These days, any time I get into conversation with a friend from outside the golf world I keep getting one question: How’s golf doing? The answer I keep coming back to is some version of, “Honestly, it’s doing pretty well, all things considered.” But what does that mean — and what do the numbers tell us?
Every time I check out the National Golf Foundation’s website, I learn something new, and since the pandemic began its spread across the United States they’ve been in overdrive. Scouring their Covid-19 report, I picked out nine numbers that helped me better understand how golf really is doing — and what that means for those of us who are invested in the health and future of the game.
Percent of golf courses open for play. Our first number (which is on the low end, if anything) is a fantastic piece of news for the golf industry, which is that namely that the game is open for business! In April, this percent was hovering in the low-to-mid 40s. Now? Nearly 100 percent. Golf course facilities may not be operating as they normally would, but nearly every single course has golfers on its fairways.
Millions of rounds of golf played in the United States in 2019. Golf, like any industry, is hoping for growth, which means there were hopes that 2020 would see a greater number than 2019. But 441 million is a large number, and when the pandemic hit, expectations had to adjust.
Decrease, in millions of rounds, in March and April year-over-year due to the coronavirus. March numbers were down 8.5 percent (for reference, the Players Championship was canceled March 13), while April rounds dropped 42.2 percent year over year. Understandably a very tough time for the industry! However…
Percent increase in rounds played in June year-over-year, according to Golf Datatech’s report. Because people tend to play a lot of golf in June in any year, this translated to 7-8 million more total rounds in 2020 than in 2019. When combined with a slight uptick of rounds in May (+6.2 percent), a strong June turned forecasters more bullish about total rounds for the year.
Based on current trends, 2020 could actually see about the same number — or even slightly more — total rounds than 2019, despite the coronavirus.
Increase, in millions of dollars, directly due to that 14 percent rise in rounds played in June. It’s useful to think about these changes in terms of real-world effects, and more rounds translates directly to more dollars for golf facilities. There are still plenty of unique challenges presented to owners and operators under new rules, including limited cart usage and potentially fewer clubhouse amenities, but courses certainly rejoice when they see full tee sheets.
Percent reduction in overall golf travel volume, as estimated by the NGF. Golfers are getting to the course but largely staying close to home. Our Jess Marksbury reported on the volume of bucket-list plans already on the books for next summer, when golfers are more optimistic about travel, but for now? People seem more comfortable playing within driving distance. There’s never been a better time to explore the linksy treasures in your own backyard.
Percent increase in popularity for Google searches involving “golf balls” and “golf clubs” when compared with previous highs in the last five years. Five years! This could be partly a result of golfers buying online rather than in-person, but it’s also an extremely encouraging sign for golf’s manufacturers, who faced uncertainty throughout the spring but now see renewed interest.
Anecdotally, I’ve had several friends reach out looking to buy beginner’s sets who have noticed many on backorder. Bring on the new golfers!
Percent increase in nine-hole rounds as a percentage of total rounds. Has the coronavirus changed golfer behavior? It seems like it has. The NGF hypothesized that there is an uptick in the so-called “Emergency 9” where golfers squeeze in a round before or after work. Despite the workforce reportedly spending longer hours at their computers than ever, schedules have more flexibility and many commutes have been eliminated altogether, leading to the overall increase.
So just how often do golfers play nine holes instead of 18? For “core golfers,” some 33 percent of total rounds are nine-hole affairs. But “occasional golfers” stick to nine more often to the tune of 48 percent. Speaking of which …
Percent increase in junior golfers by year’s end, according to NGF projections. Because 2019 saw 2.5 million juniors get out on course, this estimate would mean that roughly 3 million juniors will get out by the end of this year. If they stick around the game, that’s fantastic news for golf’s future. So if you see a junior golfer on the course, give them a wave — it might be their first time out there.
You can read more about the NGF’s coronavirus research here.