Phil Mickelson’s USPGA victory on Sunday at the age of 50 seemed to provoke very differing emotions across the sporting spectrum.
There were the majority who delighted in the fact that he became the oldest ever winner of a major, playing with his trademark, flamboyant, devil-may-care spirit. There were others who found it ridiculous that a 50-year-old could still win one of the four biggest prizes in a mainstream sport, asking is this really proper sport if such an ‘old man’ can win it?
Then there were those that were coming to terms with their own sporting mortality, reflecting that ‘Lefty’ was doing things at the age of 50 that many 30-somethings could only dream of.
But there were plenty of other talking points too – the course itself, quite unusual for a USPGA, and how it contributed to the drama with its fiendishly difficult approach shots; the scenes at the end where the central protagonists of the drama (Mickelson and Brooks Koepka) were caught up in the crowds as they rushed the 18th fairway; not to mention the extraordinary sideshow of Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau’s ongoing spat.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of all of the above, it certainly generated headlines and got people talking – and thinking – about the great game of golf.
And a new study has found that golf in GB and Ireland enjoyed a magnificent increase in participation last year, another cause for celebration here at Sportside.
Research led by The R&A, together with England Golf, Golf Ireland, Scottish Golf and Wales Golf, has shown how the sport thrived in 2020.
Two new reports from Sports Marketing Surveys (SMS), showed an increase in people playing golf on full-length courses as well as alternative forms of the sport, including driving ranges, Par-3 golf and pitch and putt. There was also an increase in the number of female golfers and a reduction in the average age of participants.
The total number of adult golfers on a full-length course (9 or 18 hole) increased by 2.1 million to 5.2 million – the highest figure recorded this century and of these golfers, 36% were identified as returning or new golfers – with 16% starting or trying golf for the first time because of the pandemic.
The report also revealed the average age of golfers fell by five years to 41, with the majority of new golfers aged under 55 while 25% of female golfers were new to the sport and had tried it for the first time because of the pandemic.
Driving range use also increased from 2.3 million to 4.3 million players while golfers who only used Par 3 courses more than doubled, and those who only played on pitch and putt courses more than tripled.
Phil Anderton, Chief Development Officer at The R&A, said, “We have seen a real surge in the number of golfers in Great Britain and Ireland playing the sport and this is reflected by the high demand for tee times and clubs reporting a strong interest in membership last year.
“Golf has shown that it can provide significant health benefits and this has been important for many golfers during these very challenging times. It is vital that golf seizes the opportunity to maintain this heightened interest by offering new and returning golfers compelling reasons to stay within the sport and enjoy it with friends and family.”
As we have reported previously, the impact of Covid-19 restrictions cannot be underestimated and the report also found that among regular golfers, 31% said they had experienced some negative impact on their feelings as a result of the pandemic. And of these, 79% said playing golf had a positive impact.
“The mental and physical health benefits of golf have helped boost participation in 2020 and that is hugely encouraging given the sport offers a wonderful form of exercise out in the fresh air for all ages and abilities,” Anderton added.
There are still two majors left on the golf calendar this year (as well as the Ryder Cup) and the R&A revealed that they expect to host 30,000 spectators a day at this year’s Open at Sandwich in July.
Martin Slumbers, the R&A chief executive, said the Kent course could be at 75% capacity – which is roughly 30,000 fans per day – although it could still be as little as 25% depending on Covid developments between now and July.
Spectators will most likely have to wear masks, while players, officials and championship staff will also need to form a bubble.
But if the Open could attract anything like the storylines that came out of last week’s USPGA then they will consider it an excellent golfing summer.
And if the rumours are true that Gareth Bale looks set to retire from football to play golf full-time, then the sport may just have found another headline-maker to rival Phil Mickelson in 2021.