Why is everyone blaming slow play for golf’s problems?
Journalists, authors, bloggers, TV commentators, the industry…, there are plenty of vocal proponents who say pace of play is the primary reason for golf’s declining participation.
It’s the obvious target.
I too, used to think pace of play was a big problem, but I’ve changed my tune.
Their findings say it’s a combination of:
- Course design and setup
- Management of play, and
- Golfer behaviour
No surprises there.
One thing which has flown under the radar, but which I believe to be significant, is this 2015 survey, commissioned by The R&A to understand the pace of play perceptions of golfers themselves.
The survey results suggest, to me at least, that slow play is not the big issue it’s being made out to be.
Key Points — Time to Play 18 Holes
- 16% of rounds were between 2.5–3.5 hours
- 74% of rounds were between 3.5–4.5 hours
- 9% of rounds were greater than 4.5 hours
So most rounds are about four hours long, give-or-take 30 minutes. That’s fine, but considering the amount of whining we hear from vocal types about rounds approaching five hours, it’s surprising that they constitute less than ten per cent of total rounds.
Dare I say, a storm in a hole cup…?
Key Points — Factors Affecting Frequency of Play
- Work commitments — 34%
- Family commitments — 29%
- Time to play — 16%
- Other hobbies — 12%
- Cost — 8%
- Difficulty — 1%
Wow. Work and family commitments combine for 63% of why golfers can’t play as much as they want, while time to play trails a distant third with 16%.
The R&A followed their survey with a “Time For Golf” industry forum and the USGA have been holding pace of play symposiums annually since 2014. Digressing briefly, “symposium” is from Greek and means, “drinking party,” which is fair enough when talking about pace of play, but both organisations are missing something.
Hello? Two-thirds of golfers are saying they’re too busy with work and family to play more golf, yet our representative bodies are messing around, spending money and time on trying to save 1–2 minutes per hole.
Not to mention the primary stakeholders, the course operators and golfers themselves, lack sufficient motivation to make changes. Course operators due to financial concerns, and golfers due to lack-of-concern…
Key Points — Attitudes to Pace-of-Play
- Always happy — 4%
- Mostly happy — 65%
- Sometimes happy — 27%
- Never happy — 4%
Now it’s getting interesting. We have close to 70% of golfers saying they are always or mostly happy with pace of play. “Sometimes happy” is a loose definition, but even if we leave it out, that result is pretty significant.
So hey, folks… — being The R&A & USGA — you’ve got more than two-thirds of golfers saying they’re pretty happy with pace of play, but it’s work and family stopping them playing more often, yet you’re choosing to focus on the results from a minority demographic?
You’re holding on to the pace of play issue a bit too tightly, methinks.
Key Points — Would Faster Rounds Be More Enjoyable?
- Yes — 60%
- No — 26%
- Doesn’t matter — 14%
60% of golfers would enjoy golf more if their rounds were faster…
Hopefully this is obvious, but people lead busier lives these days. Any time savings are welcomed. If I’m fortunate enough to have a quick round not stuck behind slower groups, I spend that extra time in the clubhouse with my mates and definitely enjoy golf more.
That 40% of golfers are happy to smell the roses as they play without being rushed is certainly meaningful too. Elsewhere in the survey, 5% of respondents said they would enjoy golf more if rounds were longer!
Key Points — What Time Saving is Needed to Influence Play Frequency?
- Wouldn’t make a difference — 52%
- 1–20 minutes — 10%
- 21–39 minutes — 25%
- 40+ minutes — 13%
So 25% of golfers would be “influenced” to play more often if rounds were reduced by 30 minutes or so. We also see that the majority are in the time savings are inconsequential camp. Remembering again that 70% or so were always or mostly happy with the pace of play.
The R&A narrowed the findings to show that for rounds of greater than 4.5 hours, 53% golfers “might” be influenced to increase their frequency of play if time savings of between 20–60 minutes could be found.
Keep in mind The R&A are focusing on golfers whose rounds are 4.5 hours or longer. How many was that again?
