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  • Alistair Tait

Golf can’t blow it this time

The numbers are staggering, but will they hold? Will golf take advantage of the unexpected increased interest in the game because of Covid-19, one of the silver linings of this awful pandemic?

I hope so, but I have my doubts.

Yesterday’s release from the R&A on increased golf participation in the British Isles in 2020 is good news for a game that formerly seemed in decline. Covid-19 has spurred more people to give golf a go in a big way. The Sports Marketing Surveys commissioned report shows participation grew by 2.3 million in 2020. Here are the figures:

Key highlights from the 2020 Great Britain Golf Participation Report:

  • Total adult golfers on a full-length course (9 or 18 hole) increased significantly by 2.1 million players to 5.2 million – the highest figure recorded this century

  • Of these golfers, 36% identified as returning or new golfers – with 16% of players starting or trying golf for the first time because of the pandemic

  • The average age of golfers fell by five years to 41, with the majority of new golfers aged under 55

  • 25% of female golfers were new to the sport – and tried it for the first time because of the pandemic

  • Driving range use increased from 2.3 million to 4.3 million players

  • Golfers who only used Par 3 courses more than doubled, and those who only played on pitch and putt courses more than tripled

Key highlights from the 2020 Ireland Golf Participation Report:

  • Total adult golfers on a full-length course increased by 219,000 to 540,000

  • 18% returned to golf or started or tried golf for the first time because of the pandemic

  • A third of adult golfers who tried golf for the first time were under 25 years old

As R&A Chief Development Officer Phil Anderton said:

“Golf has shown that it can provide significant health benefits and this has been important for many golfers during these very challenging times. It is vital that golf seizes the opportunity to maintain this heightened interest by offering new and returning golfers compelling reasons to stay within the sport and enjoy it with friends and family.”

And so say all of us.

Clearly one reason so many have either come back to the game or decided to try it for the first time was that golf was seen as one activity that can be enjoyed safely and securely with social distancing. However, what happens when we return to normal and there are so many more opportunities for people to spend their time and money? Will they still take to the fairways, the driving ranges, once society opens up completely?

Good question? Perhaps if the game can hang onto a decent percentage of that 2.3 million increase then it will be in good shape.

The worry? That many will try to cash in and turn newcomers away. Anecdotal evidence says increased green fees, joining fees, and waiting lists are back on the agenda. More anecdotal evidence says driving ranges have markedly increased the cost of a bucket of balls.

Market forces and all that dictate businesses need to cut their cloth accordingly, but I hope we don’t see a huge rise in costs that deter newcomers.

I’ve been around long enough to remember the days of the R&A’s now dusty report "The Demand for Golf", which called for 100s of new courses to be built to meet rising demand. Published in 1989, the report said :

“Almost 700, 18-hole courses need to be built by the year 2000 to supply the expected growth of the game in England and Northern Ireland. This would bring the level of provision in England and Northern Ireland up to half the level current in Scotland.”

Seven hundred! More than all the courses built between 1910 and the report’s publication. Talk about pie in the sky.

We know how that turned out, don’t we? Not too well. What the game got was a glut of expensive clubs with huge joining fees and annual subs that didn’t cater to the needs of most people, for a “demand” that was grossly over exaggerated.

The demand exists now. It must be met for people from all socio economic levels, not just the elite few.

This could be a turning point to do what so many have dreamt for so long: grow the game.

Golf has been given a second chance. It can’t get it wrong this time.

#JustSaying: “With extra leisure days in the week surely due in the next decades I am certain more people will turn to hitting a golf ball, be it on a driving range or on a golf course, as a cheap, health giving exercise and ideal for filling in the days.” Sir Henry Cotton

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