The most frequently asked questions within the golf community over the past year have been: When will the pandemic golf surge end? How far ahead of 2019 (the last “normal” year) will we be? Will we retain the golfers who took up the game due to COVID-19 restrictions?
The good news is rounds played continue to be well ahead of both 2020 and 2019 levels, and unless there is an unforeseen economic collapse and/or a catastrophic year weather-wise in 2022, golf is in a much better place today than it was pre-pandemic.
The chart below indexes annual rounds played using 1999 as the base, as that was the first year Golf Datatech started collecting and projecting monthly rounds played. Rounds played consistently trended lower in the United States since the turn of the century; however, it has been like a large bucket of water with a small hole – a constant drip. Over the past 20 years, rounds played were down roughly 18 percent, so on trend to lose a little less than 1 percent per year. Suddenly COVID hit, and the trajectory of the game changed. In 2021, rounds played were back near all-time highs.
There is one clear “outlier” year between 1999 and 2019, and in fact, during that unusual year (2012), there was a very early spring and golf was played across the northern tier as early as February, and the good weather continued throughout the year. Minimal drastic weather impacts meant a longer and steadier season than typically enjoyed, and in total, the industry benefited with additional play.
Because golf is played in the elements, weather is by far the most important of the variables impacting rounds. Many overlook the positive impact weather had on 2020 results, a year featuring low precipitation and mild temperatures across much of the country during the summer months, transitioning into a long and golf-friendly fall. While it’s true that the pandemic created additional demand for tee times, a favorable weather situation provided significant tailwinds to accelerate the rapid growth. Without the distractions of other activities (truncated/disjointed NFL and NCAA football, no youth sports, limited vacation travel, etc.), combined with good golfing weather, rounds surged to all-time highs in the summer/fall of 2020, leading many to ask how or if we could match those levels in 2021.
Early 2021 weather continued to be slightly better than normal on a national basis; however, as summer waned and turned to fall, weather patterns deteriorated and negatively impacted rounds, exacerbating the shortfall comparisons versus the massive numbers put on the board in 2020.
Predicting where rounds played will go in 2022 is as simple as simultaneously predicting how COVID-19 variants will evolve while accurately forecasting the weather for the next 12 months. In other words, it’s impossible to do accurately.
In the depths of the lockdowns and early in the short-lived COVID recession, common thinking suggested 2020 rounds would do well to get within 10 percent of 2019 levels. Then, as golf courses opened and people flocked to play because it was deemed to be a safe, socially distant, outdoor activity, expectations were adjusted to suggest “breaking even” would be a good outcome. Soon after, there was the realization that a golfing tsunami was upon us, and 2020 rounds soared 14 percent higher versus 2019, even after falling to near zero for two months during the spring.
Entering 2021, many industry insiders expected a massive surge in March and April versus 2020, which would be offset by a rapid drop in demand for tee times during the summer and fall, when rounds would compare against record levels of 2020 play in the immediate wake of the pandemic.
True to form, rounds played soared and stood 34 percent ahead of prior year through April 2021. Expectations were for a significant downturn heading into the busiest part of the season, and for a moment it looked like it might happen. After a drop in May, rounds held relatively steady versus 2020 into the summer and fall, with June-October rounds ranging from a gain of 0.8 percent to an 8 percent decline. In the end, total 2021 rounds ended the year up 5.5 percent.
After two years of significant improvement, total rounds played are up close to 18 percent compared to 2019, the last pre-pandemic year.
Predicting where rounds played will go in 2022 is as simple as simultaneously predicting how COVID-19 variants will evolve while accurately forecasting the weather for the next 12 months. In other words, it’s impossible to do accurately. However, there are some trends/metrics to keep an eye on:
- If 2022 rounds played can stay within 8 percent of 2021 levels, rounds will still be up double digits over 2019.
- Weather conditions will continue to be a critical component of how demand for rounds develops in 2022, and no one controls Mother Nature.
- If COVID outbreaks recede and “normal” pursuits resume – kids go to school, have their athletic, artistic and school functions; people go out to dinner, travel and go on vacations again – there may be fewer discretionary dollars and less time available for golf. But a lot of those activities did come back, albeit briefly, during the summer of 2021, and rounds played remained strong.
It’s worth noting that total 2021 demand (measured in rounds) was about 3 percent below peak levels attained in 2000, while the supply of golf courses is also slightly below where it was 20 years ago. So, over the past two decades, supply and demand are in a very similar place to where they were prior to the massive expansion and contraction between 2002 and 2019.
Guest contributor John Krzynowek is a co-founder and partner at Golf Datatech LLC, the leading independent market research firm in golf.
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