Golf and the virus
Everything has broken right for golf this year, but will the sport make these gains stick and does it even want to?
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And now, golf.
Pandemics are bad.
But for the golf business, the pandemic has been a boon.
I’ve written about the golf industry’s big summer. My Yahoo Finance colleague Melody Hahm has written about it. Many others have written about the golf industry’s pandemic gains.
Rounds played are up. Equipment sales are up. Professional golf has rated well on TV through the summer. No one in and around golf will look back at the pandemic as anything other than a great time to be in the golf business.
The sport is naturally socially distant. In a pandemic, things that take a lot of time (too much time, some might say) are welcome distractions from the news, our homes, our phones, and whatever Great Indoors we’ve come to spend 100% of our time in.
From this perspective, the pandemic appears to offer an industry that has seen its core customer continue to age out while younger generations haven’t gained broad interest in the expensive, tedious, and exclusionary game a bailout of sorts.
But this framing is probably a misdiagnosis of how golf grows. Or how golf sees itself growing.
Former LPGA pro Rebecca Lee-Bentham told Melody, “I love seeing the spike of young golfers. I hope it’s long term but I’m sure it’ll fizzle out after COVID. But it’s good that lots of people are trying it out. And golf was seeing a big decline before COVID.”
Here is someone steeped in the game who knows what the sport is really about, who it is really for, and knows the beginners who wanted some outdoor time during a pandemic is not a demo golf is really interested in.
Framing the pandemic as a chance for a new, different generation of golfers implies the sport wouldn’t or doesn’t want to be more expensive, more exclusive, more tedious, more challenging. More golfy, basically.
This week, the USGA will put on the U.S. Open at Winged Foot in Mamaroneck, New York, about 30 miles north of the city. It’s a tournament meant to present to the field a true test of golf, meaning scores, tensions, complaints from players, and the prize money will all be high this week.
And while the public’s perception of golf runs through many filters — the most import of which is how Tiger Woods is playing, but also whoever it is you happen to know that plays, how much they talk about it, how much you personally do or don’t like that person, and so on — the USGA is the closest thing the sport has to an ambassador for a vision of what golf is in America.
And last week, the USGA made the golfiness of that vision quite clear. The USGA announced that Pinehurst, NC — a golf resort town about an hour south of Raleigh —would be home to a new second headquarters for the Association. The USGA also announced that Pinehurst’s famed #2 course would host the U.S. Open every six years beginning in 2029 and running through 2047. The U.S. Open is also going to #2 in 2024.
If you stay at the main resort in Pinehurst on a golf package that will run you north of $1200/night, you can play #2 for $295/round. I’ve done this three times. (Joke’s on me!) Non-resort guests can loop there for $495. So now the resort can raise greens fees at its premier course with the greased gears of demand to play a track the world’s best compete on every six years and the USGA gets some tax breaks to boot.
But what the Pinehurst move really tells us about the USGA is that the sport wants to cater to the moneyed, exclusionary golfer who already defines the game more than any new or prospective golfers. The USGA is signaling that the sport wants to lean in to a core customer who will spend a couple grand on a trip with the boys, purchase a $120 branded polo in the pro shop, and come back every year. (And yes, if you want to find way too many guys being bros being dudes, do a weekend in Pinehurst.)
Golf manufacturers also see the game through a similar lens. A new set of irons, for instance, from any major OEM and will start you at $400 for a driver (double this for a Tour model) and $700 for a set of irons (more than double this for Tour models). Wedges, clubs, balls, tees, bags, towels, all sold separately. Just getting fit for the right equipment might cost a couple hundred dollars.
But the critique of golf as too expensive is really quite tiring. Everyone knows it’s expensive. Everyone knows who golf is for and who it is not for. It’s an activity for white men and their sons. It’s an activity for Presidents and executives. The narrative that a golf course is no longer a place where business gets done is not quite right: it just depends on the business.
Golf is a niche activity that attracts a specific demographic for a specific reason. The golf course is one of America’s original and still well-defended safe spaces.
Golf courses are built on unreal landscapes that provide a large physical environment which shelters, dissociates, protects, and defends most players. Gates at the front of the club, trees lining the course, overly green and spongy fairways, brilliant white sand in the traps.
