NGF releases positive trends not seen since the Tiger Woods era

Upticks in areas such as off-course participation create a huge opportunity for the sport

David Lorentz — NGF
David Lorentz, chief research officer for the National Golf Foundation, talks about the impact being made on golf via social media by celebrities.

ORLANDO, Fla. — At one point during his 40-minute presentation on the state of golf at the PGA Show on Wednesday, National Golf Foundation chief research officer David Lorentz clicked on contrasting video slides highlighting golf’s media coverage five years ago compared to pandemic times.

It was a 30-second tutorial on polar opposites.

“It wasn’t long ago that people were making a racket about golf’s decline and potential demise,” Lorentz said. “Today, the narrative is decidedly positive, people talking about how golf is booming. Headlines do matter — and right now it sure feels like we’re the media darling.”

The National Golf Foundation, the game’s golden standard for golf facts and figures, released a bevy of positive and upward trending metrics associated with more people playing golf over the last 24 months, in large part to the COVID-19 outbreak that geared activities to outside, open spaces.

Golf fit that category to a tee.

The sport hasn’t experienced such an uptick in many measured categories since the Tiger Woods phenomenon of the late 1990s. Lorentz even pointed out that such trending celebrities as Kim Kardashian and pop star Justin Bieber — each with more than 200 million followers on Instagram — helped the sport with recent golf-related posts. Kardashian received 3 million likes with a photo of her golfing that said “And just like that I’m a golfer! Well one lesson is a start.”

“The game is reaching new audiences, thanks to a growing list of celebrities who have either taken up the sport or increased their engagement over the past 24 months,” Lorentz said. “Golf is showing up in new places where it has never been seen before.

“There are also social trends that are blowing wind behind golf’s sails, like competitive socializing. There is very real demand right now for experiences that combine relaxation, drinking, socializing and hands-on competition. Golf, both on and off the course, is a great way to do all those things.”

Lorentz said 2021 marked the first year in almost a decade that the NGF will have measured more than 25 million on-course participants, up around 3 percent versus pre-pandemic times.

“I recognize that some people find this number low given the buzz, the full tee sheets, the higher levels of spending on equipment and other goods,” he said. “The first thing I would say to that, and we’ve made this distinction before, is that there is an important difference between more people playing and spending, and people playing more and spending more. There is very clear evidence that a certain sub-set of existing customers really upped their engagement since the beginning of the pandemic. That’s a good thing; that tells you that your best customers have more to give. But it’s also important to understand the ebbs and flows. The inflow of golfers was historic, but so was the outflow of people stepping aside because maybe they were laid off or had their lives changed in any numbers of ways during the pandemic. The outflow in 2020 and 2021 was similar to what we saw back in 2009 at the tail end of the financial crisis.”

NGF Participation Venn

One of the game’s areas of tremendous growth falls in the category of off-course, which includes driving ranges and practice facilities, indoor golf offerings and mini golf.     

In the first year measured in 2014, total participation of off-course only golfers was 5.4 million. That number rose to 12.4 million in 2021, said Lorentz, pointing to companies such as Topgolf and X-Golf and many others bringing golf into the entertainment sector.  

“I would say a lot of people still roll their eyes at this total participant number,” Lorentz said. “Back in 2014 when we started reporting on broader participation in the sport there was this sense we were moving the goal posts to tell a better or more favorable story about what was happening in golf seeing that on-course activity was fading from its peak. We felt then and still feel today that off-course engagement is a very important measure that speaks to the vitality of the industry overall.

“We wouldn’t have shown these stats seven-eight years ago because it wasn’t much of a story. But look at the stats now — there is almost an equally-sized group of golf off-course customers to on-course players. And these audiences are demographically different. Off-course exclusive players are much more aligned with the U.S. population in terms of gender and race/ethnicity. There are still a lot of people who wave off this group of off-course players as irrelevant or unimportant to their business, and they need to understand how attractive this cohort really is — more female, more racially and ethnically diverse, and they have money in their pockets. And the data is pretty clear that off-course play is helping stimulate interest in the traditional product.”

A few other stats worth noting include:

  • The United States lost just 118 18-hole equivalent courses last year compared to 180 in 2020 and 270 in 2019.
  • About 1,400 layouts — or 10 percent of courses — have undergone major renovations since 2006, with a combined investment of $4 billion. “The golf supply today is getting leaner and much healthier and attractive,” Lorentz said.
  • Only four states — Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and Nebraska — use the terminology “putt-putt” as opposed to mini golf.
  • Net golfer growth compared to pre-pandemic times increased the most among juniors (22 percent), followed by blacks (18 percent) and females (11 percent).

“The big question is whether this growth in the game can be accelerated,” Lorentz said. “Well, the opportunity certainly exists when you look at the make-up of on-course players today by gender and race. There are 12.4 million people in this country last year who played exclusively away from the course and 18 million more who express a high level of interest in playing golf. This data and trends should enlighten you, challenge you and even inspire you.”