Jack, my golf pro, must be dead by now. He was in terrible shape 25 years ago when he gave me lessons.
I was a college graduate and had just received a pair of golf shoes, a five iron and a set of lessons as graduation presents. My father believed that playing golf went hand-in-hand with business success.
Unfortunately Jack really liked smoking cigarettes, so he wheezed, coughed and hunched. This rail-thin man would ride from the club house to the practice range, a distance of about 100 feet, and sit in the cart while I flailed about.
In my first round of golf, I got a birdie. Golfers will recognize this term as a score of one less than the expected number of strokes required to play a hole. But that’s not the kind of birdie I got. Instead, one of my tee shots was a line drive about a foot off the ground (a bad shot, certainly) that actually killed a bird.
Even though my golfing career got off to a rough start, I really enjoyed it. There was the fresh air, the openness, the chance to compete against myself for improvement, and the constant need for attention to detail that makes the game so compelling.
But I don’t play anymore. I’ve played one round in eight years. I just don’t have the time. It’s as if my life and golf are incompatible, and I’m not alone…
The National Golf Foundation (NGF) reports that from 2005 through 2010 the sport lost a net four million players, and currently golf participation is at its lowest level in more than 25 years.
Keep in mind that during the last 10 years this drop in golfing has occurred while the population of those who are at the prime age for the sport – empty nesters and young retirees – has been growing.
The NGF and other golf associations are desperate to turn the tide, but aren’t sure how. Some information in their survey reveals the problem, but probably not in the way the associations think.
When those who are interested in golf but don’t currently play were asked why they weren’t taking to the greens, the number one answer was: “My spouse/significant other doesn’t play.”
Using this as a starting point, many in the game have begun championing programs that foster player development, women’s groups, family outings and other ways to include entire families or couples.
On the surface this makes sense, but it brings up questions. Were there a bunch of spouses playing golf in the previous generation? Did women suddenly opt out of the sport and thereby pull their husbands with them?
I doubt it.
I think the problem with golf is much more about my father’s point of view – that golf goes hand in hand with business success – than that of my wife.
While it’s true that my wife doesn’t play the game, it’s not true that I need to pursue the game for business development or contacts. From the outside looking in, it appears that golf has lost its position as a common meeting place for potential business associates.
Those left playing the game are the ones who truly enjoy the sport and make the time to play, not the ones who are marginally attached as they look for another networking opportunity or the chance to rub elbows with the boss.
If my view is correct, then it means golfing associations are struggling with the wrong questions. They’re working very hard to make golf a faster game by changing the number of holes in a round… they’re revamping their offerings to include more inviting lessons and player development for spouses and families.
Yet it’s entirely possible that the sport should instead be considering how many golfers are left once the possibility of drumming up business is removed, or at least greatly diminished, and what lies ahead as our nation ages.
By focusing on changes in the game rather than on the reason people play, these associations could be damaging their own growth in the years ahead.
For the next 30 years, America will get older as Baby Boomers move through the empty nester and retirement phases of life. This should be a good time for the game of golf as more Boomers retire because there will be increasing numbers of potential players who now have the leisure to play if they so choose.
But what happens when these potential players get to the course and there are a bunch of small kids running around and groups of beginners clogging the practice range and the fairways? Or when those who return to golf are told that on Tuesdays and Wednesdays the course only allows for rounds of 12 holes?
This strikes me as being similar to the ill-fated advertising of Las Vegas in the early 1990s when the city tried to make itself a family-friendly place. Really?!
It failed miserably, and the town didn’t shoot to the moon until it embraced its racy side with the highly successful “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” campaign. Basically it went back to its roots.
Golf should do the same. Be a refuge for people who enjoy the elitist edge of the game, who enjoy walking around in funny clothes and cursing a little white ball. There should be more than enough people in the years to come who want to be in the clubhouse to put golf back on a growth trajectory.
P.S. The changes in golf are just one example of the importance of understanding what people predictably do and spend their money on as they age. Even more important is knowing what the Baby Boomers will be doing and paying for in the years ahead. This is easy to do with our Spending Waves resource. In it, you’ll find more than 300 spending waves that show you which products and services will boom or bust on the backs of Baby Boomers as they age. This is information you can turn into cash. Get your copy of Spending Waves here.
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