Who Plays Golf?

According to the National Golf Foundation, the aging of America
is still key to golfs prospects for growth


There are a number of stories to be found in the 1997 edition of the National Golf Foundation's (NGF) annual "Golf Participation in the U.S." report.

The top line numbers, for example, show that in 1996 the game's two main growth indicators— number of golfers and rounds played—totaled 25 million and 477 million respectively, which is pretty much where they're been for the past six years now.

By the same token, there's other data in the report that says some interesting changes are taking place which are being followed with interest by those who, like the NGF, believe that the baby boom and the aging of America will be working in golfs favor in the years ahead.

The scenario for this story can be found in the age group breakouts contained in this year's report. These crosstabs show that the senior golfer segment (age 50 and over) is the only one that has exhibited any appreciable growth in recent years.

Since 1991, for example, the senior segment has grown 16 percent, or by nearly one million golfers. Todays 6.4 million senior golfers now represent 26 percent of all golfers. Five years ago, they accounted for just 22 percent. By the same token, all other age groups have lost members or, at best, remained level during this time period.

"We've been saying for several years now that, when they leave their child-rearing years and begin to approach retirement, todays 78 million baby boomers will be one of the driving economic forces in golf," says Richard Norton, the vice president who heads up NGF's research department.

Norton is quick to point out that the first wave of this generation turned 50 last year and that there's much to be gained by the golf industry if these new seniors behave like their predecessors and play more often as they get older.

Rounds vs. Revenues

"Todays seniors are among the game's most avid players," says Norton. "They not only average about 36 rounds a year—which is about three times what it is for all other golfers—they also spend half again as much on golf."

Norton also points out that the current leveling off in golf participation does not appear to have had a negative impact on golf consumer spending which a 1995 NGF research report showed as nearly doubling since 1986, going from $7.8 to $15.1 billion.

"It would appear," he says, "that, while they might not be playing more, today's golfers are willing to spend more on everything from equipment to lessons and fees. So, although rounds played may be down at some courses, the average revenue per round may be going up."

Those Bellwether Beginners

In addition to seniors, the NGF's annual surveys measure another market segment that is equally important to golf and its economy: beginning golfers, i.e., those people who take up the game for the first time each year.

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For the past 10 years, the game has been seeing approximately two million beginners a year, with the 18-29 age group producing the largest single sub-segment. Prior to 1996, the age group regularly accounted for about 35 percent of all beginning golfers. Last year, it jumped to 42 percent.

The NGF will be paying special attention to this percentage in the years ahead because it's one that will verify another belief that's held by the NGF and others, i.e., that golfs future growth is tied also to a generation known as the "echo boomers" . . . those 72 million young men and women who were born between 1977 and 1993 and whose parents are the original boomers. The leading edge of this group turned 18 in 1996.

"We expect to see the 18 to 29 age group become even more predominate among beginners as more echo boomers move into their twenties," says Norton. "And, of course, one of the big unknowns here is the influence that players like Tiger Woods and Karrie Webb will be having on these young men and women over the course of the next several years."

Other Insights

Among the other findings in this years report:

• Avid Golfers (25+ rounds per year) The size of this group has remained essentially unchanged over the past six years. It numbers 5.3 million, which is about where it has been since 1991. Half of all avids are age 50 or older. Eighty-two percent are male.

• Core Golfers (8+ rounds per year) Although they constitute roughly half of all golfers, they account for close to 90 percent of all rounds played. Their average age: 45.

• Female Golfers

Although they comprise just 21 percent of all golfers, they continue to account for more than 30 percent of all beginning golfers. Also, avid female golfers compare very favorably to their male counterparts when it comes to rounds played. They average just five less rounds per year (59 vs. 64). The growth potential of this segment is reflected in the fact that the participation rate among women is about 5 percent versus 18.5 percent for males.

• Public vs. Private Golf

Approximately 80 percent of all golfers in the U.S. today play the majority of their rounds at public courses. On the other hand, the average private club golfer plays more than twice as many rounds per year (34) as the average public golfer (16). The private club golfer also leads when it comes to household income, but not by as much as you might think. They average $69,700 vs. $57,700 for all public golfers.

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Factoring In the Margins

The national mail panel survey upon which this report is based was conducted for the NGF by Market Facts Inc. of Chicago, one of the world's largest market research organizations,

As in past years, a total of 30,000 households were surveyed and weighted with U.S. census demographic variables to make them nationally representative. The large sample size produces a low margin of error. For example, in estimating number of golfers, it allows a margin of +/-2 percent with 90 percent confidence.

"In looking over the fluctuations that have occurred recently in total number of players and average rounds played per golfer," says Norton, "we've noted that these changes have all been well within our margins of error. And it's for this reason that, when we reflect on the past six years, we look at these growth indicates as remaining essentially level."

Article reprinted with permission granted by the National Golf Foundation (NGF), 1150 South U. S. Highway One, Suite 401, Jupiter, FL 33477, 561.744.6006. Copies of 'Golf Participation in the U.S. /1997 Edition"can be obtained from NGF Membership Services at 1.800.733.6006.


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