While golf participation is stable, Tiger effect gives industry a boost
As golf industry leaders gathered in the nation’s capital Wednesday, there were likely self-congratulatory messages, obligatory selfies and a celebration by those who see further proof that they continue to grow the game.
But there should also be a moment of thanks to the man who has the biggest impact on the game worldwide just by showing up and, even more significantly, by winning the most coveted major championship in golf.
Tiger Woods wasn’t in Washington for National Golf Day, but there was plenty of talk about the impact his fifth Masters victory has on the industry. According to the latest Golf Industry Report released by the National Golf Foundation, 74 million people watched or read about golf without playing in 2018, an increase of about 12 percent year over year. Part of the growth is “attributable to Woods,” the NGF says.
“When you go beyond the hard-core golf enthusiast and you’re trying to capture the casual masses, it is Tiger. It is only Tiger,” says Patrick Rishe, director of the Sports Business Program at Washington University in St. Louis, when asked about the impact of Woods’ latest win at Augusta National.
It’s no secret that golf faces tough challenges – as demonstrated in the continued trend of course closures in the U.S. (198.5 18-hole equivalent courses closed last year while 12.5 of the same type of courses opened) and the competition the sport faces in trying to attract busy adults and teens who don’t have free time or the resources to play.
But a Tiger resurgence changes the conversation around the state of the game, sports economists say.
“Even if you’re not a fan of his, you can at least appreciate the moment, if you’re being unbiased. You can appreciate the sense of history, and it adds that cool factor back to the sport when he’s playing as well as he’s playing,” Rishe says.
Even if Woods, 43, doesn’t add to his 15 major championships, the industry benefits just from having him compete on Tour.
“It’s going to be great for golf to potentially ride a second wave of Tiger Woods even if all he’s doing is contending; he doesn’t have to win by 15 shots,” says Todd McFall, an assistant teaching professor in economics at Wake Forest. “As long as he’s contending, it’s going to be really great for golf for as long as it happens.
“If you called me in a year and Tiger Woods won another tournament and contended in three or four, golf’s going to be in a lot better place than it would be otherwise.”
Outside of the Tiger effect, the National Golf Foundation provides a fairly positive outlook for the industry, not surprisingly, reporting that the sport’s participation base remains stable. It says about 24.2 million people played golf on a course in 2018, which was up from 23.8 million the previous year. The NGF counts anyone over age 6 in that participation figure.
The report says another 9.3 million exclusively played an off-course form of the game at facilities such as Topgolf or Drive Shack. The game’s overall participant pool was 33.5 million, up 4 percent over last year.
Steve Mona, executive director of We Are Golf, describes the industry as stable and evolving. “Golf used to mean an 8 a.m. tee time wearing khaki slacks, a golf shirt, a visor on forward and metal spikes, playing with a regular group you’ve been playing with for 10 years,” Mona says.
“But now it can mean 8 p.m. wearing cargo shorts and flip flops, an untucked shirt and a hat on backwards at a Topgolf or a Drive Shack. Just like almost any other form of recreation has evolved, so has golf. What we need to do as an industry, in my judgment, is to be open to the fact that people are going to come into the game in different ways.”
Mona acknowledges that not every person who hit balls at Topgolf will go on to play 18 holes on a course. But he’s optimistic that quite a few Topgolfers will get hooked. “We definitely think that that’s complementary to the on-course experience.”