Is golf dying?

There’s an old Abbott and Costello routine about dyeing:

ABBOTT: You’d better take that suit over to my Uncle Herman’s at the Kurt Dry Cleaning Plant.

COSTELLO: Dry Cleaning Plant? What’s your Uncle Herman doing there?

ABBOTT: Well, this is Wednesday, he’s dyeing today.

COSTELLO: That’s terrible Abbott! I didn’t even know he was sick.

Numerous articles, columns and blogs over the past couple of years have heralded a doomsday scenario for golf. Many of them have sensational headlines while the articles themselves are a bit more balanced with conclusions that the industry is hurting but not dead yet. On the other hand, some of them draw strange conclusions based on flimsy evidence, conjecture and erroneous facts – none quite as obvious as the mix-up about Uncle Herman – but silly nonetheless.

So, is golf dying or not?

“Nobut” would be the simple answer as in “No, golf isn’t dying but it has a few troubling issues.”

Whenever the poobahs of the alphabet soup world (NAGA, RCGA, PGA, NGCOA) are asked about the ‘golf is dying’ stories, they usually respond with some form of “Golf in Canada is a $14 billion dollar industry.” Scott Simmons at Golf Canada and Jeff Calderwood at the NGCOA love to trot out that statistic and even if true, it doesn’t answer the question.

Golf may be big business but size alone is no indicator of health. Many big businesses fail and a snapshot in one year showing a $14 billion economic impact is only relevant if you know how big it was last year or five years ago. If golf was a $15 billion industry five years ago then the shrinkage may be cause for concern.

More troubling for Golf Canada might be a question about their decline in membership over the past ten years (at least 25%) or why Golf Canada is even relevant when only 7% of golfers in the country are members. Who’s catering to, speaking for or looking after the other 93%?

Fortunately, the golf industry is made up of thousands of small and medium businesses whose primary purpose is to cater to those golfers with or without the help of any associations. Like any industry with a lot of small businesses, such as the food service industry, some will fail while others will flourish. The demise of a few restaurants or take-out joints is sad for the proprietors but not necessarily cause for concern for the rest. In fact, most of the time, a few less competitors provides a much needed boost to the survivors.

Similarly, golfers can lament the loss of a favourite course but in Southern Ontario especially, there are half a dozen more within a twenty minute drive. Most of them are doing OK. Not necessarily great but certainly OK. And certainly not dying.

So if golf isn’t dying, then what is happening?

It’s definitely changing. One only has to read David Foot’s excellent book Boom, Bust and Echo to know that the demographics of an aging population will have an impact on virtually every aspect of the Canadian economy. The baby boom generation that fuelled the growth of golf in the 1990’s and early 2000’s has yielded to several generations with less disposable income, less time and many, many more choices as to how to spend both.

Twenty years ago I averaged 70-75 rounds of golf during our season here in Canada. These days I’m lucky to play half that. Part of the reason is time. Pure and simple, it takes too damn long to play golf. What used to take less than four hours now often nudges close to five. I’ve grudgingly accepted that but it means I play less often.

I’d say I’m fairly typical of golfers my age too. We’re approaching retirement, when we should have more time, but for many of us we’ve also played the game for forty or fifty years and missing a round here or there just isn’t that critical. Golf doesn’t have the same urgency it once did.

Fortunately, we can contrast that with young Dave Kaplan, a regular contributor to Fairways Magazine, who tells me he routinely plays 200 rounds in a season. Many a day he sends me a text saying he’s off for 36 holes here or there. I wish I still had that kind of enthusiasm. If his generation is anything like him though, the future of golf is looking good.

The golf industry is certainly cyclical and some golf businesses may come and go but golf will only die when golfers quit playing. I can’t think of a single person I’ve known in over fifty years of playing who quit. Cut back a little or a lot? Maybe. But quit? Never!

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