How to get more people playing golf

Participation is one of the biggest issues that golf faces so, with National Golf Month (NGM) taking place in May, GOLF RETAILING’S Andy Brown sat down with some of the industry’s finest to see what they thought needed to be done.

Andy Brown (AB):A lot is talked about participation being the biggest issue golf faces – do you think this is the case?

Colin Mayes (CM): The answer is yes. Participation is dropping and the golf numbers are pretty compelling in their own right. There isn’t a combined golf strategy to engage people at the moment and that is one of the biggest issues that we have got.

AttendeesAndy Lloyd-Skinner (ALS): We have heard that the reduction in participation has stabilised but there are a whole host of issues in golf that are being addressed, but not necessarily in a joined up way. I do think we have too many diverse bodies all trying to achieve good things but in different ways, and that doesn’t always help to achieve the end goal. One of the biggest problems that we have at the moment is the incorrect categorisation of golf facilities – it has been government created by having not for profit golf facilities with tax concessions and commercial golf clubs with no tax concessions. That has created a divide in the industry and it’s a barrier that has to be overcome. One of the other barriers is people’s leisure time; there are so many other options, such as cycling. I hear from lots of lapsed golfers who have got into cycling.

CM: It was interesting at the Masters – and it’s something I have said before to the R&A that we should do in big competitions in the UK – how they do the par three competition which is popular and they get the kids involved. Why are we not doing this? It’s a good format, a bit of fun and is promoting a version of the game that is more attractive to the family unit and non-golfers. We aren’t taking advantage of the opportunity this could bring. For some of the governing bodies everything is about 18 holes as opposed to looking at another format.

Daniel Gathercole (DC): The great thing as well is that they weren’t taking that long to go around, it was being done in an hour sometimes. There’s no reason on the European Tour that you couldn’t have a Par three championship that would have a bit of prestige and also be fun.
ALS: The infrastructure is not appropriate for the demand and the supply across the UK. We have nearly 1,900 18 hole golf courses and possibly a hundred pitch and putts and a few hundred driving ranges and not enough adventure golf sites. There are a whole host of under-used 18 hole golf courses that need to be converted to more family friendly shorter versions of the game. That’s not going to happen overnight.

DC: Looking at the stats provided by SMS, rounds played last year were flat. I look at it in terms of how many new customers are coming to us and, over the last three to four years, we are dramatically down. That shows me that there are less people coming into the game and there can be lots of reasons for this. It might be down to our strategy as a retailer, but one of the factors is perception. What National Golf Month (NGM) is trying to do is change that perception and the key is how much coverage can we get in the media; after the Masters it was great to see golf all over the back pages, which I hadn’t seen for a couple of years.

ParticipitationPaul Hedges (PH): I agree with the issues all highlighted, but if I remember back to when golf was peaking, what it did have was a supply that people wanted. Society has changed and therefore its demands have altered. There is nothing wrong with golf; golf is a fantastic sport. We have to make sure that golf is practical for people to play, so absolutely nine hole golf courses, the R&A making handicaps available over nine holes. The time that people have with their family-units is the big challenge and we have to make sure that we are offering what modern society expects. Forty years ago guys would go off to play golf at 7.30 in the morning, go to the club house afterwards to watch the horse racing and be back at 4.00 and expect dinner on the table. That is now unacceptable in our society and the person doing that is either divorced or isn’t playing golf any longer. The modern man has got to fit into family values and we have to make the facilities more family-friendly. It is taking time and for golf clubs it is a big investment and means a major change. It is happening though.

Paul HedgesDC: There is a lot of good happening and good individual cases, but you don’t often hear about them. That’s the issue. Outside of the golf industry, people might not know there is a local course you can play nine holes on or that has a kid’s crèche.

PH: We know the route that people get into golf – because of an association with other people who play golf. It’s always been the way. It’s imperative to get youngsters into golf but we have to be aware that’s a long-term investment; many will leave the sport in their late teens as their lifestyle changes, but then when they are 40 they can come back into golf much easier, which is fantastic. It is the 40-50 year old whose kids have grown up now that has time and will mix with people he knows who are already playing golf. The fundamentals are that we have to provide facilities to satisfy the social requirements of the modern man.

