This golf trend hasn’t been so promising since Tiger Woods’ first Masters win

Tiger Woods' Masters win in 1997 helped inspire massive growth in the golf world.

In March of this year, when golf courses — like so many other American businesses — began suspending operations, it felt like the industry was in for a rough year. The numbers followed accordingly; according to the National Golf Foundation, rounds were down 8.5% compared to March 2019.

In April, things got far worse. More states shut down their golf courses, leaving a majority of facilities closed, and the numbers followed accordingly. Rounds played were down 42.2% from April 2019.

But then things changed, and changed rapidly. As decision-makers learned more about the way the coronavirus spreads, they recognized that golf provided a relatively safe form of recreation. Participants could stay outdoors and socially distance while playing, and walking a round of golf could help offset some of the health risks posed by staying at home. Demand shot up.

Every month since, golf has beat its year-over-year totals by a wider and wider margin. Up 6.2% in May. Up 13.9% in June. Up 19.7% in July. Up 20.6% in August. Up 25.5% in September. And, based on the latest data from Golf Datatech, up 32.3% in October. Not only has golf recovered from its dire springtime forecast, it’s actually on track for the biggest increase in rounds played in nearly a quarter-century.

National Golf Foundation CEO Joe Beditz said in a release that the national year-to-date increase is 10.8% over 2019 rounds, and with strong numbers expected in November and December, the year-end number is likely to end up at around a 12% gain. In real numbers, that means an increase of roughly 50 million rounds played compared to last year.

Golf Datatech/National Golf Foundation

Beditz noted that only one year has produced a greater jump in rounds: 1997, when Tiger Woods won the Masters and announced his arrival on an international stage, inspiring a generation of golfers to come. (There were other factors, too, but the “Tiger Effect” was very real.) In 1997, rounds played jumped up 14.6% or roughly 63 million, ushering in golf’s mini-boom as participation and course construction both skyrocketed.

The years since have shown a stable golf population that rarely fluctuates more then 2-3% per year, often attributable to changes in weather, and the overall trend has been a slight reduction in play since 2006. All of which makes this year’s leap so encouraging.

“We were in the serious pits back in March and April, when we lost about 20 million rounds to virus-related shutdowns, and the climb out has been stunning,” Beditz wrote.

Of course, just looking at that bar graph doesn’t tell the whole story. Rounds played does not fully encapsulate the financial well-being of the entire industry, and course operators have understandably struggled with other pandemic-related challenges. Restaurant service has been reduced, in line with state restrictions on indoor dining. Pro shops have lost revenue opportunities through golf cart restrictions and reduced pro shop foot traffic, to name two examples. Golf is hardly immune.

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Weather has also played a significant role in the year’s increases. After 2018 and 2019 produced two of the wettest years on record, 2020 was relatively drier, particularly in large northern markets from the Midwest across to New England. Warm, dry weather generally means more golf, and this year’s U.S. temperature is clocking in around the sixth-warmest on record, with higher-than-average temperatures in every region. (You can read more about weather’s effect here.)

Now, golf faces the same challenge as anybody who has attracted a new audience: How do you keep them coming back? When the world (hopefully) opens up for more non-golf-related activities, will beginner players keep coming back to the game?

We sure hope so.

dylan dethier

Dylan Dethier Editor

Dylan Dethier is a senior writer for GOLF Magazine/ The Williamstown, Mass. native joined GOLF in 2017 after two years scuffling on the mini-tours. Dethier is a 2014 graduate of Williams College, where he majored in English, and he’s the author of 18 in America, which details the year he spent as an 18-year-old living from his car and playing a round of golf in every state.