The Declining State of Golf

In recent years golf has been in steady decline, I discuss some of the causes and how we as golfer are responsible for turning this around.

Thrash TalkGolf, like any leisure activity, is very closely tied with the ups and downs of the economy. The economy in its current state appears to be making headway in the right direction; golf on the other hand has continued its decline. Mostly it is a decline of participation, more directly it is not attracting as many new golfers as it is losing. For us golfers, this is going to be a bad thing. More and more courses are going to be forced to close because they just do not get enough play to remain open.

When I think about how we got here, we must first remember that golf has gone through ups and downs in the past. This is certainly not the first decline. Likely it will not be the last and golf will grow again soon. But we should analyze why we have had this recent decline.

People will tell you that there are two problems facing golf. One it takes too much time. The other is that it is too expensive. I just do not buy the second argument. I have heard people say that equipment costs too much. Yes, if you waltz into your local pro shop you can plop down four hundred bucks on a new driver. But that would be foolish. With the Internet there is no reason you can’t wander onto eBay and find a second-hand driver from the previous season for less than half that price. Irons work the same way. Go back three seasons and the equipment can go for one tenth of the price. The equipment is not in bad shape and sometimes they were only hit a few times.

Green fees can be pricey if you are trying to play at an expensive course. Yup, that is true, but I would bet there are affordable places to play near you. I live in one of the most expensive places in the U.S. and I can go play on the weekend for less than sixty dollars. Not only that, if I look around on sites that offer tee times, they often have even better deals than that. It might take some work, but golf can be had affordably. Plus, range balls can be had for less than ten dollars and there is a local joint that throws in lunch with the range balls for even less! It is a great way to spend an hour or two and get rid of quite a bit of frustration as well. I suggest bringing a camera to help work on your swing or even a friend who you just haven’t seen in a while. Even if they don’t play golf they might enjoy the range.

The other problem that folks mention is how much time it takes. There are cases where this is a legitimate argument that I find hard to work around. Some public course can take five hours plus, add driving time and we can be close to six hours. If you have family, that is just enough time for your significant other to get really pissed off at you (on this I speak from experience!). I think that golf courses have to work harder at this. I have seen suggestions like playing nine holes, which is a good suggestion, but a round of golf should take no more than four hours. Preferably three hours and forty-five minutes. More aggressive marshaling, incentivizing golfers who play faster, and more ideas should be discussed by golf courses.

The alternative to the full round of golf can be a large bucket of balls. This can take a little over an hour or maybe two and if you do it early enough in the morning you can be home before the kids wake up. If you have a little more time hopefully your local range has a putting and or chipping green for you to work on your game as well. Golf doesn’t always need to be about a full eighteen holes.

Phil Mickelson

Occasionally I will hear the argument that golf is just too hard and that is why people stay away from it. I call baloney on this one as well. There is no doubt that golf is hard, and the better you get at it, the harder it actually gets. Perfection in golf is all but impossible. But this is what has drawn so many of us golfers in, the challenge of improving, setting a goal, and achieving it. Everyone can appreciate how golf is a challenge that is waiting to be taken on by everyone. This is one of the major draws about golf that brought me to the game.

The game of golf will continue on, because it has a really great group of people who play it. Look at most golf forums, and provided they are not arguing about Hogan’s right forearm position at A6 they are mostly civil friendly people. We are the game that calls penalties on ourselves. Golf is a stand up game. So now it is our time to give back to the game. Erik J. Barzeski has started a thread here on TST where you can pledge to find a new golfer. He even gave you the opportunity to bring back a lost soul back from golfing Neverland. I encourage you to take the pledge, because it is time that we gave back to this game that we all love.

Photo credits: © Sam Greenwood.

22 thoughts on “The Declining State of Golf”

  1. The main reason is that golf is hard, and most young people prefer to spend time on video games than go out for a frustrating round.

