Who said golf is a cottage industry?

National Golf Foundation stats show golf’s continued rising trajectory heading into 2024

Golf enjoyed 4% growth for rounds played in 2023 over 2022. That is roughly 1 million more golfers.

ORLANDO, Florida — One million more golfers.

That’s the good word from David Lorentz, the chief research officer for the National Golf Foundation.

Lorentz presents his annual golfing facts, figures and findings at the annual PGA Show each year, and reported Thursday that golf’s health remains robust with 26.6 million on-course golfers in the United States in 2023 — a 4% jump over 2022.

Before Lorentz left the organization's South Florida headquarters for Orlando, his bosses challenged him to help his audience contextualize the importance of the 1 million figure. He used Greyhound buses to explain.

"Greyhound buses are about 45 feet long and hold 55 passengers," Lorentz says. "So let's say we line them up right outside of the Orange County Convention Center concourse and we'll make it tight, leaving about two feet between each bus. So let's load a million people in those buses, so we’d have roughly 18,000 Greyhound buses, which would extend about 850,000 feet — or 160 miles.

“The last time we had a jump of that magnitude in green grass players was in 2001 and you-know-who was completing the Tiger Slam and cementing his spot in immortality,” adds Lorentz of the Tiger Woods golf frenzy more than two decades ago. “Even more incredible than that, 2023 is just the fourth instance in the past 30 years — as far back as NGF has been measuring data — that there has been golfer gain of 1 million or more."

The NGF measures around 36,000 survey responses to come up with its remarkable data points, which Lorentz was more than happy to put into perspective yet again.

"Just for reference, a lot of the political polls that you see are based on 500 to 1,000 people, so I would say 36,000 people is quite a robust sample," he says.

Off-course participation, golf experiences such as Topgolf and Drive Shack, practice ranges and golf simulators — any time a person swings a club at a real golf ball — is also on a massive climb. The total combined on- and off-course participation in 2023 was 45 million, a 10% increase over 2022, and the second straight 10% increase.

"Going back to when we started closely measuring off course around 2013 or 2014, no sport ... no sport has experienced more growth than golf," Lorentz says. "You hear everywhere that pickleball is the fastest growing sport in the U.S. and it is on a percentage basis the fastest growing sport, but volume-wise growth? It is the game of golf, and more people need to be talking about it frankly."

Lorentz, though, offers words of caution heading into the meat of the 2024 golf season in a few months.

National Golf Foundation's David Lorentz addresses attendees at the PGA Show in Orlando, Florida.

"Consumer spending held up remarkably well in 2023, but 2024, according to most economists, will be a different story," he says. "When we look ahead to what's happening in golf, it's important to recognize that (a possible recession) is a factor at play unavoidably. And in certain ways we've been seeing the effects of this softening economy as consumer spending habits are shifting in some ways from larger indulgences to smaller indulgences."

Lorentz points to stats between ball and club shipments, respectively, that were running in virtual tandem in recent years and have now started to separate as economists note a change in spending.

Lorentz calls the trend a “definite signal” to keep an eye on when it comes to equipment and gear spend, versus rounds played by the end of 2024.

However, he remains bullish on the sport’s continued growth potential.

“In terms of participation, our consumer base and how that may look this time next year, I would be optimistic that the current trends will continue,” Lorentz says. “I think there are certain structural changes happening here, not just cyclical changes, that will support a continued growth in customers on and off course. However, the industry must continue to challenge orthodoxies that are necessary for longer term growth and that have kept for a long time millions of people at arm’s length from the game and millions of prospects who've shown interest but haven't taken a step. Let's keep challenging, as a collective here, what it means to play golf and what it means to be a golfer.”