As a dad in my mid-30s, I’ll admit that my grasp on what’s “cool” any more is slipping away. But even I can tell you that when it comes to trends, golf is on the rise. You don’t have to take my word for it, though, just look at the data: 18-34 year olds, often considered the benchmark demographic for what’s cool and trending, now make up the largest portion of active golfers. That’s not even counting the over 6 million young adults that aren’t currently playing but have expressed an interest in taking up golf.
Even among non-golfers, the perception of golf is rapidly changing. In the past decade, the number of non-golfers who use favorable words to describe golf has nearly doubled, while those with negative views have dropped 20%.
It’s clear, whether you’re looking at the data or just at the packed tee sheets every weekend (and most weekdays for that matter), that golf is on the upswing. So what’s caused this sudden surge of interest in the game?
The concept of how to make something cool is timeless: get cool people to do that thing. It’s been well-documented here and elsewhere that the pandemic had a major impact on golf participation, not just in sheer numbers, but also in attracting a different crowd than the stereotypical golf audience.
While there are plenty of actors and professional athletes that are highly-skilled golfers and have long been advocates of the game, the number of celebrities that have picked up the game in the past few years and documented the beginner’s journey has helped make the game feel more accessible. Just look at how obsessed DJ Khaled has become with golf. (Is DJ Khaled cool? Probably a debate for another time, but the point stands.) Trendy brands are rushing to get into the golf space, and new golf-focused companies are sprouting up what seems like every week. Golf has announced its arrival in the public arena and doesn’t appear to be leaving any time soon.
Whether it’s social media, YouTube, podcasts, or whatever other media you use to occupy your time, it’s almost impossible to escape finding content about golf these days. And it’s not just the already-famous people keeping their loyal followers up-to-date with what their doing in their free time; people are earning a following because of the golf content they create, from mega-popular channels like No Laying Up and Good Good to local golf creators.
It’s estimated that 50 million Americans regularly engage with some form of golf content on social media, 80% of which don’t even play golf. This engagement has proven to create much more positive associations with the game, particularly among non-golfers. In that segment, people are almost twice as likely to use words like “fun”, “entertaining”, and “cool” when describing golf than those that have no interaction with the game.
Usually when we talk about “accessibility”, it’s about making golf available and affordable to people of all backgrounds and abilities. This is a critical part of growing the game and an area where many organizations, including the SCGA Junior Foundation, are doing incredible work to make golf an option for many who wouldn’t be able to play otherwise. That said, there’s another side to the discussion of accessibility that I want to dive into here: the golf experience is changing.
Firstly, there’s more opportunities to introduce non-golfers to swinging a club than ever before. “Off-course” golfing is no longer limited to the standard driving range or putt-putt golf with windmills and ant hills. I’ve certainly had my share of good times at those places, but ventures like TopGolf and PopStroke have elevated the experience. They’ve created an atmosphere where golfers and non-golfers can have a good time, first and foremost, while injecting golf into the equation. While it remains to be seen if these types of experiences will significantly impact the number of avid golfers, it appears pretty definitive that they’ve helped shift the perception of golf.
The transformation isn’t limited to off-course participation, either. The days of strict dress codes appear to be behind us, and for some, a speaker and cooler in the cart are just as essential as a golf bag. That’s not to say that the tucked-in collared shirt is dead, nor should it be; the point is that golf should be enjoyed in a manner that’s enjoyable to you. As long as your respectful to those sharing the course with you and the game itself, how you golf should be up to you. Recently, I encountered a guy rocking the ultimate example of this: backwards hat, tank top, thigh-high shorts, and flip flops. I must admit, my first thoughts were “Shouldn’t he be at the beach?” and “That doesn’t look remotely comfortable to golf in.” But then I realized he was just having a good time, and isn’t that ultimately all that matters?
There’s plenty of negative perceptions that come with the idea of joining a golf club (exclusive, expensive, stuffy), but the reality is that those have never been further from the truth than they are today. The number of golf communities in Southern California is growing every month, and no matter how you define “cool”, there’s bound to be a group that fits your definition. Most experiences are better when you have people to share them with, and golf is certainly no exception.
Through all this discussion about the changing perceptions of golf, it’s important to note that golf itself rarely changes. Golfers have fallen in love with the game for centuries because it’s challenging, because you can play whether you’re 8 or 80, because it prepares you for the ups and downs of life and, simply put, because it’s fun. Maybe it’s taken some time for today’s in-crowd to “discover” golf, but hopefully it opens the door for even more people to embrace this wonderful game.