    As a person gets past “the hump” of golf, I notice that the desire to play goes up.

    If any person can be taught to get past this hump early on, I think many more people would play.

  2. Having played golf for over 25 years I think one of the problems facing the game is modern course design. I don’t think I have played a course built in the last 5-10 years that I would say was built for a casual round. I’m a big boy and carried a 0 handicap when I was younger so I had a lot of fun. But these courses are way too long for the average golfer. A couple of years ago Barney Adams calculated that for an average golfer to hit the same clubs into greens as a PGA tour pro they should be playing 6,000 yard courses. If he is correct why are there so many 7500 yard courses being built?

  3. I guess it does reflect society: all too many people want a quick fix for everything…..there are no quick fixes in golf. Just plain hard work, frustration…yet the eventual satisfaction that your game has improved.

  4. I think golfdom might explore Learning Styles (are you predominantly auditory, visual, or kinesthetic) and approaches to golf instruction.

    Figuring out “how” for each individual to best learn the golf swing might make it easier for people to learn it. This avoids “one size fits all” approach.

    Modern golf provides a big variety of clubhead designs, shafts, and balls. Through fitting, we can match up a person with the best club “recipe” for his swing.

    Possibly we could explore fitting golfers for best lesson learning style?

  5. Also golf really needs to get rid of its old man baggy clothes gentlemen image. That’s what everyone I talk to about golf saids. They picture old men playing it. So do I but I play it cause I like the sport itself. Tradition needs to be less talked about.

  6. just some observations:

    1) while I agree that there is direct relationship between golf played and the economy, I disagree that the economy is getting any better. It’s only better if publish economic indicators from the White House on a Friday afternoon.

    2) Gold IS too expensive for many and there is a basic ignorance, arrogance or air headedness displayed when I hear someone say that yes, 400 bucks is expensive but go to Ebay and buy it at half price..well 200 bucks is still too expensive for lots and lots of people too. It needs to be kept in mind that many of the people that might come to golf don’t have a job, or don’t have a job yet (probably couldn’t find one anyway) or have minimum wage jobs at less than10 bucks an hour so $200 for a toy or $60 for a round of golf is still way beyond their means.

    3) Golf IS hard. For many, including the writer, obviously, the challenge is a draw. Nothing wrong with that, but, I’m going to say for most people, that is not a draw. People who like the “challenge” all too often forget that for most people, it is RECREATION. It is suppose to be fun, not a challenge. It is social, it is time to have a few beers with their buddies or spend an afternoon with their lady friends. Those are the people you need to grow the game, not the hard core. The hardcore is already out there.

    4) Besides some that have been mentioned here and elsewhere, ad nauseum, a few obstacles to people becoming regular golfers include: * it can be difficult for a novice to actually be on the golf course with others who play regularly. for example, one of the biggest complaints we here involves slow play. one major source of slow play is beginners. the newbies are aware they are a problem for others and often don’t feel welcome and simply don’t enjoy themselves. * many people who might consider golf know it only from the televised pro tournaments. THAT IS NOT THE GAME 98% OF GOLFERS PLAY. All the rules hold ups and confusion, “playing it as it lies”…just doesn’t come into play. Despite what those who like the “challenge” or what the USGA says …. almost no recreational player plays that game. They roll the ball, the take gimmes etc. Let’s introduce people to that game and forget all the cartoonish gimmicks like 17″ holes.

  7. I’d like to add just one more thing….if I go to a course I find that collared shirts are “required”…….that’s the last time I set foot on the place. I don’t need that kind of attitude.

  8. Our men’s club has had it’s challenges with membership and participation. I believe it’s a combination of the time commitment as well as the expense. Young families are going in 20 different directions on the weekends with various activities and time for golf is just not there. Even if you get clubs “handed down”, the greens fees can still be considerable in these times. Even though we offer reduced memberships for 30 yo and under, it’s still not growing adequately where we’ll have a sustainable club for the future. Traditional marquis events like our 2 day member/member are difficult to fill even though we’ve dropped the price and pared back some of the amenities. Definitely time for some new thinking with growing the game.

