Golf’s rapid growth has the industry evaluating longer term issues

The participation rate in golf continues to remain strong in the post-COVID-19 era. According to Golf Canada, the national governing body for golf, participation should remain at a +27% growth rate from pre-COVID-19 levels, as measured by scores posted for handicap purposes.

While most public places were closed, many golf courses remained open which resulted in skyrocketing demand.. Looking ahead to 2023, there are no signs of demand easing, as Kevin Blue, Chief Sport Officer at Golf Canada, indicated.

“While overall demand for play softened slightly as the world got back to normal, it certainly is not going back to pre-COVID-19 levels anytime soon, and we see it continuing to be very strong.”

That news has course operators and owners smiling as tee sheets are full right across the country. As well, diversity and demographics are also changing coming out of the pandemic. Overall demographics are trending younger, women are taking up golf in record numbers and overall diversity levels are becoming more balanced with the country’s norms.

From an operational level, these changes are forcing courses to rethink the overall experiences that are being offered. This is not just on-course modifications, but a rethink of the entire experience. Chef Wayne Nichol, Foodbuy’s Corporate Chef and lead on the Culinary Solution team agrees.

“Our course members are asking Foodbuy to help redesign menus with more cost-effective, diverse menu options, along with lighter and healthier offerings. You can’t just offer a hotdog at the turn anymore if you are looking to drive F&B growth and increase customer satisfaction.” This is all great news for the golf community. However, as the lead “caretaker” for the health of the national sport, Golf Canada has their eyes on some potential longer-term issues. The first task is what you would expect from a national governing body – how do we continue to attract younger and a more diverse consumer in order to continue growing the game? Enter the First Tee Program. Originally formed in the U.S. in 1997, the program is now being rolled out across Canada. Blue laid out Golf Canada’s First Tee plans.

“We are initially focused on bringing First Tee to accessible facilities such as municipal or public golf courses that also have schools and community centres close by. First Tee is delivered in all three of these settings. We want to teach golf in the gyms and then take it to the course to help us drive new participation.”

Last year some 22,000 newcomers participated in the program which is expected to grow exponentially in 2023. “We are looking to grow this program as fast as we can manage with the donations and support that we receive.”

Again, great news, however the overall increase in demand will now have operators weighing the opportunity costs of supporting a heavily discounted Jr. or entry level golf program vs. a full fare rate that can be realized when the tee sheets are full.

“Jr. programs often filled holes, but now we are concerned that Jr. golf programs may feel the squeeze during this heavy demand period. We are looking to try to ensure Jr. golf remains strong for the future health of the sport and the industry.”

The second issue on the radar — one that is not as obvious and is outside of Golf Canada’s control — is the escalating value of golf courses in urban centers. “As land values rise alongside a strong push for more residential development, owners in key urban settings are increasingly facing choices about the future of their golf courses.”

As Blue outlined “The overall concern is if we see reduced supply of golf courses in major metropolitan areas, it will be more difficult for residents to access the sport.”

Many of the urban golf courses can be cheaper as they are municipally run. This will mean that governments will ultimately be forced to make that hard choice on course redevelopments. Blue put that balancing act into perspective, “For a country of 38 million people, we have a huge golf market in Canada, in fact, we rank 3rd in the world trailing behind the U.S. and Japan for the number of golf facilities. The recent growth in golf participation has been extraordinarily positive on the whole. It is Golf Canada’s responsibility to monitor trends and think about the state of our game long into the future.”

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