The idealized golf course is supposed to look, irl, like it does on the new PGA Tour 2K21 video game that just came out. And many of them do. Notably, not Pinehurst! And yes, there is a tweet for that.
And so sure, it might seem that the sport needs to be less golfy. That the industry should want to be less like the sport that defines Trump’s business life and more like a game that might change a bit to reach an overly stimulated, indebted, and worked over generation growing into its prime consumption years. Golf might want to meet the future rather than play up the past.
It might seem that good ideas for golf would be to make 18 hole rounds into 9 or even 6; to take rounds from 5 hours to 1.5; to make municipal and public course culture more important than resort and country club culture. It might seem that there is an opportunity in trying to make the game welcoming, enjoyable, and durable. That it might be fun to make the cup the size of a frisbee instead of the size of three golf balls, to make courses shorter, and cheaper, and more open.
And while it might seem that a game of and by and for a demographic sure to shrink in the decades ahead should find new growth drivers, none of these ideas aren’t anything people in the golf business haven’t already heard, or thought about, or tried, or dismissed as all wrong.
Because it’s more likely the sport’s post-pandemic playbook is to avoid repeating the post-Tiger mistakes we saw during the 1990s and 2000s when too many courses opened, too many companies sold clubs, too many new players wanted to be like the most transcendent athlete in a generation. In other words, if the PGA Tour’s main ad slogan a few years back was to #GrowTheGame, the sport’s actions suggest growth will be found in a smaller footprint.
In the subhead of this piece I asked if the industry wants to make its pandemic-induced gains stick. But it’s not clear this is even the right question. It’s not clear the golf industrial complex really sees new players and more rounds played during the pandemic as gains. Sure, these are nice things. But everyone, deep down, knows that what Lee-Bentham said is the only true thing about the sport’s future: “I love seeing the spike of young golfers. I hope it’s long term but I’m sure it’ll fizzle out after COVID.”
And the sport’s most notable recent actions suggest golf also thinks it grows by putting higher costs on its most loyal consumers.
If Amazon has found that Prime members spend more money than non-Prime members, then every golf OEM needs to be thinking about subscription models to cater to their most loyal customers. The golfer wants to be upsold, to feel like their money can actually buy them something. Wall Street analysts covering the golf business shouldn’t cover sporting goods but luxury brands. Golf companies should be more like LVMH and less like Ford.
Every major golf manufacturer should aspire to pull their clubs from the shelves at Golf Galaxy and make their product part of an elevated lifestyle experience. The economics of country clubs already operate under this system — pay us a recurring fee for the ability, but not the obligation, to spend even more money with us down the line. And the membership always pays up.
As a kid, I played golf at my local par 3 because it cost like $3 and you could play without an adult above age 12. My temper made the sport extremely un-fun and its really easy to not play golf when you tell yourself you just aren’t a golfer.
But four years ago, I caught the golfing bug. My brothers had always played and eventually I broke down and picked the game up again again. Whenever we play together, our fourth is always excited to find out we’re related. And it really is great: how many people don’t resent their siblings and choose to spend lots of time with them?
Four years in, however, and it feels like the end of some kind of cycle. Like the game has extracted as much as it can from me unless I become, well, more golfy. Unless I increase my annual spend and my annual time commitment. Unless I refuse to accept that it really doesn’t matter whether I shoot 80 or 90, whether I play to a 9.3 or a 10.7, that it doesn’t matter where I’ve played, who I’ve played with, and when my next round is.
All that matters is that we spend time doing the things that make us happy.
Yesterday, playing my fifth round in three days in a driving rain upstate, I managed to find the fairway for the last time. And I couldn’t help but wonder who was trying to tell me something — the clouds or my golf ball.
I love this piece. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on the TopGolf/Driveshack business model and if that has driven any more newcomers into golf or golf-related activities.
This is an excellent piece, Myles. As an ex-golfer, it's the increased, intentional exclusivity that has stopped me from getting back into the sport. With the democratisation of so much other entertainment and consumption, exclusive access to a green oasis (with very high social and financial barriers to entry) has proved to be a sustainable model.