  9. I think allowing social players the ability to have an official handicap at a club would be a great service to provide.

    Then expand on that and allow casual player play in competitions, maybe a social comp where you can play at any time of the week and submit a card and then at the end of the week the winners are notified.
    This way you can play with your buddies and compete for a prize even thought you have not paid out for a membership.

    You might only be able to play on a course once a month, but you still get chance to compete.

    This is not meant to stop membership, but add to revenue, make a $5 fee payable to join in the competition and then have small prizes, a dozen balls, a free round etc.

  10. It’s all about bringing the kids in. Smart youth programs that, not only teach mechanics, but teach history and etiquette. Proper etiquette is falling by the wayside on courses today. I started when I was fourteen. I’m 47 now and my uncle took me on the course and let me hit a shot from his landing area in the fairway. We didn’t hold anyone up and I was so captivated by the game. He made sure I fixed my ballmark and his, crafty guy that uncle of mine. But I have always respected the game and other golf courses because of it. For courses with driving ranges, you could easily set up, once a week, during a non peak time on the weekend, say, during a shotgun tournament, a pitch and putt course in the range itself for the kids. It’s quick and simple and gets kids involved as well as parents, and, at the same time keeps the course flowing, without interruption. That’s just one way to bring the future of golf in your doors and keep them around in the future. Members for life. For the guy above, OILER69, I’m with you when it comes to pretentious attitudes in PRO-Shops, I stay far away from those courses, however, tradition, to me, is so important, and proper attire is part of your equipment in my opinion. Check with your course for their attire requirements before you set a tee-time or play. There are lots of courses with a jeans and tee-shirt okay dress code. But keep playing, GOLF ROCKS!!

  11. Sounds like you have a beef with your club.
    Most people don’t belong to clubs.

    Unfortunately, culturally I just don’t see where golf is headed. There isn’t a major sport in the US that is as white as golf. If you see someone of color at the course it’s a big deal. The misogyny and racism of some private clubs is shocking. What if little league was organized so that there was one pristine field where one league played and one right next to it, clearly inferior , where another league played. But if you paid a small fee you could hang out with the families on the better field, but you weren’t allowed to play. Let’s call it a social membership.

    There would be a revolution. The point is that a lot more has to change for golf to increase in popularity than just speeding play.

  12. I’d like to add just one more thing….if I go to a course I find that collared shirts are “required”…….that’s the last time I set foot on the place. I don’t need that kind of attitude.


    I’ve been a member of a private club since I was 37. It is the sense of formality that I like.

    At my club not only do you have to wear a collared shirt but dress slacks or appropriate golf shorts. You socks must be either ankle socks or knee highs. No athletic socks.

    Guess no chance you would even set foot on a private course.

    Sorry to get off topic.

    I have not heard anyone mention the impact of the baby boomers. I wonder if they had anything to do with the large increase and the decrease in golf participation.

  13. Your club is worried about the socks people wear?? You don’t see a problem with that? That’s one way to weed out newcomers…lol
    On the other hand, most golfers complain about crowded courses and slow play…why the heck do we want more people to golf???

  14. Thought this might be relevant (without passing comment on the merits of the article) but it seems to be in the same vein given that it poses the fundamental question of how to make golf more attractive.

    I’m sure there’s a correlation between popularity and TV exposure in any sport, it’s where most people get their first introductions after all. I can accept that match play is perhaps one of the more accessible formats too and can generate an interest in its own right. I’m less sure that the articles answers are correct though, but that’s just a point of discussion

  15. “Your club is worried about the socks people wear?? You don’t see a problem with that? That’s one way to weed out newcomers…lol”

    The vast majority of the private courses in my area have similar dress code requirements for socks. Shaughnessy Golf and Country Club, Point Grey, Marine Drive and Vancouver Golf and Country Club to name a few.

