Golf is one of the world’s oldest sports, with treasured traditions honed across several centuries. But increasingly, over the last decade, many people have come to see golf as just plain old. And not in a good way. The number of devoted recreational golfers in the United States has hovered at about 25 million, but the cohort is aging, and more than 1,600 American golf courses closed in the 2010s. In 2004, and over the next 14 consecutive years, participation in courses waned.
These days, however, a fresh breeze is billowing through golf’s fusty clubhouse. It is not a stretch to call this movement the new golf. And new golf just might save old golf from itself. It has helped power three successive years of participation growth that has reshaped the demographics of junior recreational golfers, who are now twice as likely to be female and four times as possible not to be white.
New golf has led to radically revised six- or 12-hole courses that reduce costs, land use, and the time it takes to play around. It has fostered a host of off-course experiences, including bustling entertainment venues that mix the vibe of a driving range and a sports bar, attracting a clientele with an average age of 31. It has meant golf courses with built-in sound systems playing music and rounds in which no one keeps score — or cares. Most conspicuously, in a sport in which 75 percent of the games are played on public golf courses, an old-school protocol has been relaxed to stimulate a spirit of inclusion.
On a sunny evening this spring in northern Florida, Mike Miles, a 59-year-old former PGA Tour player who helped convert a failing conventional golf course into a quirky 12-hole public golf playground called The Yards, gazed out his window noticed a young man on the first tee in bare feet. I’m thrilled to see him,” a smiling Miles said of the golfer, who was in his 20s and beginning a three-hole round known as the beer loop because it starts and ends next to the clubhouse bar. “We have to make golf not so severe.