Golf has a unique chance in a millennium to become a real game for the masses
It’s a well-worn anecdote but somehow seems relevant at the moment. On Masters Sunday 1996, the late great journalist Peter Dobereiner was in the bathroom at the Augusta clubhouse when Greg Norman entered. As he rushed forward, Dobereiner turned to the Australian, a player he had a close relationship with, and said: “Even you can’t fuck this one.”
It’s fair to say that in a metaphorical sense, golf is in a similar position to where the great white shark found itself that afternoon. No, not, looking in the urinal, but with a six-stroke lead and the ultimate prize beckoning you. Yet just like Norman, will golf explode?
Covid has given the ancient game a huge advantage in the fight to be Britain and Ireland’s main sporting pastime. It had been accepted as a fact anyway, but a report commissioned by the R&A shed light on how astounding the push has been.
Golf club managers were invited to read it and cry… with joy. The main findings include:
– The total number of adult golfers on a full course (nine or 18 holes) has increased from 2.1 million to 5.2 million.
– The average age of golfers has dropped from five to 41, with the majority of new entrants under 55.
– 25% of golfers were beginners and tried it because of the pandemic.
– The use of the practice has 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.
In Ireland, the progress is just as impressive. Golfers on full courses more than doubled, from 219,000 to 540,000, with a third of beginners under 25. These are spectacular numbers.
“Golf has shown that it can provide significant health benefits in these difficult times,” said Phil Anderton, R&A Director of Development. “It is essential that golf seizes this opportunity by providing compelling reasons for new and old golfers to stay in the sport. “
It is heartwarming to hear this reaction from R&A. There are few flashbacks to St Andrews HQ, no corks or port tasting, but, instead, a recognition of the luck that has befallen his blessed pursuit. Led by Martin Slumbers – a genuinely enlightened CEO who understands the need to modernize but also its complexities – the R&A realizes it has to strike when the five-irons are hot. Everything is in favor of the game.
Let’s face it, golf has been lucky. The coronavirus has succeeded where so many brilliant marketing strategies have failed. It’s the perfect sport to socially distance yourself and, to be frank, everything was closed and there was everything else to do. And with the sun shining, overseas vacations on hold and ‘Staycation’ being the new ‘Costa del Sol’, there will be so many more ready and willing to dip their toes into a new hobby. What they encounter should be warm and inviting, not cold and repulsive.
That’s the challenge when the rest of society reopens, as the treadmills kick in, the shuttlecocks revive, and team sports cry out for their common call. The rush will level off and likely will have to and the focus will change, almost overnight, from accumulation to retention. Golf knows what it takes. There have been so many surveys conducted over the decades that they rival notorious rule books for weight.
Simplify, seduce, embrace. Don’t shy away from petty rules. Women still represent only 18 percent of the membership, well below other European countries. There is the answer, right there, for this “family” sport. The cobwebs are gone, but some of the stench remains. It should be the ultimate spring cleaning in the sport.
There is certainly no need to rest on laurels or, more damagingly, a financial rush to exploit this explosion of interest. Memories of past benefits that turned into bankruptcy should be at the forefront of the new game consciousness. It doesn’t matter if this is a once in a lifetime opportunity, it could be a once in a lifetime opportunity.
As Dobereiner might have said, “Even golf can’t fuck this one.”