    I don’t know what US private clubs are like.

  16. I am new to this game as I only started playing in the Fall of 2012. I am not however new to athletics, competition etc as I have been an athlete my entire life. Bottom line is, once I tried it I am as hooked on it as a fish on a lure.
    I am 57 years old and can tell you it was never appealing as, forgive me for saying, it had the perception as a “Hoity Toity” culture and you had to be rich to play. I have found in every case where I have played so far, it is the furthest from the truth. I am sure they are out there, but not that I have seen. As a number of bloggers have said, you can find very affordable courses (both Par 3 and 18 hole public courses) that will not break the bank. Moreover, the intimidating piece of getting on the course as part of a foursome and feeling inferior is alot to overcome…until I saw how many of these golfers are just as much a hacker as I am 🙂
    What got me involved after all these years was a putting tournament between friends at a company meeting. I did well, went home and purchased the exact putter I used on eBay. I started putting in the office for fun and somewhere, somehow, I got bitten by the Golf bug and never looked back. I am consumed every day with it. I wish I got involved much earlier in my life.
    HERE’S MY POINT………similar to professional Football, why not have a “Putt, Drive and Wedge” contest which would be Golf’s version of the “Punt, Pass and Kick” contest featured by the NFL, or Putting Contests both for kids with an age no older than 15. Cities/Towns in America can hold these contests and have local, region and national winners or just promote it in local courses and have local champions. Have the regional winners featured at The Masters or another high profile tournament. These are the kinds of things that will get people hooked on golfing…………..just as it hooked me. Not every person who enters one of these contests will automatically become a golf nut, but if there is a year over year increase in golf involvement, then mission accomplished.
    Getting young kids involved by having them play 18 holes or even 9 is not going to do it. It’s overwhelming, intimidating and would become a turnoff, especially that today’s kids need to have instant gratification. Golf is far from instant gratification as you all know, it takes work, alot of it which is why it is a self improving journey over the course of many, many years.
    IMO, the decline of Golf will only occur in those courses/clubs that are unwavering in their ancient old rules. Over the next few generations, those ancient old golfers will die off and so too will their annual memberships. Who will prosper will be the public courses/clubs as they change their approach with fees and rules as it relates to promoting that true recreational sport for everyone to enjoy that can afford to make it part of their lifestyle.
    There are more potential golfers that will mitigate the decline of Golf not playing and do not belong to clubs than those that do. They are the target group the Golf industry must go after to sustain and build the industry. If they don’t then the decline will be unstoppable.

  17. Where do the metrics indicating a decline in golf participation come from? Does every course in the US submit a count of rounds every quarter?

    And, as someone else said, all I hear on golf forums is whining about crowded courses and slow rounds, so why do we need more golfers? I know my home course is packed most of the time.

  18. Ay33660: I agree with you. I believe that ALL golf courses should have a dress code. I don’t like going on the course and seeing people in athletic shorts and shirts. Golf is a gentleman’s game and has a strong tradition that should be upheld.

    Back to the topic.

    Golf is on the decline because of:
    1. People golfing on weekends and not walking (money)
    2. The economy
    3. Kids not being introduced to the sport

    Golf is an expensive sport and that is why it keeps a lot of people away for this great game.I think that golf is even more affordable than you guys are making it out to be though. I golf A lot and I walk every time I do because it saves so much money plus a lot of us could use the exercise. I get on courses for about $22 for 18 holes walking. I am a scratch golfer and hadn’t bought a golf club until last week when I bought a whole new set. Technology doesn’t change drastically enough to justify buying a new set of clubs every couple years.
    The way the economy is right now, people don’t have the extra money to put towards golf. Golf for most people is a leisure sport and if you play once a week with a cart it can set you back over $50 on a weekend and that’s without the cost of balls, gloves, beer, ect. If you want to practice and also play a couple times a week it can get expensive.

