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Golf Rounds Are Up - 10 Reasons Why

By: Nancy Berkley


The headline in a recent National Golf Foundation report said it all: "2012 Rounds Up Significantly." The NGF predicted that the 2012 year-end gain could be the greatest annual increase in U.S. golf rounds since the year 2000. That's very welcome news.

Applying my analysis of how many rounds the average golfer plays that predicted growth could translate to about 1 million more golfers this year than last year. Current, former or never-ever golfers have probably already begun to feel that golf is emerging from its own great "recession," which began in 2008.

The NGF research pointed to two principle causes for the resurgence. The first was weather; an unusually long golf season in the northern part of the nation - from the Dakotas to Vermont, an area that accounts for almost half of all golf rounds played in the U.S.

A second factor was an increase in the "consumer confidence" measure. The NGF relies in part on the work of the Conference Board, an impartial industry-supported research organization that publishes the frequently-cited Consumer Confidence Index. Stated very simply, the Index indicates whether the economy is looking up or down for consumers and businesses.

The NGF spotted this trend earlier in 2012 while reporting its own Golf Consumer Index. And, applying basic psychology to the consumer confidence measures, when consumers feel positive about the future they're more likely to be purchasers than savers. For the golf industry, that translates to more rounds, more lessons, more equipment purchases, more meals served and even more golf memberships.

I like the NGF's reasoning, but got to thinking and decided that there had to be more supporting the growth in rounds. Perhaps - finally - the golf industry's efforts over the last decade are beginning to pay off.

So here are my 10 reasons why golf rounds are increasing. I'm doing it David Letterman-style, beginning with reasons 10 and 9, which come directly from the NGF's report, and then taking you down all the way to reason No. 1.

10. Weather has been more favorable for golf in the northern and north-central part of the U.S. where almost half of all rounds are played.

9. The Consumer Confidence Index is up, which means people are more willing to spend again rather than continue saving for continued bad economic times ahead.

8. Playing golf is more affordable. There are several reasons for this. First, the cost of joining a private club decreased significantly since 2008 and the onset of the recession. Many clubs were forced to slash their initiation fees or eliminate them completely. Public and semiprivate facilities also cut their green fees and began offering attractive pricing packages. In my opinion, the bargain prices combined with an increasing consumer confidence brought more golfers to the courses. I am just starting to hear clubs talk about beginning to raise their fees to pre-recession prices as their memberships look healthier.

7. Junior Golf is finally making an impact and drawing more kids along with their parents and grandparents to the game. At the professional tour level, attractive young golfers are emerging and beginning to be role models for a new generation. At the recreational level, the work of the First Tee and National School Program (which introduces golf in elementary schools) has reached hundreds of thousands of young people. The tipping point is probably the work of the LPGA-USGA Girls Golf Program, which is focused on young girls and is now supported by an annual LPGA Tour event, the Founders Cup, which helps fund the program. In my recent interview with LPGA commissioner Mike Whan, his commitment to the LPGA-USGA Girls Golf Program came through loud and clear. I have been preaching about enhancing junior golf for a decade; see one of my favorite articles "Why Teach Golf to Kids" at www.cybergolf.com/womensgolf.

6. The Golf Channel is delivering a better storytelling product. Beginning with programs like "The Big Break" but more so with NBC's purchase of the network, the whole Golf Channel operation is better in every way. NBC is the master of sports "storytelling," which it has honed to a fine art in covering many Olympic Games. NBC can take a young gymnast from a nation American viewers may never have heard of and suddenly that competitor has a compelling and inspiring life story. And now NBC is applying that skill to its coverage of golf tournaments. As golf becomes more global - the direction that all American sports are moving towards, the role of Golf Channel and its storytelling expertise will continue to drive more viewing, fans and rounds.

