• GOLF-MASTERS/

    (Reuters)

  • Capitol Hill

    (Chris Condon/PGA TOUR)

  • Capitol Hill

    (Chris Condon/PGA TOUR)

Golf Industry Tees Up National Golf Day

By Industries FOXBusiness

Some people get teed off on Tax Day, but one group is encouraging Americans to see more red figures (below par scores) or use their refund check green to tee it up today for the eighth annual National Golf Day.

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WE ARE GOLF, the lobbying arm of the golf industry, is descending on Washington, D.C., to meet with members of Congress, the executive branch, and other federal agencies to discuss golf’s $70 billion economy, 15,350 related businesses and 2 million associated jobs as well as the tourism, fitness and tax revenue creation aspects of the game.

While the First Golfer (aka President Obama) is not on the tee sheet, the golf advocacy group is meeting with administration officials for a second straight year.

“It gives us the opportunity to educate key groups in Washington about golf,” asserts Steve Mona, CEO of the World Golf Foundation, administrator for WE ARE GOLF.

Mona notes the group met with EPA officials last year to discuss regulations and the golfers want to discuss stats they tout including charitable giving of $3.9 billion annually and the egalitarian accessibility of the game (80% of courses are open to the public and the median green fee is just $26, a far cry from the snobs at Bushwood Country Club).

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While golf industry executives pound the pavement in the nation’s capital, others are marking the day on a more grass-roots level.

TaylorMade-adidas Golf, a unit of Adidas (ADDYY) and the world’s largest golf equipment maker, has rented out a golf course near its Carlsbad, Calif., headquarters and all 850 employees are celebrating the day with a round or two.

Topgolf: A New Sensation

The Topgolf chain is offering free, five-minute golf lessons to patrons today. “We’re involved with most national golf coalitions to support golf,” says Ken May, Topgolf’s CEO, adding, “Our PGA golf pros are excited. It gives them a chance to show off a little bit. It’s that one good swing that gets you coming back. We feel we can create that magic on National Golf Day.”

For the uninitiated, Topgolf features a nightclub atmosphere with loud music, upscale food and beverage service, centered around a game of target golf. May claims this version of golf levels the field as first timers can aim at nearby targets and keep pace with experts hitting farther afield in the massive complex.

The privately-held company scores well with the sought-after Millennials, who are reportedly eschewing golf for other pursuits. May says more than half of the chain’s four million customers last year were between 18 and 34 years-old; and he expects to attract more this year, predicting eight million guests as the company opens new locations.

May says Topgolf is introducing golf to many customers and converting them to the traditional game. That is music to the ears of some golf executives, including Mona, who says, “We’re bullish on Topgolf. We think it will become a great avenue to the game of golf.”

The PGA Tour has caught on to this social “experience” that Millennials and Gen Xers enjoy, adding food trucks, fashion shows and rock concerts at some of the Tour’s tournaments.

All of this resonates with 26-year-old Jim Glenn of San Francisco. The Millennial plays to a two handicap and says using hospitality at the local level is a good way to generate interest in golf, especially among his peers: “Getting friends together in a social atmosphere at a course, or a skills challenge--combine it with nine holes, or a hospitality event with a sponsor from a clothing company with a trunk show; make it like going to a sporting event with concessions.”

Golf industry executives are clearly open to new ways to boost business as the recreational game is still not quite back to its pre-recession par. Rounds played in 2014 slipped almost 2% from the prior year, but unusually wet weather in parts of the nation played at least some part in that.

Golf insiders still mention 2012’s idyllic weather conditions with reverence and note that year’s 489 million rounds were not too far from the record 518 million set in 2000.

And the National Golf Foundation (NGF) reports the number of golfers took a drop from 29.7 million in 2007 to 25 million in 2012, although it has remained at that level for the past three years. The good news for golf facilities is that the remaining golfers are playing more frequently.

“Any form of pay-for-play recreation is under pressure, families are oversubscribed, and people are working more,” says Greg Nathan, vice president at the NGF.

While a number of articles assert that Millennials are not playing golf, the NGF reports 18 to 34 year-olds comprise almost a quarter of the 25 million U.S. golfers and the group spends more than $5 billion annually on playing fees, equipment and apparel.

Closing Out On the Green

And yes, business is still getting done on the course and deals are being closed on the 18th Green. That’s why tech entrepreneur Amir Heydarkhan took up golf last year at the age of 40: “Businesswise, it’s excellent. I spend five hours with these guys playing golf, talking work. Without golf, I wouldn’t have met potential customers.”

Glenn, the Millennial golfer, predicts a “V-shaped recovery for golf” as more of his peers pick up clubs and play a round. In fact, his brother-in-law and cousin (both Gen Y cohorts) have recently begun playing to boost their careers.

Golf Drives to Score with a New Generation

Meanwhile the game’s stewards are grooming the next generation with successful new and existing programs including The First Tee, Get Golf Ready, and LPGA-USGA Girls Golf.

The nascent Drive, Chip & Putt competition for 7 to 15 year-olds (golf’s answer to football’s long-running Punt, Pass, & Kick) crowned its second group of winners last week at Augusta National Golf Club just days before the pros teed off for The Masters. There were more than 25,000 entrants.

“If we get more people playing earlier, they’ll keep playing through those 18 to 34 years,” says Derek Sprague, president of the PGA of America. The organization’s co-ed PGA Junior League Golf has also exploded from 1,500 participants during its inaugural season in 2012 to 17,500 kids on 1,425 teams nationwide last year.

While the costs to play golf are higher than soccer or basketball, public courses in many cities offer free clinics and kids can play for less than $10 a round on a number of municipal courses.

Don’t underestimate the importance to this movement of 21-year-old Jordan Spieth’s victory at The Masters on Sunday. It may pay huge dividends for the game of golf for years to come. Millennials now have a champion to call their own and Spieth’s victory may inspire a new generation of golfers similar to what Tiger Woods did for Spieth and his peers back in the ‘90s. 

Before Spieth claimed the champion’s green jacket at Augusta, the pro golfer told Fox Business in an exclusive interview at Riviera Country Club during the Northern Trust Open, “It’s cool to see more young fans of golf. With a new generation of guys winning younger, it’s helping bring these fans out. When I was younger I liked to see young players doing well; it gave me something to shoot for.” 

 The game may also give digital natives a chance to unplug.  Glenn says golf can help Millennials make more meaningful social connections by booking face time in person on the links: “As fast as people’s lives are today, golf can be a positive. Rarely do you get five hours alone with someone. It can be a positive because you get full attention from people and they aren’t rushed for time.”

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