2005: Business - NGF report: Core golfers dwindle

Despite industry leaders’ efforts to increase participation among women, the number of core women golfers in the United States declined 7.3 percent in 2004, according to the National Golf Foundation’s recently released Golf Industry Report.

That demographic decline was just one of the disturbing trends uncovered in this participation study.

The total population of core golfers – defined by the NGF as men and women 18 and older who play at least eight times annually – fell to 12.8 million, down 4.7 percent from 13.4 million in 2003. The NGF study underscored the importance of core golfers because they account for the bulk of rounds played and golf-related spending.

The report also revealed a decline in the game’s total population of adult participants. Their ranks, including core golfers and occasional players (those who play one to seven times per year), dipped 3.9 percent to 27.3 million from 28.4 million.

Anticipating that these results likely will rouse doomsayers, NGF president Joe Beditz couched the study’s findings, saying the NGF does not “put too much emphasis on one-year variations in participation.” Furthermore, NGF officials indicated that the nature of statistical sampling could exacerbate variations.

More important, Beditz stressed that the number of core golfers has remained essentially flat in recent years and has increased from 11.2 million in 1994.

Still, the 2004 data prove to be discouraging, if not alarming. The population of male core golfers numbered 10.2 million, down 4 percent from 2003. And core women golfers declined to about 2.5 million.

The shrinking number of women golfers, in particular, is a setback considering several industry leaders have championed that demographic as a major opportunity for growth. In late January during the Business of Golf Conference at the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, Fla., and at last fall’s Golf 20/20, the annual industrywide conference dedicated to growing the game, golf’s leaders called for greater efforts to recruit women. Now such efforts may be needed just to maintain the status quo.

According to the study, the number of core women golfers in 2004 remained relatively unchanged from 1998. But during that same six-year span, the number of occasional women golfers increased to 4.4 million from 2.9 million. Much of that gain, however, could be attributable to women previously classified as core golfers, who played less and fell out of that category intothe occasional group.

On the bright side of women’s golf: Approximately 775,000 girls, ages 12-17, played the game in 2004, more than double the 328,000 recorded in 1998. But among the girls who played last year, only 162,690 played eight rounds or more. The NGF report concluded that “while commitment is lagging, trial and interest remain strong.”

Separately, the NGF is planning a detailed study on the effect baby boomers will have on the golf industry. Meanwhile, the group cited AARP research about boomers – the 78 million Americans born between 1946 to 1964 – indicating that 70 percent have a hobby or special interest they plan to pursue more upon retirement. But 79 percent also plan to work in some capacity during retirement, which the NGF says could yield “mixed results for golf’s future.”

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