It’s been a global calamity of unprecedented proportions and, make no mistake, COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate.
Golf, at least in the very early stages of the pandemic, wasn’t immune. Australia’s very first fatality from the coronavirus – James Kwan – was a much-loved member of The Vines Golf Resort in Western Australia [see page 34 of the July issue of Australian Golf Digest]. The man hailed as a “pioneer” of the WA tourism industry contracted the disease onboard the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan before his health quickly deteriorated. His death rocked the Perth club, if not the entire nation, and was a worrying sign of what was to come.
As more cases spread, a national shutdown of recreational facilities like golf clubs was inevitable. It triggered widespread panic. Would this sound the death knell for more golf courses already feeling the pinch from misguided politicians and greedy developers with a thirst for greenspace?
Not so fast. As quickly as our clubs took a hit to their bottom line, they were given a pardon. Turns out golf, played in accordance with strict social-distancing regulations, was considered essential recreational activity by national health experts. Some states, like Victoria, took a bit more convincing, but regardless, golf’s economic engine was once again firing on all cylinders when we least expected it to, and continues to do so.
In fact, since the start of May, courses across the country have seen a dramatic spike in participation, so much so that many have resorted to a ballot system to manage their overflowing timesheets.
Sydney’s Moore Park Driving Range had an all-time record month in May for balls hit, despite operating on limited hitting bays for part of the month in accordance with social-distancing laws. Yarra Bend Golf in Melbourne normally takes about 250 calls a day from eager golfers. The day it was announced you could play golf in Victoria again, they received 2,000.
Memberships are up across the board too, with Sydney’s Bankstown Golf Club welcoming 60 new faces in May alone, headlining a crammed leaderboard that has the sport’s administrators frothing.
Equipment companies have been cashing in, too. One leading manufacturer here in Australia forecasted about 200 package-sets sales in May. They ended up shipping out more than 2,000 to eager customers, many new to the game.
But we’re not alone. Golf’s “spread” hasn’t just been contained to our shores. Its infectious nature is out of control everywhere. And if they’re not playing it, they’re consuming it by the millions.
Case in point: the term “golf” through Google search is enjoying its highest rank in four years.
May’s telecast of “The Match II” involving Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson was the most-watched cable sports program ever in the United States (5.5 million average).
Here at Australian Golf Digest, we saw significant growth during April and May. Newsstand sales were up 18 percent year-on-year, while supermarket sales spiked 26 percent. Our subscriptions mirrored the traditional growth periods of Father’s Day and Christmas, while website traffic at australiangolfdigest.com.au has ballooned by 45 percent during the past six months to 231,000 visitors per month. Throw in 726,000+ engagements across Facebook between March 29 and May 23 and the evidence is irrefutable: people have a crush on golf again.
What comes next is the tricky part – converting this crush into full-blown love. Tricky, because we’ve been here before but the marriage didn’t last. Golf showed similar growth patterns during the Great Depression. Back then, people turned to the fairways to feel normal again. Even miniature golf exploded, such facilities thriving on the back of the worst economic disaster to hit mankind.
What happened? Why didn’t the momentum continue? Why has golf experienced a steady decline in participation since, particularly in the past few decades? The truth is it’s because of a myriad of factors not limited to golf becoming too expensive, too elitist and too long to play for the general punter. On top of this, golf clubs have failed to respond to the needs of the modern consumer, who sought alternative recreational activities that better aligned to their stretched disposable income and time.
While the sport’s attrition rate has concerned Golf Australia for some time, its general manager of golf development David Gallichio told the ABC at the end of 2019 that membership numbers did not fully tell the story of the game’s state of health.
“People are playing more golf casually than ever before, and you will find that rates of non-organised participation are trending up across almost all sports,” Gallichio said.
“[But] the world has changed and we haven’t adapted to that.”
Hopefully that all shifts post Covid-19. Golf is riding another wave of opportunity and it’s crucial everyone within the industry – administrators, manufacturers, retail outlets and the media – advocates for more access and affordability.
Aussies were forced to temporarily ditch the football boots and gym towels and the fact many picked up golf clubs, either for the first time or returning after a long hiatus, was an an incredibly fortunate piece of timing for a sport in dire need of more players.
As Bill Gates once said: “Success today requires the agility and drive to constantly rethink, reinvigorate, react and reinvent.”
Let’s hope the golf industry can pivot and show the new way forward with a game plan focused on tomorrow, not just now.
Time, of course, will be the ultimate judge on how well golf capitalises on the spectacular shot in the arm it has been gifted, but if it fails to act and adapt the second time around, there’s little doubt it will be its gravest mistake of all.