ALS: England Golf are doing a facilities study and, as a result, there should be a golf facilities strategy and we have been a lead partner working with them on it. We know we need fewer 18 hole golf courses and more nine hole and family friendly ones, the issue we have is no one seems to be talking about how it is going to be implemented. There are significant costs associated with doing this, but we are trying to look at how facilities can be converted.

PH: I think NGM, which I as an individual and Foremost have supported since it started, is a fantastic initiative and one that we want to continue. In a way its challenge is that it is slightly ahead of its time, as not all the facilities are ready. Golf professionals want to engage and have people come to them, but a lot of them are operating in a facility where this is not under their control and what they can offer is restricted by what their club, owner or management allow them to do. NGM is incredibly important and each year we have to get more facilities to understand that this is a great way to get people into the game.

AB: It’s also essential to have par three and nine hole courses for those wanting to make the leap from driving ranges to getting out onto the course but who are not ready for 18 holes.

PH: Yes you are right, but taking driving ranges – there are some fantastic modern ones and we should be embracing them. Driving ranges used to be places where ardent golfers went to practice, but they can turn into an event in their own right. One of my son’s hasn’t been to a golf course for two years, but has been to a driving range 25 times and he goes with his friends; they have fun and have lots of competitions among themselves. Whether it is driving ranges, indoor facilities with simulators, academy golf courses or adventure golf; these are all the areas that we have to drive because they are all stepping stones for 18 holes.

Doug Poole: (DP): I think that all of the bases have been covered regarding the problems, it’s how you address them.

Colin MayesPH: ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’ is one of the favourite phrases and what will drive us eventually is simple commercial need, when golf clubs see and feel financial pressures they have to be more inventive and look for alternatives. I think we are in a development period regarding the time it takes to physically make these changes and I’m optimistic that in ten years’ time we will have these new facilities.

DP: Over the last three years with NGM I’ve seen the problems we are facing, it’s about how to address them going forwards. The average age for a golf player is over 60 and some clubs that have never before had financial problems will go over the edge – I know four or five that do have a problem.

We started NGM because, as an industry, we knew that between 2012-3 ball sales had dropped 12 and a half per cent and if you want a baromonotor for where golf is going, you look at ball sales. We are working with the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for the launch of NGM and there has been no politics involved – they have been so helpful and want to grow participation and support us. The ageing demographic is one of the big issues we all face, as there will be golf clubs where there are only 12 per cent of members between 30 and 50. We are trying to grow ladies and family participation which would help grow men’s participation in that age bracket.

Daniel GathercolePH: I’m not as paranoid about the age issue – in fact quite the opposite. From a marketing point of view you always go for low hanging fruit, the people that are easiest to sell something to first. Maybe for 80 per cent of those aged 25-45 it doesn’t matter what you present to them, they cannot play golf – they don’t physically have the time. Spending a disproportionate amount of money to attract those people doesn’t make sense when we have a ready market of 45-60 who do have the time, finance and inclination. A 60 year old now is what a 50 year old was 30-40 years ago; people are retiring earlier and living longer and golf has always been a secondary sport. Most people come to golf because their prime sport is no longer available to them, they are too old to play football or rugby and they want a participation sport with some physical requirement and element of health and fitness. These are exactly the sort of people we should be getting into the game.

AGL: We need to look at the definition of participation to include hitting balls at a driving range, pitch and putt and so on. The three locations at TopGolf hit 40,000 balls per day per location. How many other sports have that level of participation? A standard driving range hits 4,000 balls a day. It is our job to look at those people and say, ‘ok you are not ready to play 18 hole golf yet, but let’s keep you interested so you are part of golf’. This is a market we need to address.

AB: Do we think that over the last five to ten years things have improved?