Ah yes…, nine per cent.
So The R&A have spent vast amounts of time and money to research slow play, justified by a minority of golfers who are stating the obvious that rounds over 4.5 hours are too long. Yet the same research yields a valuable, majority opinion that the length of a round of golf is far from the worst concern golfers have.
Who are these golfers? A closer look at the survey demographics shows that 75% of respondents are 45 years of age and older, with 96% holding an official handicap. This means they are mostly club members who are on the mailing lists of The R&A or one of its partner organisations. This isn’t a cross-section of all golfers, these people are avid golfers, who according to the survey, play an average of twice-a-week.
So even the avid golfers, people who you’d think would be crying long and loud about slow play, aren’t that fussed. 69% are always or mostly happy with the pace of play. The survey says they’d like to play more often, but surprise, surprise, work and family are the main hindrances.
It would be interesting to know the opinions of non-member golfers. The issues of work and family tend to be accentuated for golfers younger than 60, which is why so many are now casual or latent golfers instead of club members. Casual golfers are estimated to constitute two-thirds of the world’s 80 million golfing population (also estimated as there are no official figures). In the US, that’s 16 million casuals (ROW 36 million).
In addition, National Golf Foundation research indicates there are 32 million latent golfers in the US (extrapolating for ROW — 72 million). Latent golfers are people who are keen to play, but aren’t for some reason.
Anyone willing to hazard a guess it’s work and family commitments…?
Maths isn’t my strong point, but even I can add up to 52 million casual and 104 million latent golfers globally. Let’s call it 150 million, plus or minus a few million. It’s hard to get an exact figure because nobody is measuring them! They’re too busy worrying about pace of play for the 9% of avid, handicapped golfers, whose rounds are longer than 4.5 hours… just over 2.5 million people.
Call me crazy, but I would have thought if your industry is felt to be suffering and a large number of potential customers can be identified, then you’d want to learn as much about them as possible with the intent to serve them.
Let’s fast forward a few months after all those non-member and latent golfers have been studied. Let’s imagine the results come back that work and family remain the main hindrances…
I’m a 40-something, non-member, pay-to-play golfer because I work, I’m married and have two kids aged six and five. It means I’m only available on weekends for a couple of hours between kids’ sport, birthday parties, family gatherings and grocery shopping.
It’s not pace of play. It’s finding the time to play.
Golf can’t create an extra couple of hours in the day, but it can make playing the game an easier decision.
Golf is predicated on 18 holes, but that doesn’t fit within the busy lives of non-members and latents. Sure there are Time for Nine campaigns with slogans like, “Nine is fine,” but that wording suggests people should really be playing 18 if they could.
Nine holes needs to become the new normal for non-members.
18 holes is the standard everywhere you look. Green fees are always listed per 18 holes, with nine holes listed as an afterthought, almost as if to say, “you’d rather be playing 18, right?”
Nine holes have become my new normal. It fits with my work, family and friends. It’s two hours plus a drink and home to a happy wife. Happy life.
Of course I can’t join a club because they don’t have memberships to suit. I asked a couple if they have 9 hole member competitions on weekends. One asked me incredulously why I’d want to do that and the other said only on Tuesdays for people over 80.
At this rate, if golf clubs want my membership dues, they’re going to have to wait until I’m retired and the kids have left home. They leave home at around 30 these days I’ve heard. Tough economic times and all that.
Nine holes works for busy people. Create a new nine hole membership category, equal in status to 18 holes, with member competitions on weekends. Everything. Just half the price and half the time.
Stop bleating about slow play so much. There’s a huge market of golfers out there who want to play if you let them. I know I will.
Follow Jeremy on Twitter @connectgolf
@connectgolf in #Golfchat, Jeremy is 80% dad, 20% golfing entrepreneur, who in the 90 minutes each day he has to himself, works as the #GolfChat Authors editor, works on a golfing Not-For-Profit, and tries to reverse the decline of his golf game with positive thoughts (no time for practice).
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