One way to kick start golf and get the industry going on healthier terms just might just be to change what golf courses and country clubs look like. If Millennials – those variously described as having been born in the 1980s and ’90s – really are the demographic wave of the game’s future, then how about retrofitting courses to meet their needs and values?
Creating a “Millennial National Country Club” if you will.
After all, we’re talking big numbers – some 80 million people, fully a quarter of the U.S. population.
Too bad they’re not taking up the game like the age cohorts of previous eras. In fact, Millennials are something like golf’s missing generation.
A 2015 National Golf Foundation report said 18-34 year olds numbered nine million golfers in the mid-1990s. By 2015 their numbers were down to six million. Participation rates fell from 14 percent of that age cohort to 9 percent.
Maybe they didn’t caddie as kids and learn the game the way many of us baby boomers did – in the caddie yards, and by getting onto the course on Mondays. Or maybe they are so saddled with college debt and scrambling to make a living that they don’t have the free time and disposable income to take up golf. Or perhaps they just think golf is for old rich people, too stodgy and bound by repressive rules – not “cool.”
It would help if we could make the game look more like the proverbial millennial lifestyle. Some time spent on the internet watching business guru Simon Sinek pronounce judgment on “what’s wrong with Millennials” conveys the facile version of what golf industry leaders might need to do.
Like place beanbag chairs throughout locker rooms and out on the veranda. Forget about efforts to ban cellphone usage in clubhouses and on the golf course. How about letting them plug their iPhones into speakers so they can play music from their golf carts. Dress codes? Forget about it.
At the country club of the future, we can expect hats backward to be standard, along with cargo pants, flip-flops and tee shirts. Golf rules governing competitions?
It’ll be more like breakfast balls – ooops, call them lunch balls, since Millennials don’t get up that early – at club events, with golfers not expected to turn in a score and everyone getting a prize just for showing up.
Tempting, but misguided, if the NGF study is to be trusted. Applying a single paintbrush, as does Sinek, to portray an entire generation, turns out to be misleading in ways that could yield counterproductive policies.
As with any group, there are internal differences. Turns out that by the NGF’s own reckoning, half of all millennials who play golf prefer the game’s traditions and rigor. The NGF calls them “throwbackers” and finds them in contrasts with two other subgroups that more or less split the rest of the age group.
“Breakfast Ballers” take a loose view of the game’s rules but are drawn to it as a form of outdoor social recreation tinged with a large measure of technology. There are also a lot of “dabblers” out there, the majority of them female, who don’t primarily consider themselves golfers so much as people willing to try the game and who are drawn to its social networking and inclusiveness.
There’s little doubt of sea change across the industry as clubs relax and adapt. The Country Club of Orlando just invested $350,000 to outfit its Club Car carts with a digital system that enables members at the city’s oldest private club to plug in their music, monitor email and order food from the clubhouse, in addition to accessing high-quality graphic yardage of the golf holes.
Part of that change is responding to a generation that doesn’t see golf as separate from their home life and that is spending a lot of time at the club as family unit.
Bellerive Country Club outside St. Louis, host to the U.S. Open in 1965 and PGA Championship in 1992 and 2018, has made itself more amenable to the lifestyle of younger, working families by adding family-friendly forward tees in the fairways and relaxing its dress code to accommodate busy parents and their children.
John Cunningham, assistant general manager and director of agronomy at Bellerive, gives the example of the family that’s returning from afternoon lacrosse practice and is driving by the club.
“In the past, “ he says, “they would have had to change from khakis for the parents and lacrosse uniform for the kids if they were going to have dinner at the club. Or they’d just drive home or to a restaurant. Now they can feel comfortable stopping off at the club.”
The trick is trying to adapt a facility to such a broad generational group without fundamentally antagonizing any one cohort.
The effort, underway at many clubs, is to make the club more appealing to a slew of generational values that highlight social engagement, personal challenge and mastery, peer affirmation, and health and wellness.
Golf offers the chance to provide all of this, though it might take some adjusting to make that obvious.
(Note: This story originally appeared in the May 1, 2017 issue of Golfweek.)