5. Instruction is more affordable with the new ways of delivering it. And it's Golf Channel again that leads. Through its use of top golf instructors like Karen Palacios Jensen and Michael Breed, thousands of viewers can catch their flaws and improve their games. That builds confidence and encourages more rounds. And the use of video lessons is just in its infancy. Jensen reports she has golfers from all over the world that send her videos - taken in their backyards with cell phones - for her to critique and use for instruction. The bottom line is that good golf instruction is easier to come by and less expensive. The "Get Golf Ready" program sponsored by the World Golf Foundation and PGA of America offers a package of five lessons for around $100. Contrast that with the $100-per-session lesson from an elite private club instructor, and it's easy to see how inexpensive lessons might increase rounds played.

4. Playing a round of golf is becoming shorter, takes less time and can be more fun. There are really two forms of golf emerging: 1) "Classic Golf" "Official Golf" or "Tour Golf" with its USGA rules; and 2) "Non-Classic" golf or "Non-Official" or "Recreational" golf. The tipping point here are the frequently advertised endorsements by Jack Nicklaus to play a 12-hole round; "Tee it Forward" on shorter sets of tees; and even to make the cup bigger. In a recent conversation I had with Pat Gallagher, who introduced "Flogton" ("Not Golf" spelled backwards"), we discussed alternative ways that this great game can be enjoyed by more people. Pat is looking to promote the invention of balls that go farther and clubs that hit balls longer (all likely unapproved under USGA rules). In his website www.flogton.com, Pat spells out what he thinks can make the game even more attractive and fun. My daughter, a typical young mom, wants to be able to play nine holes in one-and-a-half hours and doesn't mind a scramble format or the chance to socialize with friends even if a few mulligans are thrown in.

3. Golf facilities can think about making profits again. After cutting costs and dismissing ineffective staff, the profit motive is back. And they know the customer is both king and queen. And when it comes to profits, smart golf facility managers now accept that fact that women golfers are good customers. In fact, in 2011, women and junior girls were the sweet spot in the market. In the "Get Golf Ready" program mentioned earlier, about two-thirds of the participants were women.

2. Personality is back - and we love it. Without naming names, many golfers on the PGA Tour were just too serious. Well I'll name one: Tiger Woods, one of the greatest golfers in the world but an enigma when it comes to personality. We need more high-profile players like Arnold Palmer, with his "Arnie's Army," and Nancy Lopez. Thankfully, personality is back with major champions Bubba Watson and Rory McIlroy on the PGA Tour. The LPGA players are also very appealing. They text and tweet during rounds, Morgan Pressel spends about two hours signing autographs, and girls in the LPGA-USGA Girls Golf programs put on programs where they dress like Paula Creamer. The game is benefiting while getting its mojo back with such approachable folks, a subtle but very important reason why more people are returning to the golf course.

1. Facebook vs. Face Time. In my opinion, the No. 1 reason why golf rounds are increasing is that we yearn for personal one-on-one contact. With so much done on cell phones and computers, let's face the reality - these modes of communication are not face time. There will always be a place for Facebook. But it's the few hours on a golf course in real time that brings us back to who we are and who we like to be with and who we can have a real conversation about matters important to us. In the end, face time will always be important and one of the best places for it is on a golf course. In between shots it's all about face-time. This is a very important factor underlying the increase in golf rounds and the value of the sport itself.

So take in the fresh air, exercise, challenge and fun that golf offers. As I like to say: Be Happy, Be Healthy, Live Longer, Play Golf.

Nancy Berkley, President of Berkley Golf Consulting, is an expert on women's golf and junior-girls golf. She is a frequent contributor to www.cybergolf.com/womensgolf. Her book, "Women Welcome Here! A Guide to Growing Women's Golf," published by the National Golf Foundation, is an industry reference on marketing golf to women and spotting trends within the industry. She offers information and advice about the golf industry on www.berkleygolfconsulting.com and is often quoted in national publications. She was a contributing editor of "Golf for Women" magazine and a founding advisor of "Golfer Girl Magazine." Her interviews with women in the golf industry now appear on www.golfergirlcareers.com. Nancy lives in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., and is a graduate of the University of Minnesota, Harvard University and Rutgers Law School. After a business and legal career, she decided to write about the game she learned and loved as a teenager. She describes herself as a good bogey golfer with permanent potential.