What Will Be Your Topgolf Moment?

Leaders of the growing (yes, growing) $84 billion golf industry convened in Big D for 11th National Golf Foundation Symposium. As someone who has attended dozens of golf conferences and conventions over 30 years, I found Dallas to be a perfect city to celebrate an industry changing of the guard. The city is the nation’s fifth largest golf market with 500,000+ golfers and has a storied history — producing Hall of Fame golfers, acclaimed courses and tournament golf. It is also ground zero in the battle to turn theoretical latent demand for golf into economic reality. Leading the way is Topgolf, the burgeoning golf entertainment company which boasts 300,000 unique customers per store, half of whom don’t currently play traditional golf. It has inspired competitors such as Fortress Investment’s Drive Shack. These off course tech and customer service driven businesses have grown non-traditional golf participants and a 16% increase in latent demand numbers — those people who say they are “very interested” in playing golf — to 14.9 million people. Topgolf is also partnering with Billy Casper Golf on Launchbox, a new green grass driving range version of its gaming experience powered by Toptracer technology. 

Latent demand. Now we’ve heard that for years from the PGA’s Boston Consulting study and numerous NGF reports. Still the number of people playing traditional golf has been pretty stagnant. That figure remained constant at 23.8 million in 2017. Topgolf’s fortunes are not tied to traditional golfers but are tied to latent demand. There were 21 million people who participated in some golf activity off course last year, up a slight 100,000 from 2016. 8.3 million of these only participate in non-traditional golf and likely are fueling the latent demand number. Many of these are Topgolf customers; younger, more diverse in gender and race, and enjoying the fun of swinging a club and, yes, swigging a beer. 

This Symposium also featured a new group of industry leaders ranging from the NGF’s Greg Nathan, new First Tee chief Keith Dawkins, LPGA marketing chief Kelly Hyne and the the dynamic Ted Logan of the PGA of America. Gray hair was non existent. Fresh thinking and enthusiasm abounded.

 Hyne cemented the LPGA’s leadership role in women’s golf reviewing the tour’s Women’s Network, LPGA Women Who Play, Leadership Summits and Women’s Golf 101. Check for yourself at  LPGAWomensNetwork.com With 80% of women in the C-Suite having played sports; girls’ golf is vital. Oh, and she reminded us that 60% of the Fortune 500 have a Diversity Officer who has a budget for programming, another source of funding for inclusive youth sports programs. 

NGF chief Joe Beditz provided some perspective on golf participation pointing out that it is roughly the same as 1996, though the industry is markedly different as twenty years ago there were 300 Courses under construction and dozens of OEMs. Last year there were 206 course closures, 16 openings and a 6% decline in the number of golf retail stores. On the up side there was a 3% increase in premium golf equipment and balls. 

Adult participation in our game is strong compared to other sports. One in nine adults play golf, while one in 25 play soccer and one in 30 ski. And more people are taking up the game than ever before; a record 2.6mm beginners started playing golf last year -- up 100k from 2016. These new golfers are decidedly more diverse with their percentage of women, non-Caucasian and <35 years of age coming in at twice the rate of current golfers. For those that say golf is not connecting with young people, look at Millennial participation rates. The 6.2mm golfers aged 18-34 make up 26% of people playing our sport. Thanks again to Topgolf as 23% of new golfers say they were inspired by this new golf franchise. 

Junior golf is also growing in numbers and diversity. The game’s 2.7mm kids includes substantially more girls (2x) and non-Caucasians (4x) of the general golf population. How important is junior golf? “It is our 401K (Kids),” says Beditz. A big driver of youth golf is still being born into a golfing family as 8 of 10 juniors have parents who play. But credit the First Tee for driving general youth interest in the sport and growing our diversity. Its chief exec cited the 5.3 mm kids reached annually through 10,000 elementary school programs. 

Perhaps most exciting was Ted Logan’s report on a new Athlete Development Model for golf. With national support from the USOC and five leading golf institutions the ADM embraces news of the US Surgeon General’s endorsement of sports to help combat epidemic levels of childhood obesity. The acclaimed Aspen Institute is endorsing Project Play as studies show that life expectancy for kids is five years less than their parents. Logan illustrated why a national approach to developing youth participants is so vital. While kids 6-12 playing soccer dropped 23% from 2011-16, hockey participation rose 20%. Guess which sport adopted an ADM? Key changes in hockey spurred this growth:

- No body contact before age 15
- Cross Ice rinks shortened their “playing fields”

- Elimination of intrastate championships for under 12 (reducing time and travel costs) 

Golf’s ADM has goals to grow general sports participation, develop fundamental, transferable motor skills, provide an avenue to choose golf as a sport, and create a generation that loves sport and passes its children. A very exciting vision for the future of our game. 

Youth will be served but let’s not forget the Boomers and their impact. There were 400,000 more >65 year old golfers in 2017. With 10,000 Americans a day turning 65 this will increase for 11 more years, from 3.6 mm golfers to 5.8 mm; prime time for playing and spending on golf. 

Yes, Dallas represented a changing of the guard for the industry. As one of those who was guardian for the sport over the past generation I’m delighted to see what these “kids” have in store for us.