The PGA TOUR and LIV Golf continue to dominate headlines in the feud for professional golf’s future, with high-profile players changing sides and a legal battle set to take the two sides to the courtroom. Meanwhile, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy are aiming to change the landscape by partnering on a new high-tech pro golf competition that will be televised in prime time on Monday nights. That recent announcement came just days before McIlroy capped his professional season with a win in the Tour Championship and set a single-season record with $26.7 million in total prize money.
Amid all the developments in and around pro golf — chaotic and otherwise — the recreational game continues to thrive, now more than two years into what many regard as a Covid-driven renaissance.
It’s safe to say that even with the PGA TOUR-LIV drama, professional golf’s popularity can’t quite match the major U.S. team sports. But when it comes to the recreational game, no other sport’s engagement approaches that of golf, which is by far the nation’s No. 1 pay-to-play outdoor sport. From spending on green fees, equipment, apparel, accessories, instruction, game-improvement devices, travel, and more, the 25.2 million active, on-course golfers in the U.S. equate to big business. That economic impact is likely inching closer to the neighborhood of $100 billion annually after being estimated at $84 billion back in 2016.
And while the meat of the PGA TOUR schedule ended last weekend at the Tour Championship, the golf season is still going strong on the recreational side, with fall weather approaching in many parts of the country. That means golfers continue to play and pay, and the numbers are bearing that out.
During the peak-season summer months of June and July, collective rounds of golf played at more than 16,000 courses nationwide were almost 3% higher than a year ago. While that might seem like a relatively small increase, it’s important to note that’s in comparison to a year (2021) in which more rounds of golf were played across the U.S. than at any other time in history — and that includes Tiger’s heyday.
In looking at the past 12 months of rolling data, recreational play has been trending about 13% higher than recent pre-pandemic years, per the National Golf Foundation. It’s a strong indicator that golf’s “Covid bump” is being sustained.
“We’re seeing rounds remain at a high level,” says Tim Schantz, CEO of Troon Golf, the world’s biggest golf management company. “And private clubs remain full, with waiting lists and increased initiation fees. It’s shaping up to be another great year for golf and we’re seeing sort of a reset, a new normal if you will.
“This convergence of off-screen participation, increased overall popularity, the uptick in the game over the pandemic – all of those things are painting a relatively bright future for golf,” Schantz added. “We see a bit of a sea-change in terms of the people interested in playing golf, and being able to reach out to different constituencies – women, juniors, minorities – folks that maybe had not been not as apt to participate in golf. A lot has converged to make it more accessible and more fun.”
The CEO of another of golf’s biggest management companies, Steve Skinner of KemperSports, is also bullish about the recreational game’s momentum. KemperSports is known for working with well-known destination properties like Bandon Dunes (Oregon) and Sand Valley (Wisconsin), but also operates a wide range of public facilities from privately-owned daily fee clubs to government-funded municipal courses.
“Golf is becoming a little broader,” Skinner said recently at the grand re-opening of Twin Lakes, a daily fee public course in rural Pennsylvania. “You don’t have to just be an avid golfer to enjoy the game. We’re seeing it can be just as much about families and communities. That’s great for golf because we can broaden the base.”
During the previous two years, fueled in part by the pandemic, more than six million beginners played golf on a course for the first time. Millions more returned to the game after time away (a year or more), an influx that helped the game’s on-course participant pool rise more than 3% since 2019, according to NGF data. Among the notable changes were a rise in the number of females, juniors and minority golfers.
Equally encouraging is the record number of non-golfers who say they’re now interested in playing on a course. This measure, which the NGF refers to as “latent demand,” is in part attributable to the newer off-course forms of golf — including the fun, social, less-intimidating offerings such as Topgolf — that have helped boost not only interest in the game, but reshape perceptions around it.
“The off-course stuff is seemingly growing by leaps and bounds,” says Pinehurst Resort President Tom Pashley, who oversees one of golf’s biggest destination properties, with 10 courses in total. “I can remember going to the PGA Show for years, seeing all these simulators and wondering, ‘Where are these in the real world?’ Now they’re showing up in so many places and not just in wealthy people’s basements.”
The attitude for many within the golf industry when it comes to the high-tech forms of grassless golf: a rising tide lifts all ships. Interest in swinging a golf club at a golf ball is a good thing and especially encouraging when engagement levels continue to run high — from local community courses to getaway golf destinations.
And while the vast majority of actual on-course golf rounds are played locally, destination golf properties like Pinehurst are indeed also continuing to thrive amid the sport’s current resurgence.
“Last year blew us away. The visitation was off-the-charts strong,” Pashley added. “Ever since the fall of 2020 when golfers began traveling again, it’s just really been non-stop. We’ve been trying to predict when is this going to eventually normalize? You used to have to convince me that it wasn’t just a flash in the pan. Now you have to try to help me understand why it’s going to end and what is going to make it slow down?”