Perfect Storm

Normally thriving businesses in Augusta were closed last month with the postponement of the Masters (©Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)


Out with the old, in with the new … and not simply in the context of consigning 2019 to history and ushering in its replacement, 2020; it was on 31st December last year that the World Health Organisation (WHO) office in China began hearing the first reports of a hitherto-unrecognised virus behind a number of pneumonia cases in Wuhan, a city in Eastern China of over 11 million people.

For context, at the time of writing the Covid-19 virus has charged through the world in the same way Tiger Woods would surely and steadily march his way through a Sunday leaderboard, only to much more sinister and deadly effect.

By Easter, the virus had claimed almost 100,000 lives worldwide with two million confirmed cases, an underestimate some say of as much as 100%, taking into account those suffering Covid-19 symptoms but not included in these already grizzly statistics, as testing had not been widely carried out.

Barely a country in the world remains unaffected; complex national, international and intercontinental travel has ensured this virulent disease has spread with alarming speed and deadly effect. China, which suffered first, is now recovering, same in South Korea; but in Europe in general and especially in Spain, France, Italy and the UK – four affluent countries with well-developed public health systems – deaths have reached 60,000 and are still rising.

Meanwhile, in the USA, the heartbeat of the global economy and the epicentre of ‘Planet Golf’, 20,000 deaths have already been reported with more expected to follow.

All of which is very interesting – indeed shocking – and provides context, but back here on the aforementioned ‘Planet Golf’, the game is now in the most perilous condition it has arguably ever been, certainly since World War II.

The big difference between then and now is that golf is today a fully-fledged member of the international sports entertainment industry, whereas in the 1940s it was a smaller, more one-dimensional pastime which mostly affluent people played near to their homes, with a handful of elite players making a modest living out of competitive golf.

Looking at golf 21st century style, the game has grown into a global sport, played regularly by at least 70 million people in members’ clubs, country clubs, pay-as-you-play facilities and public courses.

According to The R&A’s ‘Golf Around the World’ report, as of the end of 2018, there were 38,864 golf courses in 209 of the world’s 249 countries; many reported an initial Covid-19 surge in footfall as people were encouraged to ‘work from home’. But once the deadly effects of the virus became clear, first in their F&B operations and then onto their golf courses themselves, numbers have plummeted.

And, don’t forget, the game of golf went into 2020 in less than rude health; participation levels were said to be stalled, an over-optimistic analysis according to many especially in traditional markets such as Europe, North America, Australasia and South Africa.

A dozen years on from the crippling 2008 global financial crash, from which a significant number of clubs closed and never re-opened, a 2020 dominated and enfeebled by Covid-19 could easily see two, three or even four times those numbers go to the wall.

Indeed, it would not be surprising, if the depth of the economic impact of Covid-19 is as grave as many commentators are predicting, those 38,864 courses operating in 2018 could fall to 35,000, or even, in a Doomsday scenario, reducing to 25,000 as the cash-strapped and time-poor amongst us stick to cheaper, less time consuming lockdown activities we chose while golf was away.

And, from a participatory standpoint, golf already faced a serious structural challenge, even before Covid-19 had started its deadly and destructive rout of many nations’ social and economic fabrics.

Despite the Tiger Woods effect, the number of rounds played in the USA has been falling on average by 5% year-on-year since 2017; worse is now sure to follow, Tiger at best appearing to have slowed the decline which now seems irreversible.

For its part, Europe has lost around 150,000 regular golfers since 2017, a not insignificant number whilst, in 2020 in Japan, which boasts almost half of Asia’s courses, golf participation has dropped by almost 50% since 1996, according to the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper.

The direct, immediate effects of Covid-19 are certain to exacerbate the worldwide decline, whilst the consequential losses of disposable income and recreational free time will see golf hit harder than most, especially as its core demographic, the ‘baby-boomers’, either die or give up. There appears little appetite amongst enough millennials and members of Generation Z to plug the gap, let alone force a turnaround in golf’s fortunes.

A significant proportion of the total turnover in global golf is equipment and apparel sales, worth US$13.4 billion in 2018, according to the World Golf Report; but between the first Covid-19 seen in China towards the end of last year and the virus’s relentless progress into Europe and the USA, sales are reported to be down a staggering 75 to 80% year-on-year as courses and on-site proshops close and high street retail outlets locked around the world.

Golf could count on retail therapy no more.

And, with international travel off limits to all but essential journeys, the global golf tourism industry worth, according to trade body the International Association of Golf Tour Operators (IAGTO), US$16 to 18 billion annually has – as one major Asian tour operator who did not wish to be named described – “fallen off a cliff, and that’s just the impact of the virus itself.” He added: “Then we have the economic fallout and there’s no getting away from it, the industry is going to take a long time to get over Covid-19.”

(©Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

IAGTO CEO Peter Walton struck a slightly more optimistic tone in his annual golf tourism survey, saying: “While golf tourism is not immune to global or regional crises – be they economic, security, environmental or health by nature – a downturn in visitor arrivals often goes hand in hand with a tightening of belts [but] we have seen over the past two decades that golf travel bounces back quicker than most other tourism industry sectors once the risk or fear has run its course.”

That there is not a single aspect of the golf business that is not affected, surely the Covid-19 impact on the game is going to be both long and deep.

Add into the mix that the world appeared to have – in part at least – fallen out of love with golf resulting in its serious and sustained decline over time, the Royal and Ancient game is being badly buffeted by what is a ‘perfect storm’.

Whether golf will emerge once Covid-19 has either been defeated or, at worst, a vaccine has been found, is not in serious doubt. But, in the same way as the world at large will be a different place when the pandemic has blown itself out or been mitigated against, so too will the game of golf.

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