Why COVID-19 was a ‘godsend’ for golf

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Two-hundred-and-thirty thousand people have taken up golf in Australia since the pandemic, as the introduction of new formats fuel the boom.

COVID-19 has been credited for growing the game, particularly in Victoria where golf was one of the first sports to resume play while team sports such as footy and cricket remained prohibited.

Golf participation has risen on the back of the COVID-19 pandemic.Credit: Eddie Jim

Meanwhile, new initiatives such as online coaching, 24/7 golf simulator access and entertainment golf venues have opened the door for more people to access the sport away from the traditional seven-day golf course club memberships.

According to Golf Australia’s latest club participation report, 1.5 million people play golf on-course, 1.2 million use driving ranges and 1.1 million play mini-golf. That data marries up with AusPlay’s most recent survey, which found more than 1.3 million Australians identified as golfers in 2022, up more than 40 per cent on their 2019 survey.

But the other areas of participation, which have been key growth drivers, include indoor simulators (300,000 participants) and entertainment golf (400,000), such as Topgolf.

Aaron Rayson is a golf coach who took a punt and decided to open the Geelong Golf Studio earlier this year, a 24/7 indoor simulator, allowing members to access expensive simulator technology at any hour of the day, just like a 24/7 gym.

Rayson said the take-up has been greater than expected, and he anticipated even more interest over the winter months when cold and wet weather makes it less appealing for golfers to spend four hours outside on course.

“Indoor golf is the next biggest thing,” Rayson said.

“We’re just following trends from America and Asia really. Indoor golf over there is like three quarters of the market in Asia, and in the States it’s going ballistic. Australia is always late to the party with that stuff, but it’s definitely growing.”

Rayson said there was no doubt COVID-19 had helped regenerate interest in golf, and drive new golfers towards the sport.

“They couldn’t do anything else; golf was one of the very first things to open up and get back into the swing of things, and they’ve all just jumped on and most of them have stayed, which is pretty cool,” he said.

“It’s been a godsend for us, COVID.”

Club membership remains strong, with 426,384 registered golf club members across Australia in 2021-22, an increase of more than 11,000 on the prior year.

Victoria has marked a 2.7 per cent growth in membership, consistent with national growth, but the Dalhousie (from Euroa to Daylesford and to Healesville) and Golf Peninsula (from Mornington to Sorrento) districts each registered more than 10 per cent growth. The Geelong golf district also had greater than five per cent growth.

Women and girls’ participation levels have grown significantly, particularly in Victoria.Credit: Eddie Jim

Female golf has also enjoyed significant growth. Women’s membership numbers grew by 4.8 per cent in Victoria year-on-year, while the number of girls who are golf club members in Victoria rose by 12.6 per cent.

Demand for online lessons and instructional videos has also increased, with new people taking up golf. Chris McClatchie is a golf instructor in Yarraville, but since COVID-19 he has pivoted to a predominantly online model.

A lot of the students he now coaches don’t even live in Australia.

“Online coaching is not necessarily new,” McClatchie said.

“It’s new for me, the past couple of years – COVID basically. Obviously, when everyone was stuck home with nets or at home set-ups and coaches stuck at home as well, that took it to another level.

“Online coaching allows smaller bite-sized chunks of information that you can focus on over an X-period of time, and the subscription model of the online coaching, I’m essentially sitting here now picking up on my guys that are practicing three to five times a week. I get the swings from every single session they have, so they basically don’t ever get to regress. As soon as they fall into bad habits, I pick up on it immediately.”

Pre-COVID, McClatchie had 7000 followers on Instagram. This month, he surpassed 100,000 followers.

He says more and more people are now practising at home, having set up nets or simulators in the backyard or garage.

“I’m sure gyms saw a decline in participation because people were doing stuff at home a bit more,” he said.

“People realised they can set up a net, and even a net and a cheap launch monitor you can do for $1500 if you really want to, and then a phone and a tripod, that’s really all you need. It’s huge now.”

Anthony Bergin, a professional at Thirteenth Beach, said the options for golfers were much more appealing than a decade ago.

Thirteenth Beach – home of the Vic Open, and tipped to host the Commonwealth Games in 2026 – has two 18-hole courses, as well as a nine-hole short course which has become a popular phenomenon with private clubs around the world as a way to attract more members, in particular beginners.

“There are heaps of options now,” he said.

Golf instructor Anthony Bergin has seen first-hand the increase in interest in golf. Credit: Eddie Jim

“I had a 50th birthday party at the Curlewis range the other day, and it was pretty much packed that night, and a lot of those people were not golfers. That’s definitely added another avenue to it, and that next level as well [the golf studio] is more relative to what you’d say is a 24/7 gym.”

Junior golf has also enjoyed rapid growth. Golf Australia’s junior program MyGolf – equivalent to the AFL’s Auskick or Cricket Australia’s Junior Blasters program – enjoyed 13 per cent participation growth year-on-year.

Bergin said clubs were being a lot more creative with membership types, offering age-based discounts or lower cost memberships that don’t include competition Saturdays – the most popular day for golfers.

“Those have been around at a lot of clubs for quite a few years now, five-day memberships and six days, but the last five or 10 years they’ve added a lot of the age-based memberships,” he said.

“Our club has also got one with the short course, so short-course junior memberships, or if you’re part of the junior academy, you get a special price on the membership.

“The 22 to 30, a lot of clubs are adding that as well, they’re starting to see the incentive of getting that demographic into it.”

The growth in participation also coincided with Cameron Smith’s Open championship victory in June last year, Australia’s first men’s major win since Jason Day in 2015, and Minjee Lee’s success on the LPGA.

Golf Australia CEO James Sutherland said the positive figures continued the momentum created by the launch of the Australian golf strategy, which focuses on making the game more inclusive and accessible to Australians from all walks of life.

“Golf is big – and it’s getting bigger,” he said.

“We’re delighted to see golf in Australia is growing at a rate never seen before and consolidating its position as one of the country’s highest participation sports.

“Across every meaningful metric, golf is thriving and we’re particularly buoyed by the growth in women’s golf and junior golf.

“There’s always more to do, but we are well on our way to making our great game even bigger and more inclusive.”

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