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A Game Plan for Golf Player Retention

By Steve Sakurai on May 5, 2021 in Blog1 Comment

A Game Plan for Golf Player Retention graphic

It was the best year for golf in over two decades. With 2020 in our rearview mirror, the National Golf Foundation (NGF) is reporting some interesting stats:

  • There was an increase of half a million on-course golfers in 2020, the largest increase since 2003 when the number of golfers grew by 700,000.
  • The increase in the number of rounds in 2020 is the second highest since the Tiger-era in 1997. There was a 14% year-over-year increase in rounds played (502 million rounds in 2020) despite a loss of 20 million rounds in March and April due to the pandemic.
  • The biggest increase occurred in Juniors (age 6-17), while young adults rose 13%; 65 and over golfers have grown by 1.2 million since 2017; Non-Caucasian golfers grew by 300,000 with rounds up 29%; the number of women golfers grew by 450,000 and first-time golfers were up 23%, the highest on record.

I experienced this myself. I saw packed golf courses, and there was an inability to get a decent tee time. When I did play, I saw a bigger mix of people out on the course, both young and old, men and women, which is all great for the game.

But will golf be able to sustain the participation levels reached during the COVID-19 pandemic?

A Year in Review
Though courses continue to close, 193 in 2020 to be exact, that number is down by 31% YOY. There are still more courses than McDonald’s, and the number that surprised me the most is there are more golf courses than Starbucks in the US! I have three Starbucks within a mile of my house.

Golf courses are doing well, but facilities that relied on events, wedding, outings, etc. were hurt by the pandemic and haven’t seen the rebound that other types of courses have experienced.

Equipment manufacturing was down 31% entering June but saw a strong third quarter as golf was one of the first activities allowed during the pandemic. July sales saw an all-time high in a single month. The levels of spending on golf are only second to levels seen in the Tiger Woods era.

It’s interesting that the game of golf needed a pandemic to spark an increase in participation. What does this mean for golf courses, and what can we do to help our courses sustain high participation levels?

The Psychological Benefits of Golf
The NGF created this graphic centered around Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a theory about what motivates people to take action. Golf fits comfortably into the second and third tier of the graphic, appealing to someone’s need for esteem and respect and also appealing to someone’s need to belong and have a sense of connection.

As the NGF points out, only 1/3 of lapsed golfers agreed that they played well enough to keep coming back, in other words, they played well enough that they had a sense of accomplishment and wanted to have that feeling again. And only half said they felt comfortable being around other golfers.

Golfer Retention Through Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

A Game Plan for Golf Player Retention
How can we capitalize on this and motivate returning or new golfers to keep playing? One of the biggest hindrances for people is that they’re intimidated by the game. My advice is to keep the course more beginner friendly unless you’re Augusta National or well known for being a tough course. It doesn’t mean the course has to be easy, but by keeping conditions primed for newer players, more people are able to enjoy the course.

Try to keep the rough short – if you keep the rough higher, it makes the golf course harder to play. Also make sure the pin is in an easier spot. You could also put tees further up so that they’re closer to the hole.

The next question is will the game continue to grow? With the increasing popularity of venues like Top Golf, I’d hope that the game can continue to see high participation rates. However, golf courses may need to make adjustments in order to continue attracting people to the game.

This is one idea. What are your thoughts? What kind of tips do you have for sustaining the numbers? Let me know in the comments below or reach out to me on Twitter.

A Game Plan for Golf Player Retention graphic
Steve Sakurai
Steve Sakurai is the National Golf Manager for Ewing Irrigation and Landscape Supply. A graduate of Cal Poly Pomona with a degree in Electrical Engineering, Steve spent 13 years with Rain Bird Golf before serving Ewing Golf for the past 13 years. He can be reached at ssakurai@ewingirrigation.com.

One Response to A Game Plan for Golf Player Retention

  1. Tom Glazener May 8, 2021 at 6:44 am #

    Great article, Steve!

    I imagine your lagging, event-oriented courses would benefit most from this information. A less crowded course would likely be better positioned to accommodate slower play.

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