Skip to main content

‘We need to lower the cost to get people back into the game,’ said former PGA Tour player Ian Leggatt, general manager and director of golf with the Summit Golf and Country Club in Richmond Hill, Ont.Chris Young

Former PGA Tour player Ian Leggatt has no trouble pinpointing what's wrong with the sport he loves: It costs too much, takes too long and is difficult to play.

Operators and investors did their part in dampening golf's allure when they responded to a lengthy boom in the sport by oversaturating the market with new courses, many of which were more suited to Mr. Leggatt's skills than those of the typical weekend duffer.

"The courses that were built for the public player – the guy who's taking up the game and wants to get out on a Saturday morning or afternoon – were too difficult for them to play. Which made it too long for them to play.

"Which took them away from family quality time they used to have," said Mr. Leggatt, general manager and director of golf with the 103-year-old Summit Golf and Country Club in Richmond Hill, Ont.

"I don't think they looked closely enough at what that was going to do to the marketplace. But because there was such an uptick in golf, people were building golf courses to levels that didn't make economic sense," Mr. Leggatt said.

They made even less sense in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008, when companies and individuals slashed non-essential expenses, and golf suffered a sharp reversal of fortune.

Now, as another golfing season winds down, at least in the chillier climes, doomsayers have once again been polishing their obituary-writing skills for an industry that still seems mired in the deep rough after years of shrinking demand, falling revenue, course closings and other setbacks. But reports of the imminent demise of an industry estimated to be worth more than $14.3-billion to the Canadian economy alone and more than $80-billion south of the border have been greatly exaggerated.

Although golf faces stiff challenges, including persistent problems attracting young people and women to the game in large numbers, it is showing signs of stabilizing as operators adjust to tougher market conditions.

After years of declining numbers, Canadians are playing more golf – from 9 per cent to 15 per cent more rounds this year across Western Canada, including recession-battered Alberta, and 4 per cent to 5 per cent more in Ontario and Quebec. The only region where this key measure of the industry's health will be lower than in 2014 is in the Maritimes, where snow storms delayed the start of the season.

And the participation rate appears to have levelled off, with about the same number of people entering the sport as exiting. Industry officials put the number of Canadian players at close to 5.7 million, although more than four-fifths fall into the occasional or infrequent-player category.

"Although we haven't yet returned to the peak years that preceded the recession, there are still more golfers than any other sport in Canada, and the positive 2015 trends imply that golf is likely to remain the No. 1 participation sport for many years to come," said Jeff Calderwood, CEO of the National Golf Course Owners Association Canada.

In a far cry from the boom years, only 29 new facilities have opened across Canada in the past five years and another 31 are in development, while 158 have closed since 2005, according to a National Golf Foundation report. That still leaves 2,346, ranking Canada third in the world behind the United States and Japan. Fewer than 10 per cent are private.

Moves to boost traffic include lower rates, more nine-hole play, shorter fairways and enlarged holes to speed up games, as well as unusual marketing efforts such as FootGolf, a hybrid combining golf and soccer.

"For any business that has been around for 400 or 500 years – and in this country at least 150 – to survive and thrive, obviously there needs to be innovation and evolution," said Ben Cowan-Dewar, managing partner of Cabot Links golf resort in Cape Breton, which opened for business in 2012.

Still, golf's road to a global recovery remains strewn with sand traps. U.S. numbers continue to head in the wrong direction and even in golf-crazed Japan, about 30 per cent fewer people are on the links than during the country's deep economic slump in the early 1990s.

Conditions in key markets have deteriorated to the point that Adidas, a major peddler of golf gear and apparel through its industry-leading TaylorMade and other brands, is mulling an exit from the sport after sales slid 26 per cent in the second quarter.

Golf accounts for slightly more than 6 per cent of the German sports heavyweight's total sales. But it's not small potatoes. Golf equipment sales in Canada alone from all suppliers total about $1.4-billion annually.

David Bradley, managing director of TaylorMade-adidas Golf Canada, would not speculate on the golf division's future. But he expressed confidence that TaylorMade could get back on the growth track after some difficult years.

"We are feeling very good about the momentum of the golf industry at this point in time," Mr. Bradley said.

"A lot of people are getting more creative, and that's why we're starting to see some people return to the game," Mr. Leggatt said. "We need to lower the cost to get people back into the game," he says. "Let's do it [make money] by volume, not by overcharging them."