• Alistair Tait

Has Golf Growth Peaked?

Updated: Dec 16, 2021


Golf participation numbers currently resemble those old signs on the golden arches of McDonalds restaurants that read “Millions served every day!” Actually, “billions served” on some signs.


There obviously aren’t billions of golfers, but it sure feels that way with the numbers coming out of the R&A. On top of recent news that golf participation in Europe rose from 7.9 million in 2016 to 10.6 million last year comes another R&A missive which further suggests everything is rosy in this auld game of gowf.


The headline on yesterday’s R&A announcement following research by Sports Marketing Surveys said it all. It screams:

“RECORD NUMBERS NOW PLAYING GOLF WORLDWIDE”

According to the governing body, over five million people worldwide have taken up the game since 2016. The total number of golfers trying to get a miniscule clubface on a white ball stands at 66.6 million, overtaking the previous high of 61.6 million in 2012. The R&A measure includes golf club members and independent golfers playing nine or 18 holes, and driving range users where course availability is limited.


Along with the 2.7 million increase in European numbers, Asian participation grew from 20.9 million to 23.3 million, while North America saw a 700,000 increase to 30.6 million.


R&A Chief Development Officer Phil Anderton commented:

“Golf is enjoying a real boom in popularity at the moment and we are seeing substantial increases in participation in many parts of the world, particularly in the last two years when the sport could be played safely outdoors during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The new figures are very encouraging but we need to work together as a sport to make the most of this opportunity by retaining those people who have returned to golf or tried it for the first time. We can achieve this by offering a variety of attractive and flexible options that encourage golfers to play more regularly and enjoy its many health and wellbeing benefits with family and friends.”

Meanwhile, as Scotsman golf writer Martin Dempster notes, Scottish golf club membership grew last year. Dempster quotes Scottish Golf Chief Operating Officer Karin Sharp, who says:

“Our latest annual returns as at 30 September are showing a total playing membership of 207,676, which is up 14,000 on the previous year, so a rise of another seven per cent.”

That’s promising news for the Home of Golf, but I recall writing about Scottish participation numbers during my career when that figure was 248,000ish.


Anderton’s desire to retain the current numbers is going to be a big ask. So here’s a question: has golf growth peaked?


There’s no doubt increased participation is one of the silver linings of Covid-19. The Omicron variant proves we are far from clear of this virus. Assuming there's light at the end of the tunnel, what happens when life gets back to normal?


Will people keep playing this great game? The R&A research suggests they will, as the #JustSaying quote below seems to prove.


As I’ve noted previously, municipal golf is under threat as never before with courses under threat of closure as strapped local councils struggle to find cash and balance budgets. And non-golf lovers might just bristle at spending council cash for a select few who play this game, when said land could perhaps be put to better use. Not just in the British Isles. Witness the battle to save Northcote Public Golf Course in Melbourne.


Once again, public golf is the pathway needed for newcomers to get into the game, especially youngsters. Meanwhile, we need to beware of pricing those same newcomers out of the game or participation numbers really will have peaked.


It’s a big ask for golf, especially organisations like the R&A, USGA and national bodies who set so much in store in that “Grow the Game” mantra.


#JustSaying: “Among new golfers, 98% of those interviewed identified they are enjoying playing golf and 95% see themselves playing golf for many years to come.” According to the R&A research


Photograph courtesy of the R&A

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