The (Slow) Death of Golf as We Know It

by Jeff Weiss

To all of my friends who are avid golfers, don’t take this personally.  And as bad as my game is on most days, I still like to get out and hit that little white ball every once in a while.  But I think that we are in the early stages of seeing the demise of the game of golf as we know it today.

First some stats:

  • The number of golfers in the US continues to decline — there were approximately 26 million golfers in 2016 compared to almost 30 million in 2006;
  • The number of golf courses in the US is declining — there were 15,372 courses in 2015 vs. a peak of more than 16,000 just a few years ago.

The numbers aren’t declining at alarming rates. So why do I think we’ve seen the heyday of this activity? First, active agers are increasingly looking for activities that are, well, more active.  While choosing to walk a golf course, instead of renting a cart, can be an option, some courses don’t allow this as it can significantly slow down a round.  That means riding around in a golf cart for a few hours without getting a lot of cardio exercise out of it.  Active agers are increasingly looking for activities that provide more exercise to feel healthier —- such as walking, hiking and biking — to name a few.

Second, a full round of golf generally takes at least four hours to complete; add in some practice shots on the range and a drink or two at the 19th hole, and you’re looking at a five to six-hour time commitment for that one activity, representing 20-25% of your day.  With so many other social options and activities available, golfing four or five times a week may not seem as appealing as it once did.

Forward-thinking golf courses and associations are taking notice and considering changes to keep current golfers on the course while bringing new ones into the game.  Perhaps the most radical is changing golf courses and tournaments from 18 to 12 holes.  Course designers are contemplating the construction of two or three 6-hole courses, enabling golfers to considerably cut down time spent on the course (I for one sometimes struggle to keep the energy level up for those last few holes).

If this becomes a trend, what will it mean for existing courses around the country, including the 1,250+ courses in Florida alone?  Just as we’ve started to see some communities re-develop tennis courts into increasingly popular (and easier on the joints!) pickleball courts, we may begin to see current golf communities look for alternate uses for some or all of their golf holes.  A few examples might include converting ponds and lakes into kayaking facilities, or creating more diverse and interesting trails for walking and hiking.  Or perhaps we’ll start to see an explosion of community gardens where members can grow fruits and vegetables, either on their own or with friends. Or how about creating magnificent concert stages or amphitheaters for a wide variety of live performances?

The other factor that might contribute to a decline in golf in general has to do with the stigma associated with the game, particularly in retirement or lifestyle communities.  Whereas the idea of moving to a retirement community and golfing (almost) every day used to be appealing to many people, the thought of spending a significant portion of your remaining months and years on a golf course is starting to lose its luster.  Active agers are looking for and participating in a much wider range of activities that make them feel good and enhance their lives. While golf might be one activity they still want to participate in, current trends suggest that the amount they currently play will continue to decline over time.

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