There are those in the sports world that believe golf is dying, while others claim it’s diminishing in popularity until the current generation of young adults gives way to the next. A weekend spent with my golf shoes on the ground at Hazeltine National during the 2016 Ryder Cup reveals a golf world that’s changing, but hardly fading.
Days one and two at the Ryder Cup put an estimated 40,000+ fans on the links of Hazeltine National. Today’s final round and its 12 one-on-one matches promises to put an estimated 65,000+ fans on the turf. By that measure, it should quality as the largest overall attendance at a Ryder Cup in history (at least amongst those that the U.S. hosted).
What’s in a reporter’s eye-line as he walks the grounds at a major golf event does not qualify as a scientific survey on the demographics of the game. But, tens of thousands of people can provide a window into who’s watching and playing the game.
The game remains predominantly white and upper middle class to affluent. While some believed the success and popularity of Tiger Woods a decade ago would introduce the game to the inner city — and while programs like First Tee looked to make inroads by bringing minority players to the game — you could just as well call this weekend’s event the 2016 Whiter Cup.
As you’d expect with a crowd of more than 60,000 people, the ages on hand vary from toddlers to old timers. The generation that’s supposed to be abandoning the game — the Millennials – are in attendance. But, that doesn’t change the stats that say Generation Snowflake doesn’t play because it’s too difficult, takes too long to master and requires more capital outlay than other sports. You’ll also hear the occasional snide remark that they won’t put their cell phones down long enough to pick up a club – or that they’re afraid of sunlight.
There are a lot of children at the event — which is a bit of a surprise considering that can’t see much from the galleries. Robert Trent Jones, Jr., legendary golf course architect and son of the man who designed Hazeltine National here outside Minneapolis, believes those kids bode well for the future of the game — even if the Millennials never come around.
“Maybe we don’t get the Millennials back, but the game is healthy. It’s downsizing from the Tiger Woods era, but it boomed then. I think the stat to watch is the number of golf balls sold. There’s been little decline there. That means there may be fewer players, but those still with the game are playing more often.”
Jones also urges analysts not to obsess over the USA’s numbers. There are now fewer courses in the U.S. than 10 years ago, but PGA estimates say the game remains healthy in Europe – especially Eastern and Northern Europe where the game has room to grow. There’s also huge expansion in the Far East via China and Korea.
“Tiger Woods was a TV star with a lot of charisma,” Jones added. “He was good for TV. But those fans watched. They didn’t play. The game was overblown in that era and is returning to its previous levels today.”
Jones points to new programs like Youth on Course that allows any young person to play even elite courses for $5 or less if they agree to volunteer at golf events.
“The game will come to anybody who wants to be a part of it. That will never change.”