In 2021, 37.5 million Americans over the age of 6 played some form of golf, making it the most popular participating sport in the country, according to the National Golf Foundation.
Last year, across the board, was a booming year for the golf business. Rounds played climbed back to roughly the same level they hit in 2000, when golf icon Tiger Woods captured PGA player of the year honors and ignited new interest in the sport.
Then came 2022. Through April, the most recent data available, rounds played across the US were down 10% compared with last year, according to research firm Golf Datatech. In Texas, rounds played were down roughly 3% in that 12-month period.
Except in the Dallas area, where rounds played shot up 11% in April alone and 2% for the year.
So what’s the golf industry to do about the rest of the country?
One way is to keep players like Texas Tech University junior Josh Yetts hitting the links. On a recent afternoon, he warmed up at the driving range at Tenison Park Golf Course in Dallas before his round, switching over from his irons to his driver to polish off the last few balls in the bucket. He took up golf four years ago but started playing more throughout the pandemic since there was “nothing else to do.”
Companies in the golf world are optimistic the sport can stay closer to the 2000 high rather than falling back to the lower pre-pandemic numbers. The much-heralded COVID boost played a key role in the growth, but in the past six years, golf has had more new golfers on a year-by-year basis when compared to 1999 and 2000, the time period when Woods took the world by storm. The lower number of rounds played to start this year can also be attributed to especially poor golfing weather across the country.
Dallas-Fort Worth is ground zero for the golf business, especially with the PGA’s headquarters move from Florida to Frisco. The new location will have 36 holes of PGA-quality golf as well as an Omni PGA Frisco Resort that will have at least 500 rooms, restaurants and shops. The facility also features high-end technology, such as an indoor bunker and education center, in addition to executive offices.
Dallas-based golf management company Arcis has bought nine courses in the past year after acquiring seven from 2015 to 2019. The company invested in all nine. Two of the courses are in Texas, including The Golf Club at Twin Creeks in Allen. Arcis, founded in 2013 by Southern Methodist University graduate Blake Walker, has grown into the second-largest golf course operator in the country behind Dallas-based Invited by acquiring a mix of daily-fee properties, resorts and private clubs. Arcis is backed by private equity firms Fortress Investment Group and Atairos.
“With COVID, our focus has not changed. It’s become more relevant today than ever before just given that our members and guests are utilizing their clubs differently,” Walker said.
Customers are still spending on golf in a similar manner, he said, but they’re also buying more inside the clubhouse. The future is still unclear, though Walker believes the company is heading in a positive direction.
Invited, formerly known as ClubCorp, was recently valued at $4.5 billion as part of a lead-up to a potential initial public offering, something its private equity owner Apollo Global Management is reportedly considering as early as this year. The Dallas-based company owns over 200 clubs across 30 states, as well as in two countries outside of the United States.
They aren’t the only ones bullish on the sport.
Golftec, a Colorado golf instruction and club fitting company with numerous Dallas-Fort Worth locations, is moving its training center into bigger space in Irving. Dallas-based Drive Shack Inc., which operates golf courses and golf-related social venues, reported a nearly 13% jump in revenue in the first three months of this year.
“There’s good reason to believe that the game will continue to be much healthier than it was before the pandemic hit,” Golf Datatech CEO John Krzynowek said.
The pandemic may have catalyzed a renewed surge, but business leaders in the golf industry circled back to the concept of making golf a much more inclusive experience to explain why it’s here to stay.
“Historically, as an industry, we have not done a great job of being inclusive, and I think that’s really started to change,” Invited CEO David Pillsbury said.
Women membership has risen 126% in the last three years at Invited clubs, which Pillsbury attributes to programs such as “Bad Moms” and “Game On” that are designed to create “micro-communities” of people with similar interests. The clubs also offer “Crush It,” a program specifically for junior golfers.
Arcis offers programs, too, for golfers of various backgrounds in addition to hosting a yearly fundraiser for the Els for Autism Foundation.
Out of the 3.1 million junior golfers in 2021, over a third were women and over 25% were non-Caucasian, according to the National Golf Foundation. Both numbers are dramatically up from their respective values of 15% and 6% during the early 2000s.
Golf also is working to attract new golfers by carving out space for itself in the entertainment industry. Dallas-based Topgolf, BigShots Golf (Invited is a majority owner) and Drive Shack each offer a social golfing experience with food and beverage in a restaurant setting. It lowered the barrier to play tremendously, both by providing equipment and by offering golfing experiences tailored toward newcomers.
Drive Shack opened an upscale indoor putt-putt concept called Puttery in September 2021 as another way to get more people involved. The company plans to focus on expanding Puttery across the country after grossing $4.4 million in revenue from only two locations during the first quarter of 2022.
“We really want to make sure that the game is accessible to everyone, whether it’s putting or driving,” Drive Shack Inc. CEO Hana Khouri said.
The entertainment aspect of golf is a positive for all golf companies, which benefit from growing buzz around the sport.
“There’s a lot of great golf concepts out there. We don’t believe it cannibalizes our market share at all,” Walker said about golf entertainment companies.
The pandemic made golf one of the few socially distanced outdoor activities available, and without daily activities like taking the kids to school and soccer practice, the sport blossomed. As pre-pandemic routines resume, people within the industry expect a slight decrease, but for the most part, this level of golf popularity is expected to stay.
Dallas-Fort Worth will receive another boost to the golf market when the PGA courses open in Frisco in spring 2023.
“Dallas is to golf as New York is to finance,” Walker said.