Golf - a game in decline or changing for the better?

Is UK golf's future brighter than Rickie's orange or in greater decline than Tiger's short game?

Andy Roberts's picture
Fri, 6 Feb 2015

Golf - a game in decline or changing for the better?

Golf is in decline. Well, that is what they say.

From dwindling club memberships, to the BBC losing the Open and its viewers favouring Lewis Hamilton over Rory McIlroy in Sports Personality, it would appear British golf has more yips right now than Tiger’s short game.

But hold the pin. Are things really as bad as they seem? Is golf really on the decline? Or is it just changing?

True, according to stats from England Golf, there has been a 20% slump in golf club memberships between 2004 and 2013, from 882,184 to 707,424.

Plus, the number of adults in Great Britain playing at least once on a nine or 18-hole course in 2013 was down for the second year running, to just below 3.4m (6.6% of the adult population), according to leading sports research company Sports Marketing Surveys Inc. (SMS Inc).

Price, pace of play, unwelcoming venues and stuffy attitudes are hampering the game and prime reasons why about 70% of the UK golf population are not joining golf clubs.

But SMS Inc. has also announced increased figures in its "Golf Rounds Played" study for 2014 in comparison with the previous two years.

The survey revealed the number of rounds played per public-access course in Great Britain between October and December 2014 was up 4.5% on 2013, and up 5.3% between July and September. 

While memberships and general participation might be down, it would seem those that do play are playing more and becoming more "nomadic" - happy to spread their business around whichever course takes their fancy next. 

The other reality is that people are engaging with "golf" in different ways.

Already courses are being designed with options to play six holes rather than 18, and France’s winning Ryder Cup 2018 bid, with its commitment to build hundreds of short urban courses, is at the forefront.

"For golf to grow there will have to be ways to play that will not take nearly as long to complete a round," said nine-time major champion Gary Player.

"Time is of the essence to everyone."

Improved simulator technology also increases opportunities for short virtual games in the heart of the city such as "Urban Golf" or "TopGolf", where the sport meets the bar, like a night out at bowling. 

According to SMS.Inc's 2013 participation survey, the number of people who used a driving range at least once in 2013 was also down to just under 2.5m.

But you would not think it at popular venues such as World of Golf in New Malden, Surrey, where bays are in constant demand, with about 14m balls struck there last year, an average of 38,356 a day.

Is it even about participation? Do you have to play golf regularly to be a golf fan? Hands up, who watches Match of the Day religiously but does not play football?

Whether golf's return to the Olympics for the first time since 1904 will boost to the game remains open for debate given the formulaic 72-hole strokeplay structure, but it is a move in the right direction. With cool young characters such as McIlroy and Rickie Fowler on show, the game could be rejuvenated with the masses.

"We have got a lot of understanding to do," said Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell. "I believe the Olympic Games will grow into the game of golf as players get a chance to experience it."

If 72-hole strokeplay is golf's Test cricket, the game appears to be crying out for its version of 20-20.

Mention "15-inch cups" to a self-proclaimed golf purist, and their upper lip will quiver, but this is the latest attempt at a more accessible game.

Adidas group president Mark King has done just that in the United States with "Hack Golf", a nine-hole, 15-inch cup concept he believes will appear at 90% of American golf courses in five years' time. 

The idea of using larger cups, which has already taken off at several golf clubs in the UK such as Hoebridge GC in Surrey, is designed to reduce the length of time spent putting and speed up the game. 

The great Bobby Jones once said the most important distance in this bedevilling game is the space between the ears. Perhaps the only measurement that will matter in the future is the diameter of that hole.

The public perception of golf is still, to some extent, influenced by the attitudes of a small number of exclusive clubs, but golf is slowly beginning to see change.

Nomadic golfers are contributing to increased number of rounds in the UK and golf is becoming more accessible to the British public through urban spaces and technologically enabled play. 

Club membership might be on the decline, but golfers are evolving, and the game with them. 

What does the future of golf look like? Are you a golf club member or a nomad golfer? Share your thoughts in the forum or you can tweet us@Golfmagic