England Golf boss reacts to falling participation figures

News & Tour

Karl Hansell talks to England Golf's David Joy about the state of the game.

Despite fears that golf was dying as a participation sport, abandoned by those who could no longer afford the time or money to play, the boss of England Golf has said the number of people playing the game could be increasing in just two years.

The number of golfers putting down their clubs for good dropped from 13 per cent in 2013 to just 3 per cent in a year, with England Golf’s David Joy now estimating that participation figures could stabilize by 2017.

With so many courses closing down in recent years, it’s positive news for club owners as the shoots of life reappear in a struggling industry.

The Active Peoples Survey published today by Sport England suggests a healthier game than was once thought. More than 1.1 million people play golf at least once a month, and in July and August last year a million people hit a ball around a course.

Chief executive David Joy said: “There’s absolutely no room for complacency and there’s a considerable amount still to do. But it’s a considerable step in the right direction.

“The reason for the change is difficult to pinpoint, I don’t think it’s any one thing. The industry as a whole is pulling together as it has never done before and that is clearly having an impact.

The figures will come as a kick in the teeth for the Government’s secretary of state for business Vince Cable, who claimed that falling participation numbers meant courses were largely a waste of space and should instead be used to construct new housing.

‘We are not meeting the needs of the under 40s’
With 730,300 people playing at least once a week, golf remains one of the most popular participation sports in the country, and the efforts made by the England Golf Partnership to get people back onto the course, such as the Get into golf scheme, are starting to pay off.

However, Joy does expect there will be further casualties, not least the municipal courses that are closing down as council’s are faced with continued austerity cuts.

“Local authorities are under financial strain and services are being cut. So that’s a trend that’s very difficult for us to influence,” explained Joy.

“Some private clubs are also struggling with the economies of golf, but many people accept there may be over supply if clubs at this stage.”

England golf will continue to aid those clubs who ask for help, but Joy said that following the boom in the number of new clubs 20 years ago, the industry appears to be balancing itself out. This will mean that some clubs have to go.

A further difficulty is that golf now has more competition for people’s attentions than ever before. While the Ryder Cup brought the sport to people’s minds last year, the Tour de France had an equally influential effect, encouraging more people than ever to take up cycling, dubbed by many as ‘the new golf’.

Joy said: “The statistics are showing that some of the people who became golfers move into cycling. I think it’s clear that some of the people who would take up golf are not taking it up in the same numbers. While we can’t track it precisely, it appears more and more people are getting into cycling.”

The way to counteract this is to enable people to play golf in more ways than before. Instead of the full 18 holes, rounds of six or nine holes will allow people to play in a shorter amount of time.

The main obstacle to this at the moment is cultural. For many golfers, just playing nine holes feels like walking off a football pitch at half time.

“Golf has never been as successful as it is now,” said Joy, explaining that he believed price was not the main barrier stopping people from playing. “The biggest problem is the time it takes to play 18 holes, it’s perceived as a barrier that we have to break through.”

Forty-four per cent of clubs are stable or having increasing membership numbers. But alternative forms of membership are required to bring the game to the casual golfer, currently choosing to just pay-and-play.

However, Joy said it is equally as important not to cheapen the product for golf’s established foundation, the over-55’s age group.

“We must recognise that golf has a very special value in providing great healthy activity, competitive sport for people who are older and there are very few sports that offer what golf offers.

“But what the figures are also showing is that we are not meeting the needs of under 40s and so we need to better understand what they want.”

The Sport England report has revealed that the shoots of recovery are present for golf, but a lot of hard work is required before grass roots golf can be declared safe.

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