Why is golf struggling?

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Imagine a business with a base of middle-class customers in the richest nations, a fervent new following in the world’s fastest-growing Asian economies, loyal corporate backers, and a new global television showcase, championed by personable young stars. Are you in?

Apparently not. Amateur players and, worse, potential players are shunning golf in developed markets.

It may not look like this from St Andrews, the sport’s spiritual and administrative home in Scotland, where its disciples and high priests have gathered in recent days for the Open championship. Crowds jammed the stands and lined the course to watch leading players (including the gravity-defying Irish amateur Paul Dunne) contest four 18-hole rounds. But fans have always been ready to spend hours watching the best in the world. Next year, golf will have a slot in the Olympics, an even bigger opportunity to promote the game at its highest level.

The problem is that spectators are not picking up a driver when they leave the course or step away from the screen. The US veteran player Tom Watson summed up the obstacles to taking up the game, ahead of the Open: “Golf is expensive, it is slow and takes too long to play, and it is a hard game to learn.” The time people now spend on social media and email, he added, was exacerbating the game’s challenges.

Mr Watson’s diagnosis will have resonated with thousands of golf clubs that have seen participation plummet. Some 400,000 players quit golf in 2013 in the US. In the UK, club membership dropped by nearly a quarter between 2004 and 2014.

It is misleading, however, to see this purely as a cultural problem. As David Joy, chief executive of England Golf, told the BBC last week, many clubs “are businesses and businesses need people through the door”.

Unfortunately, too many have focused only on their existing customers, and ignored those who may guarantee their future.

My memory of playing golf as a child was a mixture of fun — and fear of transgressing some detailed point of etiquette under the rheumy-eyed gaze of tweed-clad rule-enforcers in the clubhouse. Playing again recently, I was amazed to find how little had changed. The overall perception is of a sport stifled by stuffiness.

The parallel between the old habits blighting western capitalism — the rise of which underpinned the success of many clubs in the US and UK until the financial crisis hit — is hard to resist. A bit like boards of directors, golf club committees too often concentrate on co-opting players in their own image, inducting them into an ancient cult, whose shibboleths must be observed.

Yet it would be as mistaken to presume that golf is a monolithic industry as it would be to make a sweeping generalisation about, say, banking. A 2012 report by HSBC, a big “patron” of the game, as the Open quaintly calls its corporate backers, pointed out that golf would be shaped by the same trends sweeping the business world: the shift towards Asia, increasing participation of women, urbanisation, digital technology and sustainability.

Its upbeat vision of golf by 2020 foresees shorter and faster forms of the sport (as championed by Rory McIlroy, golf’s bright 26-year-old star), a greater crossover from video games, and increasing use of sensors to improve technique. Traditionalists may shudder, but they will have to accept, as HSBC has had to in its core banking activities, that when businesses turn into a caricature of themselves, something has gone wrong.

Revolution may not be necessary. Just as a few clients happily pay for private banking’s perks and privileges, so a few golf clubs will be able to persist with the familiar old offering. Others may benefit by providing an oasis of unwired relaxation from the always-on world to stressed out younger players. But most need to listen more closely to their potential future members.

Another veteran, Greg Norman, the great Australian player whose unconventional style shook up the game in the 1980s and 1990s, sees new habits as an opportunity not a threat. He told the BBC last week that golf had to open up to “savvy, social media, connected-with-my-device” types.

A narrow and unbending view of what the customer wants is fatal for most businesses. Newcomers are eager for alternative ways to get into golf. Clubs that supply them will thrive. The rest are doomed to miss the cut.

Other articles from The Financial Times:

Efe Cakarel: Delivering indie films to the masses

Johnson takes hard-won Open in fifth-day play-off

Cricket fans get chance to watch new five-day game — golf

This article is published in collaboration with The Financial Times. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: The Financial Times covers, comments and analyses the latest UK and international business, finance, economic and political news.

Image: France’s Raphael Jacquelin tees off at the 18th hole during the first round at the International Golf Open in Munich. REUTERS/Alexandra Winkler.

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