Golf has benefited from lockdown – now it needs to keep its new digital audience

 

When golf was one of the first sports to return during lockdown, this column was encouraged that, after years of dwindling activity, the sport had a great opportunity for resurgence. With it being the ideal socially distant sport – and with more people working from home and with greater access to their local courses, it was in a position to thrive.

But one crucial thing needed to happen – the game needed to focus on accessibility.

Sure enough, it seems to be doing just that and, as The Golf Business magazine reported last week, new data showed that the number of rounds booked online in September almost doubled from 2019’s figures for the same period.

The Sky Sports supported app Golf Now, which runs the largest online market for tee time bookings, said that the number of rounds booked online in September 2020 was up 97 per cent year-on-year and the number of golfers booking them was up by more than 100 per cent.

“This also contributed to more than a 113-percent increase in total revenue generated for the app’s partner golf courses,” said Dan Higgins from GolfNow.

“This growth spurt has been characterised by new customers, as well as golfers who are returning to the game. In fact, September performance relative to new golfers booking via GolfNow was up 184 percent, with the number of returning golfers who booked online up slightly over August,” he added.

By modernising – and embracing today’s tech – golf clubs have prospered during one of the bleakest periods in the past century and can continue to do so if they continue to welcome new and returning golfers.

“Booking behaviour has recently shifted more toward digital,” Higgins explains. “And as golf courses continue to operate with fewer employees with less time to take reservations by telephone, booking online has become an easier and more convenient option. This recent data demonstrates how technology is improving the connection between golf courses and golfers, as well as creating improved ways for golf courses to conduct business.”

Sportside is hugely supportive of these advances and will look to connect golfers up and down the UK when we launch in the coming weeks.

But being ‘accessible’ is far more than about adopting modern technology. It also means accepting change. Change in consumer behaviour, change in the sporting landscape – and change in attire.

Tyrrell Hatton won the European Tour’s flagship event the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, earlier this month – and he did so wearing a hooded top.

His choice of clothing generated almost as many column inches as his victory. And predictably there were two schools of thought: the traditionalists who refuse to accept anything other than a polo shirt, chinos or tailored shorts (but only if you are in knee-high club socks) and the modernists who celebrated Tyrrell’s hoodie and who take the view that the most important thing is that more people are encouraged to play the sport. Not to mention that the hoodie in question is incredibly smart.

Traditionalists worry about a slippery slope – if we allow hoodies, then what next they ask – singlets and flip flops? The answer to that is, whatever golf clubs feel acceptable. It is up to each club to decide what dress code is appropriate for them – but the more discerning club will surely appreciate that there is a middle ground – a way to move with the times without ‘lowering the tone’.

Former Open champion Paul Lawrie was brilliant on this when he spoke to National Club Golfer earlier this year. 

Explaining why some young players often shone at his Foundation and then disappeared the following year, he said: “We always ask them questions about why we haven’t seen them and it’s, ‘Well I don’t want to get dressed up to play golf. I don’t want to change my clothes to play golf.’

“If they are saying they want to play in their sweatpants then why can’t they play in their sweatpants?

“I know it’s difficult but we are trying to get kids into the game and shouting at them and telling them not to do this and not to do that is not going to make me, if I was a kid, want to come back. I think we all need to get a little better at that.”

Lawrie also offered a solution to the other scourge of golf – slow play. Too often people trying golf for the first time are put off by rounds that take over four hours to complete. Often because some players take too long over their shots, treating every one like a championship-winning strike. But also because the etiquette of golf dictates an order of playing shots – the furthest away from the hole hits first and so on. And when you step on the next tee, the player who won the hole tees off first, the one who came second plays second etc.

Lawrie advocates ‘Ready Golf’ – “if you are ready, play. Just always be respectful to your opponent,” he says.

Again the traditionalists may splutter over this – but there was some good news for them from The Golf Business too. The magazine carried a report from eminent psychologist and neuroscientist Stephen Smith earlier this month. In it, Smith was keen to point out that as well as modernising, golf’s traditions also gave the sport the potential to become the ‘go-to leisure activity in a post pandemic world.”

Smith, the chief psychologist at Sport Psychology, made his point in a White Paper he published looking at psychology and neuroscience of human behaviour in times of turmoil

He said: “The need for certainty and confidence has never been greater. As many leisure activities compete for survival, the ones that offer a sense of stability through modern traditions are those most likely to appeal to the vast majority of people. Traditions create a sense of belonging that is a fundamental part of human existence.

“It is folly to try to stop traditions from evolving or to throw beloved traditions in the garbage bin to artificially make yourself more relevant – golf may have achieved both in recent times.”

Smith also argued that part of a sport’s appeal is in its archaisms. “Having a unique language / jargon is vital to creating a sense of belonging to something special,” he explained. “Will tennis ever decide to swap ‘zero’ for ‘love’?”

Smith concludes: “It is not the quirky language that puts people off; it’s the way that certain individuals, and every golf club has them, use trivial infringements to embarrass and shame newcomers.

“If golf wishes to be the game of the 21st century it  must be inclusive, supportive and empathetic to give all new participants a special sense of safety, security and belonging that makes everyone want to stay part of our tribe.”

The Golf Business observed two particular trends emerging during lockdown: the demand for shorter versions of the game (memberships of pitch and putt courses on the rise) and the fact that more and more young people are now getting out on the fairways again. One study it cited showed that the 24-34 age group were the category most likely to be booking rounds during June this year – and that 18-24 year-olds made up 15 per cent of all green fees in that month too.

A golf boom was also being reported across the water in the United States too where rounds played this year are on target to be as much as 10 per cent higher than in 2019.

The National Golf Foundation and Golf Datatech released a report last month which showed that rounds played in August were up over 20 per cent year on year – equating to 10 million extra rounds played, the largest ever increase since Golf Datatech began tracking over 20 years ago.

There was further encouragement in the number of rounds played by golfers aged 6 to 17 years old. The research suggested the numbers of those playing in that age bracket could also rise by 20 per cent this year.

Golf has got a whole new audience – now it just needs to keep hold of them. And Sportside is here to help with that.

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