Global Edition

The New Golf Rush – Will It Last?

2.30pm 17th June 2020 - Coronavirus NewsOpinion

Golf’s is BACK ON and reports are coming in across the UK of unprecedented demand for tee times and new membership application forms being thrust into the hands of Managers, writes Matthew Orwin.

It’s certainly refreshing that golf as a sport is being portrayed in a positive light – well able to re-open safely and offering a great source of fresh air, exercise and social enjoyment (albeit from a distance). But what of the future for this mini-boom? Can it be sustained or is it a brief awakening that will soon revert back to type when greater normality is resumed across the world?

Like the film Awakenings with Robin Williams, telling the story of a doctor who found a cure for what is now known as “locked-in syndrome”. The patients were briefly let free from their comatose state, having an absolute ball in their new-found freedom, but gradually, over time, digressed back to sitting in their armchairs, staring at the wall all day and barely moving an inch. There’s no one working in the golf industry that hopes this won’t be the case with the recent popularity surge. Indeed, there are interesting parallels with history that suggest it might just be a much longer-term trend.

A huge surge in golf participation in the UK took place in the late 19th and 20th centuries

Golf participation in the UK has gone through two significant boom periods. The first was back in the late 19th/early 20th century. The growth in participation at this time led to an equally unprecedented growth in golf course construction. We were reminded of that a few years ago, when many clubs celebrated their 100th anniversary. Then the second boom in participation came along in the mid 1980’s to early 1990’s. Most of us remember back then and the ensuing growth of golf course construction in the early to mid 1990’s. Back in those days, courses were popping up all over the place in a desperate attempt to keep up with demand.

There were three factors that have been attributed to both of these golfing booms:

Whereas the late 18th century saw the Great Triumvirate of Braid, Taylor and Vardon rip up the golfing fairways, the mid-1980’s saw numerous British and European players take centre stage at major golf events. The likes of Ballesteros, Langer, Lyle, Faldo, Woosnam, et al, were almost household names, helped enormously by terrestrial television coverage of the Ryder Cup – a trophy Europe actually began to win regularly for the first time in its history.

During the first boom, it was the Gutta Percha golf ball replacing the old Fethery, and the onset of the steel shafted golf club replacing the hickory shaft. During the second boom, graphite shafted clubs were being introduced, along with the steel-headed woods and the peripheral weighted iron. All of these technological advancements effectively made the game easier to play and therefore more attractive to Joe Bloggs consumer.

The industrial revolution took place between 1760 to around 1840, so it was slightly earlier than the golfing boom, however the social impact of the revolution is widely accepted to have started taking hold a few years later, in the late 19th century. This was a time when peoples standard of living improved immeasurably. The second boom came around the technological revolution during the late 80’s, where the IT age started to take hold and computers were becoming common in workplaces across developed countries. There was a shift away from union-led professions such as coal mining, ship building, indeed, general manufacturing across the board, and the emergence of the service economy we live in today.

Golf clubs across the country were closed for a number of weeks during March, April and May

So can we see these three phenomena happening at the moment?

You could certainly strongly argue that we’ve some very marketable golf superstars at the moment. Indeed, we’ve had them for a few years now. The McIlroys, Roses and Poulters of this world are winning majors and if not, are usually in contention come Sunday night. In addition, the resurgence of Woods and other emerging superstars across the globe. Plus, we’ve continued to pretty much dominate The Ryder Cup. Maybe that’s becoming a bit too humdrum and we’ve all grown accustomed to it, and maybe the lack of coverage on terrestrial TV isn’t exposing the high-profile events to the wider public as much as it once did, but you’d still find it difficult to argue that Europe is well served by superstar role models in the sport of golf at the moment.

What of technological advancement to golf equipment seen in the late 19th and 20th centuries? It seems we’ve plateaued at the top of this curve and despite manufacturers claiming to have invented the very latest golf club that hits the ball further, straighter and more consistently than all the others, it all seems to be fairly marginal gains. Certainly nothing as revolutionary as the metal headed driver or peripheral weighted iron. However, the technological advancement was the means to the ends – the ends being making the game easier to play. You could argue therefore, that efforts have been made over the last few years to achieve this, but in different ways. The changes to the Rules of Golf a few years ago sought to make the rules of the game easier to remember and understand, in turn making it an easier sport to play. Then you have the introduction (albeit slow) of shorter courses and games played over 6-holes. It all makes the sport more accessible and achievable for Joe Public.

Many companies may continue to allow employees to work from home which could benefir golf participation

Then we hit upon the third factor – that of wider economic and social change. Are we in the midst of a new revolution bought about by Coronavirus? Many businesses, previously sceptical of employees working from home, have been forced into loosening their demands for in-office attendance and there’s some anecdotal evidence that suggests they may well stick with it when life returns to normal. Certainly, commentators are suggesting that as we’ve all become accustomed to Skype meetings and Zoom workshops, the traditional office working environment is under threat. Would that in turn represent a shift away from ‘normal’ 9 to 5 office hours to a more flexible working arrangement – in terms of location and hours? If so, golf could be a significant benefactor.

There’s also the pent-up frustration of being confined to our homes during the pandemic, with outdoor exercise limited to once a day. Those of us lucky enough have certainly got plenty of use out of our gardens, nevertheless, is there now a wider appreciation of ‘the great outdoors’? We always took it for granted, but now it’s available ‘on-tap’ and without limitation. Will we continue to value this freedom and access to fresh air and the beautiful British countryside?

Golf courses stood empty for many weeks with only essential maintenance practices allowed

The benefits of a healthy lifestyle have also come into stark focus during the pandemic. With Covid-19 having a more serious impact on overweight people, there couldn’t have been a more overt warning to the general public of the importance of regular exercise and of keeping fit and active. That’s been closely linked to the sport of golf over the last month and for the first time it appears the game is being taken seriously as a healthy activity – with both physical and psychological benefits.

It’s all stacking up – maybe we are at the beginning of long-lasting social change that will be reflected upon in years to come as a revolution bought about by Coronovirus. Maybe we have the third cog in the wheel that will sustain a golfing boom over the forthcoming years.

Maybe, just maybe, golf’s time is back!

Matthew Orwin Mobile 07920 513628 Email: matthew@promotegolf.com

Matthew Orwin

Having started work in the golf industry back in 1993, attaining his first golf club General Manager’s position at the age of 22, Matthew has experienced first-hand both the boom and the decline of the last three decades.

Working exclusively at commercial golf club businesses for over 20 years, and with an MBA to his name, Matthew, alongside long-standing business partner David Reeves, co-wrote three books on golf club marketing (currently selling on Amazon) and co-founded Promote Training – the first golf-industry-specific elearning provider.

Today, he works with David at Promote Golf, assisting and advising golf venues with their marketing strategy, business planning and diversification into non-traditional golfing activities such as health & fitness and Adventure Golf.

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