DG: At ground level yes, but nationally I don’t think there has been any real driver. NGM is a great initiative and the aim is to get it into the media but I’ve never seen in the last ten years an advert for golf anywhere. I don’t know what the funding is – maybe 12 million if you combine the R&A, PGA, England Golf etc. The Golf Foundation is the perfect example of something good at ground level – if they sat in front of a room and explained all that they did everyone would except it’s a great initiative, but you never hear about it. Most golfers at golf clubs won’t know about it. Golf is not marketed well enough, you don’t hear enough about it in the media. The fact that it isn’t on terrestrial TV doesn’t help and a lot of the stories about golf in the press are negative, such as the links to Donald Trump, but a lot of good stuff is happening.

Andy Lloyd SkinnerDP: The issue isn’t about money as the funding is quite good, it’s where that money goes. With NGM we didn’t use any funding and talked to people in the R&A, the LET and European Tour and we showed that we should all work together. That’s what we have to get to; it has to be more joined up right across the board.

PH: It seems like there are battles going on for the ownership of the customer between some of the different governing bodies. The closest ownership relationship with the golfer though is with the facilities and second to that is the golf pro, but the key is the membership of the club. When you do research on why people are members of a golf club the quality of the greens and the difficulty of the golf course are often fifth or sixth on the list, what is first is normally being a member of a club where their friends are. If a family can go and meet another family at a golf club and be comfortable in that environment that’s great, but if they feel ostracised because their child is the only one there, then it doesn’t fit in with what society needs now. We have to support the facilities in changing to accommodate society.

DG: That will take 10-15 years to do though, if not longer. For me the problem is initially the perception of golf, it’s about getting that person to go to that golf club and to get the mind-set of, ‘yes I will go to that golf club because I will feel welcome.’ The golf club can only do so much, and that is a 10-15 year strategy.

PH: You are right Dan, and perception is sometimes more powerful than reality. It takes time for these changes to apply; even if you change tomorrow it is still five years before the perception catches up. At the moment there are still a lot of people who think that golf is an elitist game, you need pots of money to play and can’t go to a club unless you are a member. We are left with those stigmas but they are changing.

DP: It is a facilities issue but we also have to start engaging those who don’t play football or cricket anymore. Social media is a tool that we can use an industry to reach out to people we wouldn’t otherwise be able to and for NGM we have some big names who will be tweeting for us.

AB: How important is it that the industry gets behind NGM?

AGL: Doug has managed to drive it forward in terms of getting tremendous publicity for it and I think it will do more good for golf’s image from a PR point of view than any other initiatives that have happened for years. It’s vital to get this good image across.

PH: Does the biggest challenge though come back to the facilities and the pros providing the services for those people? The concept has created good publicity and what we have to make sure happens is that there are golf facilities and pros willing to provide the service for that month.

Doug PooleDP: The last news story we will send out will be to our signed up partners saying what we expect them to do when customers come through the door, not to say ‘who are you?’ or ‘you’re the cheap one’ – that has happened before. When you go to a golf club the most important thing is to meet and greet. At my club the pro and assistant pro make 10 per cent of the first membership fee and have the prospectus in the shop. When someone comes in they will greet them, show them around the club, buy them a coffee and give them some green fee tickets. We’ve had around 30 new members because of this. When it comes to engagement, we want people to be given a big welcome when they arrive for NGM, because it is a big opportunity for that club.

PH: It’s important for golf pros to turn an inquiry into a physical booking before they arrive and, to some extent, we need to just be encouraging people to arrive and have an initial discussion with the pro. The pro should have enough about them to say, ‘why don’t you come back next Tuesday and I’ll give you a lesson’ regardless of what price it is at. The NGM concept is fantastic and even if pros and clubs haven’t signed up, if they are aware of NGM that is a positive and it may well be that people are contacting them without knowing they are not offering an event. There will be more awareness this year than last year and it is imperative that this is an annual thing.

DP: The government have been so helpful with NGM. We are having two hitting areas, a putting green, various competitions, SNAGS golf, and disability groups coming through on the whole day. We know we have to break the image of golf. The idea is that it is going to be fun, which is what we have to do to change the image, but when the customer gets to the golf club they need to be made to feel welcome.