NAGA study shows Canadians have emotional connection to golf

There’s lots written today about the National Allied Golf Association’s study on the behaviour of Canadian golfers. It is the third survey I can recall in recent years about the sport, following a 2009 that showed golf in Canada was an $11-billion economic driver. 

My take on the latest study is here:

The sport of golf in Canada is on a precipice. With nearly six million people participating on some level, the sport has a huge opportunity. On the other hand, the cost and time it takes to play means golf has some big hurdles to overcome. Imagine the state of the game as a long par five over water. The sport in Canada has a shot at the green, but it is risky and failure could be disastrous. Or we could conclude golf is a niche game, too difficult and too nuanced to ever reach the masses, and determine the 1.4-million Canadians who are considered “core” players and are engaged with the game are enough. In other words, we could lay up and play it safe.

The direction the sport will take was central to a study released this week by the National Allied Golf Association, an organization representing almost all of the key segments in the sport in Canada, including course owners, administration, equipment makers, golf professionals and club managers.  The study didn’t specifically set out to look at participation, but to look at the behavior of golfers.

“The game is still currently successful but may be vulnerable if nothing changes,” the report claims. “The future growth of golf will require a coordinated, integrated effort within the Canadian golf industry to sustain the game.”

In fact, those behind the report are relatively bullish on the health of golf. It isn’t, as some have suggested, on life support.

There are lots of different takes on the report. I had a call this morning from a high-ranking member of the industry who was unimpressed with the study. He felt the industry didn’t need another survey, what it needed was action. He said the time had come for the various organizations to put aside their self-serving interests and decide on a course of action for the game. Of course, that’s probably pretty idealistic. After all, time and again on the call it was said that while the organizations come together for the survey, what they do with it after is up to each group. The last study has been beneficial in lobbying the provinces and Ottawa, apparently, but Jeff Calderwood, the head of the National Golf Course Owners Association, was clear that it hasn’t brought about results — at least not yet.

Anyway, there were other perspectives on the survey, including this from Bob Weeks at Score:

But to me, this yells out for a national advocacy program marketing the sport. If all the groups that form NAGA – and other stakeholders – came together and promoted the benefits of the game, it could go a long way towards at least altering perspective of non-golfers and casual golfers.

When I asked the members of NAGA through the teleconference if that were a possibility, it got a rather lukewarm response. I’m not holding my breath.

What about a Canadian Golf Week where the powers that be offer up free lessons, reduced green fees, open houses, etc., along with some knowledge through the media (compare the cost of playing golf vs. the cost of playing hockey on an hourly percentage, for example) right across the country?

Lorne Rubenstein, on Golf Canada’s site, discusses what it means to “engage” a golfer:

That leaves about 4.3 million Canadians who play some golf, but aren’t into it in nearly the same engaged way. Forget about growing the game for a minute. Forget about the reasons people give for not taking up the game, such as it takes too much time and costs too much. Navicom’s president John Pulley, who answered every question from the media in as straightforward a manner as possible, said that people don’t really know why they make decisions anyway.

Pulley’s point was that people use linear, logical thinking to explain why they do things – such as taking up golf, or, as participants, why they take lessons – if they do. But they provide their answers after the fact, that is, in a linear, and of necessity, backwards-looking manner. Pulley explained that science has demonstrated that people make decisions for non-linear reasons. As this applies to golfers, their attachments are emotional more than they are reasoned out.

I think, surprise here as we don’t agree on much, that for the most part Ian Hutchinson is correct in his take on the study:

My initial reaction to the National Allied Golf Association’s Canadian Golf Consumer Behaviour Study was that it was mostly a confirmation of beliefs the golf industry already held, with maybe a few nuggets thrown in to raise eyebrows.

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

6 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Who knows if time and cost are key obstacles to growth of the game in Canada. Regardless, the game should return to 12 holes as opposed to 18. Nicklaus is often credited with leading this return to a 12 hole format and I think it is a great idea.

  • Count me in the group that thinks golf would be much better as a 12, maybe 14 hole game. I am a golf nut, but sometimes I get to about that point in a round and think ‘that’s about enough for me, thanks’.

  • Count me in also. The number 18 is not a prime number. Of course 9 is not a prime number either. But 19 is…for some strange reason known only to (current) golfers. Golf courses around the world would see an uptake if they offered a 9 hole round and greens fees commensurate. That would of course involve them in scheduling and course management problems, and would put their costs up as well. So changing the current arrangement would cost some money to everyone.
    On the other hand, this is after all a difficult game. There will always be many people who venture out on the course and after a few frustrating experiences say this is not for me. Witness the countless people one sees at any driving range who say they only play one or two rounds a year. Well, why are you pounding these balls out there? Because there are few things that feel as satisfying as when I hit it flush. If NAGA wants to do anything about the state of the game it is to entice a few of those people to take a chance.

  • “When people say golf is too expensive and takes too much time, I humbly disagree. Time and cost is not the driving factor.” Says Scott Simmons, CEO of the RCGA.

    Wow. Clearly this man does NOT represent public players in Canada, so stick to your 300,000 mandatory memberships and cease calling yourself ‘Golf Canada.’ It’s insulting to the other 4,000,000 players.

    While the Golf in Schools program seems admirable on the surface, it encourages kids to hit a plastic ball into a net. Ok, so some kids like it. The problem then becomes ‘where do they play?’ The mid-length, Par 3 and reasonably priced courses are few and far between. Golf clubs aren’t cheap and neither are green fees. What demographic is the RCGA aiming their program to?

    The public, meanwhile, is paying inflated green fees due to developers and golf course owners wanting a 7000+ course to satisfy their ego (and sell real estate) despite the fact that more than 95% of the play is from the Blue, White, Red and Yellow tees that play from 6500 yards and below. The less than 5% that play from ‘the tips’ who rarely pay green fees anyway are being subsidized by the rest.

    The cost of land for these so-called ‘Championship’ courses, cost to develop them , the yearly maintenance budget and interest rates associated with the ‘loans’ for less than 5% of play is absurd.

    Throw in the overhead of an Executive Pro, Head Pro, Teaching Pro, Assistant Pro and Apprentices required to be RCGA approved, despite the fact that many courses built in the last several years have inadequate or non-existant practice facilities leads to this question. Why do we need an abundance of these ‘professionals’ when they don’t even have a place to teach? A fairly expensive cashier I’d say. Go apprentice at Golf Town, and save the club (and the paying public) some cash.

    If golf courses want to lower their overhead, lower the green fees to attract the general public, an important first step would be to tell the RCGA their services are no longer required. Keeping a handicap is just a glorified spreadsheet, and it can be done online. Cheap! What, you’re going to miss a 10% savings on a hotel or insurance? Again, go online. You’ll find better deals in less than a minute.

  • I echo a lot of what STEVE says. But I don’t think that the RCGA is the problem. It is not they who put up the cost of golf to the average consumer. They can rightly be charged with allowing Canadian golf’s international status to have dropped significantly on their watch. But they are not and have never been the driver behind 7000 yard golf courses, built as an add-on to a real estate development, where a nine hole course of 3000 yards, and a welcoming attitude in the pro shop would have made all the difference. I can tell you that the 9 hole par three course at the club I play at is hugely popular, affordable, and one sees week after week tons of Dad’s and Mum’s with their kids in tow laughing and having a great time.

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