly courses and clubhouses.  

Each of these innovative developments may be, in their own right, relatively small and marginal, but, cumulatively, can help create a sport tailored to the new, post-Covid-19 norm. 

“It is extremely positive that the number of on-course adult golfers remained so strong in Great Britain and Ireland last year,” says Anderton, who replaced Duncan Weir who had held the R&A’s development brief for over 30 years, adding, “The vast majority of lapsed or non-golfers who took up golf during the pandemic have continued to play, with the sport remaining very popular in the use of full-length courses, driving ranges and alternative golf venues in particular.”  

Concluding, the 56-year-old Anderton, who St Andrews insiders consider to be in pole position for the top job when CEO Martin Slumbers (60) retires, said: “Golfers are enjoying positive experiences of the sport, supported by a wide range of participation initiatives and positive communication around the benefits of the sport for both physical and mental health. It is important to maintain this momentum and ensure golfers enjoy the sport at all levels.” 

For his part, Englishman Slumbers, who joined the R&A from a senior post in the financial services sector says of Anderton’s appointment, “Phil joins us at a time when the importance of developing golf around the world and building momentum on the growing interest in the sport has never been more important. 

“He is very well placed to harness the investment we make to grow golf in so many different ways and ensure it is managed sustainably,” explains the R&A chief, stressing the significance of Anderton’s role by saying, “Phil will play a key role in shaping our future strategy and delivering our commitment to ensuring golf is thriving in 50 years’ time.” 

According to the R&A and Sports Marketing Surveys (SMS), the number of total golfers globally has increased from 61 million to 66.6 million in a five-year growth period, surpassing the previous high mark of 61.6 million set in 2012, the measure including club members and non-members, independent, peripatetic golfers playing nine or 18 holes or using driving ranges in markets where course availability is limited. 

This surge was recently highlighted in the 2021 European Golf Participation Report, which revealed that over 10.6 million golfers now enjoy playing full-length courses on the continent – a healthy increase from the 7.9 million when last monitored in 2016.  

And, as COVID-19 recedes into the rear-view mirror if not entirely out-of-sight, the global picture is also encouraging, evidence revealing the regions experiencing the largest rises include Asia (20.9 million to 23.3 million); Europe (7.9 million to 10.6 million – driven largely by Great Britain and Ireland 3.6 million to 5.7 million); and North America (29.9 million to 30.6 million). 

Just how much of recreational golf’s recent uptick in participation can be attributed to strategic and operational decisions taken by the custodians of the game is of course questionable, some wishful thinking and the benefit of hindsight suggesting the received wisdom being that worldwide and national governing bodies, a plethora of industry organisations and almost 40,000 courses and clubs around the world offered more talk than action and were like rabbits stuck in the headlights as, year-on-year, growth eluded them as the popularity of the game slipped slowly away, like sand through their fingers, the forward direction of travel post-Covid-19 more of a pleasant and unexpected surprise, one of the few advantages of a global pandemic that, to date, has taken an estimated 6.25m lives worldwide, with half-a-billion currently infected. 

Meanwhile, it is also worth remembering that much of this flatlining and subsequent creeping decline took place during the era of the most charismatic professional player of all time, Tiger Woods, who could quadruple TV viewing figures at a stroke when in contention at a tournament and, as the Woods era draws to a close, the game is undoubtedly left with many, many fine players but very, very few personalities and none – not even a fetching Rory McIlroy – has the allure Woods brought to the game. 

Hopefully – but far from certainly – another global pandemic is as unlikely as it is unthinkable, and golf can – and must – built upon its recent resurgence; whether pre-planned or sheer luck is immaterial, avoiding mistakes and misjudgements and learning lessons from the reasons golf got into structural decline in the first place. 

But there are other dangers lying in wait; a worldwide economic squeeze and cost-of-living crisis won’t help, nor will the current global geopolitical challenges foster confidence. 

However, by building the entertainment aspects of TopGolf, and other lifestyle options, showing maximum flexibility on what constitutes a round of golf and purging the game with its inherent, infuriating formality and latent misogyny, golf can surely thank its lucky stars courtesy of its highly unlikely ally – Covid-19 – and forge a prosperous, contemporary, innovative and interactive future for itself. 

If a game that openly lends itself to the IT revolution cannot keep its costs down, tap into a Next Generation and a largely untapped female audience that are both fashion conscious and fitness orientated, a joyous game that is played primarily in the fresh air and must get its environmental act together, then it will lose the momentum it has recently gained, thus squandering what could and should be a prosperous and popular future. 

It’s up to those who run, shape and evolve the game over the next defining decade and beyond, if the royal and ancient game fails to comprehensively reinvent itself. In Bunker Mentality’s mind, hope springs eternal, but, based on past performance, golf’s future remains uncertain and fraught with challenges, thus, the jury must remain out, verdict pending.  

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