Exeter, Devon UK • Apr 24, 2024 • VOL XII

Exeter, Devon UK • [date-today] • VOL XII
Home SportGlobal Is Golf on the Rise?

Is Golf on the Rise?

Ahead of the historic Ryder Cup, Ben Scott investigates golf's colossal surge in popularity.
5 mins read
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Image: Keith Allison, via Wikimedia Commons

Since 2016, over 6 million people have taken up golf worldwide. The sport has clearly changed over the years, from style of play to fashion, to clubs, to players. Most recently, however, the sport has seen a monumental spike in popularity across the globe. Here, we can credit the global pandemic for offering a silver lining for the golf industry.

Just before golf was about to radically rethink itself, along came the pandemic and popularity soared. 

Looking at the stats, 2021 showed that COVID was getting people up and out onto the golf courses – total rounds played that year demonstrated a 19% increase from pre-pandemic levels, according to the National Golf Foundation. This gain is huge for the sport, which was in the midst of a downturn. The 15-year period from 2003 to 2018 saw a 6.8 million reduction in golfers and the closing of 1,200 courses across the USA. Officials and former players, like Jack Nicklaus, began to scratch their heads for some rather interesting solutions to reignite the sport: dividing 18-hole courses into three six-hole courses, removing clubs from bags, and going to match play rather than stroke play. Just before golf was about to radically rethink itself, along came the pandemic and popularity soared. 

Golf, however, remains committed to modernisation in order to maintain popularity. Courses are now looking for innovative ways to attract new generations of players, whilst retaining old members. With the speed of play increasingly highlighted as a reason for staying off the course, applications are in development which will show clubhouse staff and marshals the location of players on the course and how long it is taking them to play each hole. Everyone seems to agree that a new pace of play would be beneficial to the sport – including the pros. At the 2023 Masters, Patrick Cantlay was slammed for being “brutally slow” by runner-up Brooks Koepka.

Businesses like Topgolf also continue to expand the sport. Whilst your new golfer may not make it to the course, more inclusive golf ranges bring the sport within closer reach. Range-side food and drinks, live shot statistics (particularly distances!) through Toptracer technology, and mini-games are all representative of this new wave of outreach. And it’s not just teenage dates finding themselves at the range, as celebrities continue to show their presence on social media. In fact, you’ll find that most of the top sports players of the world have picked up golf at some point in their careers – the likes of Michael Jordan, Owen Farrell, and Gareth Bale are all golf fanatics. 

What sports players and celebrities highlight here is that golf always has been, and continues to be, a great sport to pick up as you get older. Retirement presents a great deal of time to spend, and golf is one of the most popular activities. Joining a golf club for the social, or keeping up the fitness or outdoor time, as well as just having some competition, brings in new golfers year in and year out.

Writing about golf does inevitably draw towards the epicentre or, in fact, the symbol of golf – Tiger Woods. The one golf name that everybody knows, Woods originally captured the spotlight in the late 90s, and since then, every golfer has borne witness to the “Tiger effect”. Dominating the sport for a decade, with 261 straight weeks as the top-ranked golfer in the world, Woods carried the sport on his back. Transcending not just racial lines as the first African American to win the Masters, Tiger broke barriers on the course with distance and ingenuity. Even before his professional debut, Woods signed 5-year deals with both Nike and Titleist, summing $60 million and started his journey to become the world’s first athlete to make over $1 billion. Not only expanding the professional golfer’s wallet, Tiger also brought unseen athleticism to the sport. Working out 5-6 days a week alongside daily range sessions, putting and chipping practice, and rounds, is now expected for the top golfers – but it was Tiger that started it all.

The fact is, Tiger Woods made golf cool.

What Tiger Woods did, and continues to do for golf, cannot be understated. Every golf fan dreams of seeing the undisputed greatest of all time, and television viewing figures represent this on any event which carries his name on the leaderboard. Even off the course, Tiger continues to grow golf with high school and youth programs. The fact is, Tiger Woods made golf cool.

Rick Shiels has over 2.5 million Youtube subscribers
Image: The Average Golfer, via Wikimedia Commons

Rick Shiels also deserves a mention in the rise of golf. The golf-pro turned YouTuber has held the largest golf channel in the world since 2019 and now has over 2.5 million subscribers. Filming all over the world through brand deals with Nike, Garmin, and Mastercard, Shiels posts weekly videos with celebrities and golf stars on the course which have captivated a timeless audience. Whilst most of his videos are in-depth golf product reviews, Shiels continues to regenerate the game with fresh ideas that keep subscribers interested in the sport. Social media, therefore, continues to play a helpful role in golf.

But it’s not all smooth sailing for golf. The recent entrance of the LIV Golf series has plunged the sport into controversy. The controversial Saudi-financed league has poached some of the top stars from the previously unrivalled PGA Tour with the increased purses and new formats. Former PGA stars like Phil Mickelson are being paid a reported $200 million to take part. Even Tiger was linked to a $1 billion bid (which he rejected). PGA loyalists, like Tiger and Rory McIlroy, continue to criticise the entire concept. Ask any LIV player why they joined the new series, and you’ll get anything but an acknowledgement of their new Saudi-backed salaries.

But what does LIV mean for golf as a whole? The emergence of LIV has clearly kept golf in the headlines, and maybe in the bigger picture, the publicity will grow it as a sport. With these two blocs competing amongst themselves, more money will be put into golf, and you can hope this will filter down to your local course.

For professional golf however, driven by a mutual goal to amplify the presence and impact of professional golf on a global scale, the LIV and PGA tours announced their merger on the 6th of June. By combining the strengths of both entities, the new organization seeks to deliver an elevated experience for players, fans, and sponsors alike. The merger won’t be easy, however, as combining formats, balancing salaries, and bringing together players after their outcast, will prove a challenge.

Currently, fans look to the imminent Ryder (men’s) and Solheim (women’s) Cup team competition between the US and Europe at Marco Simone Golf and Country Club in Italy (29 Sept 2023 – Sun, 1 Oct) and Finca Cortesin in Spain (Fri, 22 Sept 2023 – Sun, 24 Sept) respectively. Both competitions promise great golf with inevitable historic moments that any viewer can admire. A thrilling set of weeks in Italy and Spain should draw in yet more followers for Golf.

Overall, it’s impossible to deny that golf has suddenly grabbed a wave of popularity. What’s crucial, however, is that the sport sustains its newcomers, and continues to expand into new audiences whilst retaining and not side-lining its original followers. If golf, as a whole, keeps looking for innovative solutions then there’s no reason why it won’t continue to grow.

If you are looking to get into golf at university, the University of Exeter Golf Club welcomes members of all abilities.

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