    When I was a kid my grandfather introduced me to golf when I was 3 years old. He first taught me etiquette and the rules, which most holders these days need to learn. The reason some rounds take 5+ hours is because people spend 10 min looking for balls, hitting 2 balls off each tee, and not letting people play through.

    The main point here is that parents are not getting their kids out on the golf course. Kids these days would rather sit on the couch and play tiger woods than actually go out on the course. Parents need to get their kids a summer membership to a local course so the kids can be out of the house and golfing.

  19. Good subject! First golf courses could help themselves by adding additional forward tee boxes. My wife (67 yrs) who is new to golf plays the green tees on our local course. Green is forward of Gold which is forward of Red tees. Par 4’s are 200yds. Par 3’s are 100yds. She hits driver 120-150 yds. She plays “modified rules”! She can use a tee at any time and “lift and place” from any sand trap. She is having FUN playing golf and WANTS to hit a bucket at least once a week.
    I believe there should be an additional “modified” handicap system in golf. My wife would love to play in some couples tournaments BUT she will never have a current USGA handicap. By playing from the way forward tees and using her modified rules, we are able to keep pace with any other foursome. Equally important is that she is shooting around 90 and feels good about her game.
    More importantly my wife has got her daughter, grand daughter and several female friends to play rounds using her modified rules and way forward tees. Think about all the slow pitch softball being played! Slow pitch is just “modified” fast pitch baseball!

  20. Wha’s needed is for the course owners and manager’s to remember that the average player is not a PGA professional. Shorter, more user friendly courses will make the game more fun. More fun means you will want to do it more frequently. First, eliminate unnecessary dirt traps. Yes, I pharased it right. Most public courses surround the greens with dirt holes. They call them sand traps, but there’s very little — if any — sand in them. Next, the courses need to institute the ‘lift, clean, and place, rule for fairways. Again, most public courses have a lot of bare spots. Make it acceptable for any golfer to ‘lcp’ any ball in the fairway. There’s a lot more that can be done. But, first, the USGA needs to accept that the average golfer cannot play at a PGA level. The rules should be adpated accordingly.

  21. I belong to a senior men’s golfing group who play varying courses every Monday with about 40 golfers. Since I am now in a position of responsibility for the group to deal with the golf courses about tee times, I’ve been surprised by how unwelcome many golf pros make us feel. It’s as if they do not want our business. I’m in the San Francisco Bay Area but I’m not going to name any courses. Furthermore, when I lived in the Denver area, I heard similar stories about club pros driving away customers. Poor customer service may be contributing to the level of play being down.

  22. Golf is just not as accessible as other sports. For a new golfer to get good he or she has to play a lot, hit a lot of buckets and/or get lessons, I think $200 bucks a month is a conservative estimate. Even at that rate it takes years to get to bogey handycap.
    High school kids from poor families don’t have a chance financially or just getting to a course often enough to practice. Golf isn’t a game one can practice at the local park for free.
    With a few exceptions golf isn’t an after work sport for most people either, especially working parents.
    Golf is a difficult game to participate in for many reasons, it is what it is by it’s nature.
    Also, not lost on me is the OPs statement about the economy.
    To the OPs life and many other regulars on this site the economy may very well look like it’s getting better, but you are in a different world than the 93 million Adults no longer in the work force, or the tens of millions who are now part time or in a minimum wage transition job.
    The government pumping borrowed and printed money into wall street has to end at some point and that money will have to someday be payed back, then what happens to the expensive game of golf?
    I have been playing since Jul.2112. I live in the bay area so I am able to play year around. I also have a job and a wife that allows me to play a couple of times a week and hit balls 3 or four times a week and I still suck, I think my HP is down around 21, so what ever Golf is it isn’t inexpensive. It can only be inexpensive if you want to be a very bad player and who wants to play a game that they are very bad at?

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