While the majority of millennials aren’t playing golf, they’re flocking to venues like Topgolf that combine music, dining and drinks with golf as an add-on. Industry insiders believe the next generation of golfers will eventually migrate to the course.
Many millennials, like Alice Perez, don’t play golf. The tranquility golfers seek on manicured swaths of emerald green lacks the edgy stimulation she prefers in her pastimes, The Denver Post reported.
“It’s just a quiet sport,” said Perez, a 23-year-old boutique sales manager. “It’s kind of hard for us millennials to get behind, just because it’s so quiet, so reserved. We want the chaos and the loud and the movement.”
But there she was, swinging golf clubs with her husband and a few friends at Topgolf, a three-story driving range and entertainment complex in Centennial, Colo. that has a vibe more like a bowling alley than a country club, The Post reported.
Far from being an affront to golf purists, the Topgolf phenomenon is encouraging for keepers of the game who have watched American golf participation dip from 30 million to around 24 million in recent years, according to The Post report. Marketed as a “sports and entertainment venue that is golf-centric,” according to spokesman Jason Hainault, the Centennial Topgolf has 102 heated hitting “bays” equipped with an assortment of golf clubs and balls with RFID chips that record scores on computer screens. Each bay has a comfortable couch and table with condiments and menus offering cocktails, beer and an extensive food menu.
“If you can’t swing a golf club, nobody’s going to make fun of you,” said one of Perez’s friends, Hasan White. “A million people go to Topgolf that never swung a golf club before. It’s pretty dope.”
The golf industry is hoping some of the millennials who make Topgolf buzz with activity will become golfers when they get older, The Post reported. Reports in recent years have presented grim pictures of the game’s health. A Wall Street Journal story in January reported that more than 200 U.S. courses closed in 2017, but people in the golf industry say that was preceded by a 20-year surge in real estate developments built around golf courses, resulting in an overbuilt market that peaked around 2005.
“We’ve been in a market correction, a supply correction, for about 13 years,” said Joe Beditz, chief executive of the National Golf Foundation.
Hale Irwin, widely regarded as the greatest golfer Colorado has produced, sees no gloom and doom in the numbers, The Post reported.
“If we’re in ‘poor health,’ I kind of like our poor health,” said Irwin, who became a three-time U.S. Open champion after graduating from Boulder High School and the University of Colorado. “I still see it as very viable, very healthy. I don’t see this Wall Street Journal, ‘Oh my God, the sky is falling.’ You might hit your ball out of bounds, but the sky’s not falling.”
Two courses have closed in the Denver area—Fitzsimons Golf Course and Green Gables Country Club—but golf participation in the metro area has been holding steady, The Post reported.
“It’s always bothered me, maybe more than it should, when I see a headline that suggests the game is dying, because it’s not,” said Ed Mate, executive director of the Colorado Golf Association. “The challenge we face is between the bookends of the emerging golfer — the young kids and families we’re doing a good job of introducing the game to — and the aging baby boomers. We’ve got this gap of millennials and Gen Xers who don’t play golf. That’s the challenge. We’re going to have to bridge that gap.”
To address that, the National Golf Foundation is creating a campaign aimed at millennials called Welcome 2 Golf, and it selected Denver for its pilot program this summer with a marketing budget of more than $150,000, The Post reported. Advertisements are expected to begin appearing in May.
“We hope to activate thousands of new golfers in the Denver market,” Beditz said. “Denver was chosen for a number of criteria. Our estimates are that there’s over 600,000 in the Denver metro market who would qualify as being very or somewhat interested in playing golf. There’s plenty of available golf supply, it’s a market that skews younger and is growing.”
Beditz said surveys from the foundation indicate there is a lot of “latent demand” for golf, locally and nationally, according to The Post report.
“Since peaking 15 years ago the number of golfers has declined from about 30 million nationally to about 24, but it has been very stabilized at 24 million for at least five years,” Beditz said. “Of those, 80 percent are dedicated golfers – they’re going nowhere. Golf participation is solid, but it’s not growing. What’s puzzling is that our research shows that interest in the game has never been higher. There’s an additional 15 million people who tell us they are ‘very interested’ and another 33 million answer that question saying they are ‘somewhat interested.’”
In the Denver area, the number of annual rounds fluctuates between 1.6 and 1.8 million, but those swings tend to depend on the weather those years, especially early and late in the year, The Post reported. This year, for example, local golf officials expect the number of rounds to decline compared to last year’s total (1,777,622) because Front Range courses were covered in snow several weeks since the first of the year.
Mate said Denver courses were averaging about 45,000 rounds per year in the 1990s, and now that number is down to about 35,000, according to The Post report. But, he said, that’s largely because nine new public courses opened between 1993 and 2003. One of those new courses was Fox Hollow in Lakewood, where Craig Parzybok has been the head pro since the course opened in 1993. He said millennials will come around to the game eventually.
“I’ve heard stories, ‘Golf’s going to fall off the edge of the Earth and never be heard from again,’” Parzybok said. “I remember when I was 25 years old, none of my friends were playing golf. We were working on our relationships, we were working on our careers, we were starting our families. When they turn 45 and their kids are older and they’ve got their careers, they’re going to take up golf just like the baby boomers did. I’m not worried about it. You have to be 40-45, generally, before you can really start thinking about golf as a leisure sport.”
And, according to the golf foundation, the percentage of golfers who are millennials actually is roughly the same as their percentage of the overall population, The Post reported. But, Beditz noted, that same age group represented a higher percentage of the golfing population 15 years ago.
“The participation rate has dropped from something like 14 percent to about 11 percent, a fairly significant drop,” Beditz said. “At the same time, millennials are way over-represented in the latent demand — those who say they are very or somewhat interested in playing golf on a golf course. The very best evidence of that latent demand for golf, and maybe a different form of golf, is off-course participation like Topgolf.”
That’s why the golf industry is happy to see Topgolf thriving, The Post reported.
“The first thing you’re greeted with at Topgolf is a wait,” said Mate. “It’s going to be an hour for a bay, if you go at a peak time. Then, after you wait in the bar, you’re going to spend a lot of money there. It’s really encouraging because it shows there is something about hitting a golf ball with a golf club that resonates with people … We just need to figure out ways to build a better bridge from Topgolf to golf.”
Not everybody at Topgolf is of millennial age, The Post reported. Herman Malone, 71, who plays 20-25 rounds of golf a year, was there tuning up for golf season with his grandchildren.
“I love it, it’s fantastic,” Malone said. “It’s a great concept. It allows you to interact with the family, and it’s just a wonderful thing. You have dinner and it just gets you ready for the game.”