Golf and horse racing both had a pandemic bump, but why has golf’s kept going?

Foresight, investment and the smart engagement of new customers have all played a role in the old game’s resurgence.

by Dean Towers

As millions of us watch the final round of the Masters Tournament this weekend, we’ll likely learn the game of golf is pretty strong; not only within this iconic and growing championship but the entire game itself.

Only a short time ago these good vibes were not being felt. Fewer people were playing golf, courses were being closed. The game (and this may sound recognizable) was labor-intensive, expensive, and dependent on vast real estate that could be used for many other things. AsBradley Kim put it in a Wall Street Journal piece this week, “[It’s] a great game but a lousy business.”

However, in 2020 when the pandemic was unleashed upon the world, lobbying efforts by national golf associations and others convinced politicians that golf was safe and courses rapidly reopened. Locked down, weary folks of all ages took advantage of their new-found freedom and flocked to golf courses.

This is a not unfamiliar story, of course, because we saw the exact same growth in horse racing in 2020. For many months it was literally the only game in town, transporting us back to an era of zoot suits and gin joints.

But unlike horse racing handles, since that time golf revenues have kept chugging.

In 2023, 531 million rounds of golf were played in the U.S. which is a 10 per cent increase from 2020. This number eclipsed the Tiger Woods spike almost a quarter century ago. Participation in the sport has grown 12 per cent since 2017.

How has this been achieved? In part, because the sport understood what it was gifted. They knew they attracted a lot of new users in 2020, and they wanted to ensure these newcomers were engaged in the sport regularly, and encouraged to come back.

This was fashioned in a number of ways.

Membership was made more welcoming and was tailored to different cohorts. According to Marcie Mills, a consultant hired during the boom, clubs were now providing day care, creating in-house summer camps, and expanding offerings to make it a “club within a club.”

The golf clubs themselves changed the game. They created new forward tees to make the difficult task of hitting a tiny ball more fun for new players; they built family friendly putting areas; they even constructed brand new nine-hole golf courses that provided comfort for those learning the game. This was all done in tandem with national organizations.

In addition, the entire sport embraced and pushed new outlets and technologies. Places like Topgolf and Drive Shack provided a fun place for families and couples to get better at the game together, and golf simulators are now found almost everywhere. In 2023, a whopping 32.9 million people visited these off-course businesses; channels that delivered a way to get hooked on the game without actually playing a round.

When we examine what horse racing did with its pandemic bump, it, in my view, illustrates a stark contrast.

Do you remember our business offering specific instruction to new players?

Rebates to get them more hooked on the game?

Did any track subset their new players into cohorts and when the pandemic restrictions were lifted offer them free seats or meals to experience this great sport live for perhaps the first time?

Did we embrace new technologies? Did we, for example, use programmatic advertising to remind new customers when they were near a racetrack and to come on over? Did the tracks create lookalike audiences on social media advertising mediums to target similar customers with pro-racing messages, coupons or offers?

Did we change the way we did business at all? Even a little?

In the Wall Street Journal, Klein wrote that “the knock on golf has been that it’s too hard, too time consuming and too expensive.” We clearly could say that about our sport, too.

Using some foresight, strategic thinking, technology, and yes, some investment, golf has lessened those encumbrances, and has found a way to both attract new users and keep them. The future indeed seems bright.

I think the sport of horse racing can learn a lot from the very old game of golf. If it ever finds itself with perfect conditions and a flat lie into a par five green, it shouldn’t be laying up. Those are the times you grab the longest stick in the bag and rip it.