By Jay Karen
I’m writing this at the mid-point of 2020, one of the most unexpected years in my lifetime. The American economy and society have been rocked by racial tensions and a deadly viral pandemic. Thousands of golf courses were partially or totally shut down this spring. And yet the very conditions created by the pandemic have resulted in a surge in play at golf courses, private and public alike (resort courses notwithstanding - they may have taken the biggest beating due to fears in travel). It’s a strange feeling indeed to be beneficiaries of something that is killing other parts of the economy.
And what about this surge in play? Not until next year sometime will we hear from industry researchers how many people played golf in 2020. By all anecdotal accounts, assuming the second half of the year sees robust play, 2020 will have been a good year from a “number of turns at the turnstile” account. Rounds played through May were up over prior year, and just about any public golf course operator I talk to is telling me how robust business is. And how many new faces they are seeing! Granted, just like all politics is local, so is business performance. One business owner told me he has had his best year ever, and others are suffering still. The surge in rounds doesn’t necessarily mean a commensurate surge in new golfers (avid golfers may be playing twice as much).
The question of the hour being asked of me by the media is - will golf be able to hold on to this surge in play? Implicit in that question is a default assumption that golf may not be able to (otherwise, why is it an important question to ask?). Based on historical figures, the last time we saw a noticeable surge on the participation graph was when Tiger Woods was bursting onto the scene. After a few years of growth at the time, we subsequently saw, and have only seen since, a precipitous slide. Thus, the media’s question is a reasonable one, to which I’m replying: God, I hope so!
But seriously, if we are actually seeing a notable rise in new customers, I think we stand a better chance of keeping them around than the ones who came to golf twenty years ago. If we are to believe that the magnetism of Tiger Woods sparked a multi-year surge in interest, then it was the aspirational quality of Tiger that caused the surge. Perhaps no different than my love of Pete Rose being the reason I tried Little League baseball in 1984. But my love of Charlie Hustle didn’t cause me to stay in the game, after having struck out 13 times, walked 47 times and hit only once.
We have to assume the people coming to golf right now are doing so to get outside, to enjoy the company of friends and family, to get a little exercise, and to do something fun. Yes, it helps us that alternative recreational options have been artificially limited. But I contend the chance for retention is better than twenty years ago, because these people are coming to the game for the very reasons people stay with the game for decades. There is no “pied piper” upon which to hang our hopes.
But if this year teaches us anything, forecasting anything in this world is a fool’s game. We need to take the fate of these newcomers into our hands. It will require (among other things) warm hospitality, exquisite customer relationship management (CRM), proven programs for beginners, ensuring a social connection to your business, and an attitude that you want them more than they want you. As unpredictable as our world may be, let’s provide some reliable, healthy goodness that people so desperately need. The better we do that, the more likely the participation graph changes course.