Golf legend Tiger Woods won an estimated 32 golf tournaments between 1999 and 2003, an unbelievable feat that also included seven major tournament wins. Not coincidentally, golf was also at its most popular during this period. Tiger Woods drove television ratings as well as equipment and apparel sales for firms like Nike Inc (NKE) and Under Armour Inc. (UA) to highs not seen in decades in the golf industry. But since then, the industry has struggled to grow. Fortunately, hope has not been lost and the sport is in the process of reinventing itself.  

Back in 2003, 30 million Americans considered themselves active golfers. Since then, that figure has dropped to 25 million—about the same number as the early 1990s. Near-term trends look to have dipped again, but in in the long term, golf may enjoy a resurgence as it tailors the sport to a new generation of players.  

Challenges in the Near Term

In the age of the Internet, traditional forms of entertainment are facing a steady stream of challenges. If we consider golf a leisure activity, then it must compete with all other leisure activities. Media has shifted online, offering people hundreds of movies to watch on demand at home instead of in the movie theater. Books and music are also more easily available through online sources. And social media occupies leisure time. And it’s not just competition with leisure activities challenging golf, work is also intruding. These days, the workday often extends well past 5 p.m.

With time at such a premium, a key problem with golf, especially for millennials, is that it takes a long time to play. A traditional 18-hole round can take four hours or more. According to a recent industry survey, participation rates where a golfer has played golf at least once in a year has decreased for five years straight. The sport is also expensive. An average 18-hole round of golf costs about $40 per person on a public course (cart included), but can easily run to several hundred dollars at newer courses and even more at prestigious courses, such as those that host PGA (Professional Golfers’ Association) events. In a down economy, golf certainly isn’t a necessity. 

The golfing industry has also shown weakness in some equipment sales. Like many fashion goods, missing a fashion cycle can hit both the top line and profits. Dick’s Sporting Goods Inc (DKS) is struggling with a recent purchase of Golf Galaxy, a chain of specialty golf shops that have reported difficult same-store sales trends lately. Callaway Golf Co (ELY) has reported negative average annual sales growth for the past five and 10 year periods. Trends over the last three years are only modestly positive and the firm has reported positive earnings in only one of the past seven years.

Hope over the Longer Haul     

First and foremost, the industry appears to be open to more flexible course scheduling which could make a round of golf quicker possibly attract more players. According to a January 2015 Golf Digest article, some courses are offering 6-hole, 9-hole, and 12-hole options. This would free up golfers to get a morning, lunch, or afternoon session as opposed to more than a half day away from work during the week or family on the weekend. Playing fewer holes would also be less costly, as long as a course adheres to per-hole pricing. 

Product development is also important. Current golfers marvel at how far technology has come. Clubs are more forgiving and golf balls also offer the opportunity to hit drives that are farther and straighter than in years past. Wired devices could also end up revolutionizing the industry. Just think how popular a tracking device would be that greatly reduces the chances of losing a golf ball (water hazards excluded). Pin distance can already quickly and easily be estimated with a smart phone or similar mobile device. There are even apps that help golfers measure swing speed and form, and golf pros can utilize similar technology when providing golf lessons. 

Golf clubs that emphasize families are also becoming more common. Women golfers are an important growth driver, and getting children involved at an earlier age also helps the sport over the long term. Social memberships are now offered at many clubs, in addition to the more traditional golf membership, so even if family members aren’t playing golf they can enjoy club amenities such as clubhouses, swimming pools, and even workout facilities. 

The Bottom Line

Golfers will have to start growing in number before the industry can even consider returning to its 2003 highs. But current trends indicate the sport is adapting to a new generation of time-strapped individuals that value family and flexibility just as much as time on the golf course.

Disclosure: At the time of writing, Ryan C. Fuhrmann did not own shares of any company mentioned in this article.


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