Industry News

Millennials hold the key to golf’s uncertain future

By Ted Bishop

Shawna is 28 years old and grew up in a Los Angeles suburb. She attended an expensive California private college for two years before transferring to New York University, from which she earned bachelor’s and law degrees. Her student-loan debt is well into six figures.

Shawna (who asked that her last name be withheld) and her husband, Tom, consider themselves “avid” golfers but play only once a month in Washington, where they live and work. Shawna works in a federal-government job that doesn’t require a law degree but comes with student-loan assistance.

“Tom and I love golf,” she said. “We pick and choose our courses, which are mostly public because that is what we can afford. I wish we could play more, but our time at work and the lack of discretionary income limit us.”

Brit McCune, 27, works in a management position with a central Indiana manufacturing company. He is “a serious golfer” who books most of his golf rounds on GolfNow, a third-party tee-time provider. McCune likes being able to book tee times online 24/7 and usually shops for the best price.

“My cap is usually around $25 for 18 holes,” he said. “Sometimes that limits the quality of course I can play, but that is what my budget allows,” said McCune who plays four-five times each month. He faces tight finances, a busy work schedule and married life.

The clock is ticking as the golf industry awaits the arrival of millennials to the first tee. Golf leaders hope that those born from 1984 to 2002 will preserve the sport’s place in society. Participation numbers indicate that it won’t happen any time soon.

The National Golf Foundation counts 6.2 million millennial golfers in the U.S. Compare that total with the 9 million ages 18-34 who were playing golf in the mid-1990s. That’s a decrease of nearly one-third. According to the NGF, millennials comprise 26 percent of all golfers and pump about $5 billion annually into the industry through 90 million rounds. Many golf course operators might question those numbers. 

A 2015 NGF report “Golf and the Millennial Generation” separated these golfers into three categories:

  • “Throwbackers,” some 3.3 million predominantly white males, were introduced to the game during their formative years by parents. Their perceptions and attitudes toward golf mirror those of the baby boomers (1946-64). 
  • “Breakfast ballers” number about 1.4 million and were more likely to take up the game on their own or with the help of a friend. Golf for them is a social activity to be enhanced with music, alcohol, gambling and social-media engagement.
  • “Dabblers,” about 1.7 million, don’t consider themselves to be golfers but are counted by the NGF because they claim to have played during the past year. Only a third say they enjoy golf. Without intervention, many will drift away from the game.

The reality is that “breakfast ballers” and “dabblers” represent nearly half of the NGF’s millennial population, and the industry can’t count on their participation long-term. 
The report also states that millennial golfers listed an average of 10 recreational hobbies that keep them busy. That leaves golf, a pay-to-play sport, facing competition from free activities such as walking and jogging. 

Millennials say they are swamped at work, yet only 75 percent are employed full-time. The most telling fact is that millennials, like Shawna and McCune, are more burdened financially than 18-34-year-olds were in the early 1990s. Between credit-card debt and student loans, millennials have less discretionary income to spend on golf. 

The jarring reality is that today’s millennials represent about one-third of the number of “real” golfers as their age group in previous generations. Where will we find the next generation of golfers? The golf industry has yet to answer that key question. 

Ted Bishop, who owns and operates The Legends Golf Club in Franklin, Ind., and is the author of “Unfriended,” was president of the PGA of America in 2013-14. Email: tedbishop38pga@aol.com; Twitter: @tedbishop38pga