The first tee at Hunstanton Golf Club was busy the penultimate day before lockdown number two. It was the same at most golf clubs. My own club, Woburn, cancelled closure of the Dukes Course for maintenance to cope with the demand.
It would be easy to put this surge to play down to the prospect of 30 days without the chance of taking to the fairways. However, there’s something deeper going on. Golf seems to have its mojo back. After years of worrying about declining numbers, especially membership numbers, the game is popular again. The latest figures from Sports Marketing Surveys prove that beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Rounds in September increased 59% year on year according to SMS:
“Overall, the average number of rounds played across the country was up 59% compared to 2019. The recent surge means that total rounds for the year to date (up to September) were up 7% against 2019. In the context of the complete closure of golf courses in April, and then of ensuing periods of two ball only play, or increased gaps between tee times, this represents an extraordinary performance for the golf industry.”
Sports Marketing Surveys director Richard Payne added:
“We know this news will be bittersweet for golf courses who have put in so much effort throughout this year to react to the changing coronavirus situation and keep golfers safe. Like many, we had hoped that golf would be able to remain open in any national lockdown. Nevertheless, the record results are a credit to the hard work of course owners, secretaries, professionals, and greenkeeping staff, and should give great heart to clubs as they face the next four weeks. With the delayed Masters driving interest in the sport in November, and consumers more aware than ever of the importance of socialising and exercising outdoors, golf should be well poised – regulations allowing – to rebound in December and end this topsy-turvy year on a high.”
The South of England saw the biggest increase with a jump of 22%. The figures tally with anecdotal evidence. I've never seen Woburn's tee time sheets as full as they were this summer and autumn after the first lockdown. One professional at a traditional club to the west of London said his sales in the first month after the lockdown number one hit a record high of 10% above his previous best month. That trend continued the following month, and the month after that. A committee member at one club just north of London told me the club had spent years trying to attract new members with limited success, yet took on 85 newcomers immediately after the first lockdown.
For years golf has tried to broaden its appeal with little success. How often have we heard the mantra "grow the game?" Along comes the coronavirus to provide an unexpected silver lining.
Golf's appeal is obvious: it's a safe sport that easily accommodates social distancing and provides great exercise in pleasant green spaces. You also have to think our game is benefitting from those who would normally spend their spare cash on, say, season tickets for football or rugby, perhaps on foreign holidays. With those avenues closed, perhaps golf is now a better option.
Will the boom continue?
December wouldn't normally be a month to look forward to increased playing rounds, but that might be the result four weeks hence as aficionados, old and new, pine to get back on the fairways after 30 days without golf. The trick now is to keep and embrace those newcomers, especially young people, and attract even more new players. Then we really can start focussing on growing the game.
#JustSaying: "The Sport of Kings, the pastime of the people, the game of the old and the young, golf can be played by all. All classes may mingle, all shapes and sizes may adapt themselves, the lightweight has an equal chance with the heaviest, all play on the same ground on equal footing. Golf has become International and Universal." Robert Harris, Sixty Years of Golf, 1953