Golf in the UK and Ireland defies the Corona pandemic

While other sports had to take a break for months and it was difficult to practice under pandemic conditions, golf emerged from the pandemic as the lucky winner. Studies from the UK show that the number of golfers has increased, especially in Great Britain and Ireland. It is even higher than before the pandemic.

Strong figures in the UK and Ireland

The company Sports Marketing Surveys has been investigating developments in a wide variety of sports for over 30 years and always finds surprising things. Golf is also constantly analyzed and new studies from Great Britain and Ireland come to the conclusion that the participation in golf in these countries in 2021 was significantly above the level before the pandemic. In figures, this means that 5.3 million people played a golf course with 9 or 18 holes in the UK and Ireland in 2021. For the research, which was undertaken by Sports Marketing Surveys on behalf of a number of major golf associations, this represents the second-highest number since the surveys began more than 30 years ago.

In the UK alone, there have been around 4.8 million people actively playing golf in 2021. In 2017, the number was just 3 million. Even though there is a small decline compared to the previous year (5.2 million), participation in golf remains high and it is also evident that not only many new players are joining the game, but that long-time golfers are also remaining loyal to the game.

The number of women in golf also continues to increase. While the percentage of women in the UK is now 34%, it is also on the rise in Ireland at 21%. Furthermore, not only did the number of golfers record the second highest number since data collection began, but visitor numbers to driving ranges in the UK also reported the second best result in over 30 years. More than 3.5 million Britons used a driving range last year. Incidentally, in Ireland, 18% of all people tried golf or found a way back into the sport during the pandemic.

Golf boom despite Corona pandemic

As mentioned at the beginning, some sports had to take a forced break in the past two years due to the Covid 19 pandemic in order not to endanger the health of the players. Not only sports, but also large parts of public life experienced restrictions and can now enjoy fewer restrictions again.

A major beneficiary during the pandemic, however, was golf. During the last two years, the sport experienced a real upswing, because the outside practice, in smaller groups and with sufficient distance was possible almost the whole time.

Of course, golf has not remained unaffected by the Corona crisis, but looking at the figures there is a significant increase in the number of players. And despite the gradual reopening of other leisure activities, the sport was able to record rising numbers last year.


Research: Golf participation growth in GB and Ireland

New figures reveal an increase in golf participation. 2.3 million more adults played on-course in Great Britain and Ireland last year, and the sport is now being encouraged to grasp the opportunity to retain new and returning players.

Research led by The R&A, together with England Golf, Golf Ireland, Scottish Golf and Wales Golf, demonstrates how the sport thrived in 2020 despite the significant challenges of Covid-19.

The two new participation reports, produced by specialist research agency Sports Marketing Surveys, show that a significant number of players enjoyed golf on full-length courses as well as alternative forms of the sport, including the use of driving ranges, Par 3 golf and pitch and putt. Other encouraging findings show an increase in the number of female golfers and a reduction in the average age of participants.

Richard Payne: “We are really excited”

Reflecting on the research, SMS director Richard Payne noted, “For golf participation to have grown in the way it has in the context of the external pressures it has faced is nothing short of amazing. We suspected this might be the case when our figures showed that more rounds were played in 2020 than in 2019 despite course closures, but rounds played is only one part of the story. We now know that the growth wasn’t only down to existing golfers playing more, but also significantly boosted by new players coming into the sport. More people on driving ranges, par 3s and full-length courses is good for the whole game, from course operators to manufacturers to retailers, events and broadcasters. We are really excited to help the golf industry take advantage of this, and we’ve already been having lots of great conversations with clients keen to understand how research can help them build on the momentum.”

Phil Anderton, Chief Development Officer at The R&A, said, “We have seen a real surge in the number of golfers in Great Britain and Ireland playing the sport and this is reflected by the high demand for tee times and clubs reporting a strong interest in membership last year.”

“Golf has shown that it can provide significant health benefits, and this has been important for many golfers during these very challenging times. It is vital that golf seizes the opportunity to maintain this heightened interest by offering new and returning golfers compelling reasons to stay within the sport and enjoy it with friends and family,” he said.

Key highlights from the 2020 Great Britain Golf Participation Report:

  • Total adult golfers on a full-length course (9 or 18 hole) increased by 2.1 million players to 5.2 million – the highest figure recorded this century;
  • Of these golfers, 36% identified as returning or new golfers – with 16% of players starting or trying golf for the first time because of the pandemic;
  • The average age of golfers fell by five years to 41, with the majority of new golfers aged under 55;
  • 25% of female golfers were new to the sport – and tried it for the first time because of the pandemic;
  • Driving range use increased from 2.3 million to 4.3 million players;
  • The number of golfers who only used Par 3 courses more than doubled, and those who only played on pitch and putt courses more than tripled.

Key highlights from the 2020 Ireland Golf Participation Report:

  • Total adult golfers on a full-length course increased by 219,000 to 540,000
  • 18% returned to golf or started or tried golf for the first time because of the pandemic
  • A third of adult golfers who tried golf for the first time were under 25 years old

Following the easing of lockdown restrictions, The R&A identified the need to further understand the new demand and how different types of golfers were engaging with the sport.

Post Covid Opportunity Research

The Post Covid Opportunity Research was a supplementary project carried out by SMS. It assesses the experiences of golfers during the pandemic, their motivations for playing and their long-term plans for the future. Among new golfers, 98% of those interviewed identified they are enjoying playing golf and 95% see themselves playing golf for many years to come.

The impact of Covid-19 restrictions on mental and physical health and loneliness has been considerable, with the research showing how golf has helped in these areas.

Key findings include:

  • Among avid/regular golfers, 31% had experienced some negative impact on their feelings of loneliness/isolation as a result of the pandemic. Of these, 79% believe playing golf had a positive impact.
  • Among lapsed/returning golfers, 44% had experienced some negative impact on their mental health as a result of the pandemic. Of these, 92% felt that playing golf had a positive impact.
  • Among occasional/infrequent golfers, 34% had experienced some negative impact on their physical health as a result of the pandemic. Of these, 70% agreed that playing golf had a positive impact.

The research also outlined recommendations that clubs can take to retain new players. These include making sure golfers feel welcome and valued; cultivating a friendly culture and relaxed atmosphere; promoting participation options based on ability and experience; offering excellent customer service; providing an efficient booking system; and prioritising the quality and maintenance of the course.

Anderton added, “The mental and physical health benefits of golf have helped boost participation in 2020 and that is hugely encouraging given the sport offers a wonderful form of exercise out in the fresh air for all ages and abilities.”

“With more female players also coming into the sport, it presents an opportunity for golf clubs to harness interest from this key demographic and to engage in our #FOREveryone campaign.”

“The campaign encourages clubs to consider how they can attract more women and girls into the sport and challenge unhelpful stereotypes to demonstrate that it is an enjoyable pastime and career for people of all ages and backgrounds.”

(Text: Sports Marketing Surveys)