As a young man growing up in Cornwall, Paul Ford played golf quite a lot with his friends, but adulthood, work, a move to Wimbledon in south London and a young family gradually put paid to all that. In recent years, however, his 10-year-old son Ethan has fallen in love with the game, joining his dad for nightly sessions in front of Sky Sports and the odd visit to a local golf club.
Ethan thinks golf is “cool” and likes Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson and “hitting the ball as hard as you can”. But for all his enthusiasm, says Ford, “we’ve really struggled to find a club where he can play. A lot of our local clubs don’t really have a scene for kids. That’s something I was really surprised at.”
As a young man with a burning passion to play, Ethan represents everything the golfing industry dreams of, but at the Golf Show in east London, a free weekend event at the ExCeL conference centre where wannabe Woods could clatter balls into nets, try their hands at long putts and practice chipping out of fake bunkers, similarly eager young people were conspicuously thin on the ground on Friday.
Golf has been going through a steady and alarmingly steep decline for a decade, with some arguing that the sport urgently needs to undergo a drastic reinvention to avoid a slow slide into obscurity.
In 2006, the high water mark for the sport worldwide, more than four million Britons played golf; last year, that number was just 2,785,000. Membership of clubs in England has fallen from 850,000 to 652,000 in the same period, according to England Golf, the governing body for the sport in the country, with similar patterns reflected in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and worldwide.
So what’s the problem with golf? There are three, according to England Golf’s participation director Richard Flint: time, cost and perception. In other words, playing a round of golf takes forever, costs a fortune and remains, in the mind of many, a pastime enjoyed overwhelmingly by chaps over a certain age sporting Argyle sweaters and pastel-coloured slacks.
There are, of course, many others who play, stresses Carly Booth, a 24-year-old Scottish professional on the Ladies’ European Tour. She says: “What we try to do on the tour, and with our social media, is to try to make it more young – the way we dress, for instance – to make it more fun, more interesting. Because we want to get younger girls into golf the way we got into golf.”
Around half the English counties have reported an increase in girls playing, says Flint, and many of the more flexible clubs – those prepared to ditch stuffy dress codes, allow people to play shorter rounds and offer more creative membership options, for example – have seen membership go up. “So the politicians would be using the word ‘green shoots’.”
Nonetheless, they and others have decided drastic action is required: the golf equipment retailer American Golf, supported by England Golf and 1,500 clubs around the UK and Ireland, has launched an initiative to offer everyone in the UK three free rounds of golf at a local course and free lessons inside their stores with a PGA professional.
“For us it’s a simple strategy – the more people who play golf, the better we will do long term,” admits the company’s refreshingly honest marketing and communications director Daniel Gathercole.
He’s also prepared to admit, however, that his product is not the most fashionable. “You look at all the films, and everyone who plays golf is either a baddie, a crook or someone who is really rich. Everything that is talked about golf is really negative.
“Whereas the people who play it know it is a really great sport that you can play until you’re 90, play with all your family. We’re just trying to change that perception.”