By Paul Vardy

Many people in golf have wondered for years what would be the impact of a recession on golf participation.  

Would people have less money to play or would people with more time, play more golf?  

The COVID recession of 2020, with two quarters of negative growth, was so unusual and so pumped full of fiscal stimulus that the question remains unanswered.  

COVID has launched a whole lot of unpredictable scenarios that will be playing out for years. Meanwhile, golf has experienced a boom in local rounds.

But longer-term demographic trends are there for all to see.  

For a start, traditional sports have been losing market share to other forms of physical activity for years.  

Ausplay data, for those aged 15+, reveals that sport and non-sport related activities have increased from 25% to 45% over 20 years to 2020.  Good news! People who play sport are much more likely to blend their sport with other physical activities such as walking or cycling.  

But the sobering news is that participants who engage only in sporting activities has halved from 32% to 16%.  

A closer look at the traditional sports and we see that almost all of them have declined in the last 10 years – even the big commercial sports who spent tens of millions on community sport and grassroots development.

Meanwhile walking and running, swimming and cycling, continue to rise along with pursuits like fitness/gym, yoga and Pilates. 

Basketball is perhaps the only sport to buck the trend.

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to see that people more broadly in society want flexibility, shorter intervals and fewer commitments, oh, and less chance of getting knocked out cold.

COVID conditions have highlighted that golf has a unique set of attributes that remain attractive to people of all ages.  

We should continue to sing from the hilltops about the mental and physical health benefits of being outdoors, hitting our little dimpled ball with a sporting community of people of all ages and standards.  

Study after study shows that time and cost are the major barriers to golf participation.  

The Ausplay headline participation rates are one thing but the rate of regular participation is another.  

A Roy Morgan report in 2015 identified that golf was the only sport or recreation where the rate of participation went up after 65 years of age.  

They referred to this age period as the “iron age” – golf bag full of irons.  

The report suggested that golf is not so much an older man’s sport as much as a free man’s sport.  

It’s hard to argue with this given the annual GolfLink reports showing competition rounds increasing each year even as membership was declining and ageing.    

But this is the conundrum golf now finds itself in – we’re squeezed. 

 With COVID curtailing Australians overseas spending, golf is a more obvious outlet for those with time and money.  

Society is in the midst of a Baby Boomer exit from the workforce, a generation that is more cashed up and healthier than generations of the past.  

In many cases, our capacity to capitalise on interest in golf is reducing.  

Tee time congestion at many metropolitan clubs and large regional clubs has seen clubs either putting limits on how often members can play or close off their club to new membership completely.  

Many PGA professionals are booked out with lessons and public courses haven’t seen demand like this for years.

On one hand these are all healthy signs but on another, there are unexpected consequences.  

The legacy of COVID lockdowns and COVID protocols changing regularly has presented club administrations with a level of burn-out, with some leaving the industry quite unexpectedly.  

In some cases, shortages in hospitality and ground staff have stretched resources and added to stress.

In this environment, there are sizable headwinds in growing the game more broadly.  

To create a resemblance of balance between male and female and between adults and juniors, golf clubs will need to think carefully about their membership composition and whether their offerings will meet the broader trends of faster, less competitive and more affordable participation.  

The alternative is that we become a little too one dimensional – a Constipated Country Club.

GMA looks forward to joining with Golf Australia, PGA and other golf industry bodies and clubs in contributing to the Australian Golf Strategy Conference in late August where trend and participation information will be considered and a coordinated industry strategy developed.  

Let’s hope we can all get through these COVID outbreaks, see rapid rates of vaccination and that golf can achieve an uninterrupted direction to set a path on.

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