Make no mistake, Tiger Woods not only moves golf’s needle, he is the needle. Having been absent from the game for almost three years for a variety of health and personal reasons, the greatest player of his generation is back after a recent second-place finish.
Written off by many, Tiger’s return is the best thing to happen to golf since, well, Tiger burst onto the professional landscape in 1996. He’s great for television ratings and a boon for tournament organizers in ticket sales. And the anticipation for this month’s Masters — the season’s first major championship — will be unprecedented.
What we don’t know is whether his return will be beneficial to the stagnant golf industry, whose importance to North Carolina is reflected in our special report in this month’s magazine. The economic impact of golf in the U.S. is almost $70 billion annually, according to Forbes. The game generates about 2 million U.S. jobs and $4 billion each year for charity.
Unfortunately, golf participation has gradually decreased during the last decade. The Great Recession can be blamed in part, but in truth, golf was overbuilt and oversubscribed during the boom of the mid-1990s. On the heels of Woods’ emergence, the game’s popularity exploded, prompting the National Golf Foundation to suggest that a golf course per day should be built over a 10-year span to meet latent demand. The industry complied: From 1986 to 2005, more than 4,500 courses opened.
Since then, more people have given up the game in what the foundation called a “market correction.” Participation peaked at 30 million in the U.S. in 2005; by 2016, the number of golfers slid to fewer than 24 million. Since 2006, many more courses have closed than opened. We’ve learned that golf is a niche sport and not for everyone. It’s too difficult, too expensive and takes too much time for many. Becoming proficient enough to enjoy the game requires a serious commitment.
Still, while less action is occurring at the courses, interest in golf may actually be surging. Golf participation away from courses increased 11% to 20 million people in 2016. Most of that stems from Dallas-based Topgolf, which operates in Charlotte and 37 other U.S. locations. It offers a triple-decker combination driving range, restaurant, bar and entertainment facility. Many view the concept as a video game come to life. Topgolf says that 54% of its customers are ages 18-34, and 51% have never played golf before. To be sure, many customers don’t pick up a club at the venue, either.
Purists say Topgolf is to golf what a saddle is to an automobile. One doesn’t have anything to do with the other. Others say that any way to get a club into someone’s hands can’t be a bad thing.
The future of the game may lie with young people who associate golf with sofas and video monitors. Or it could choose to ride the resurgence of an aging superstar. For the sake of the game, let it be something in-between.