Friday, February 29, 2008

NGF Fights Back Against the NY Times

Geoff Shackelford had a fun post regarding the National Golf Foundation's response to the NY Times report last week that golf participation is declining in the United States. The response was sent from NGF VP Greg Nathan in an email to friends and colleagues in the industry. I've never met or talked to the guy, so I don't count. Geoff was forwarded the comments, so I guess he doesn't either. But, Geoff has friends in high places, so yeah.

Anyway, NGF takes issue with the report.

There were a number of factual errors in the story and the general perception may be that all the data and conclusions are completely consistent with the NGF's perspective. That is not the case, however, and the NGF has forwarded a correction to The New York Times.
Geez! I'm going to go ahead and put factual errors out there as something we will return to later on in the post. You'll see.
The article correctly cites our data showing that the number of Core golfers (those playing eight or more rounds per year) has fallen from 17.7 million in 2000 to 15 million in 2006.
Factual errors, remember?

This drop is due, in large part, to golfers “on the cusp” who have reduced their play from eight or 10 or 12 rounds per year, to seven or less rounds, and thus are reclassified as Occasional vs. Core golfers.
Annual rounds have remained static at roughly 500 million over the past five years. So, effectively, the activity of the 28.7 million U.S.golfers is holding stable at approximately 17 rounds per year, on average.
The NGF postulates that currently there are 28.7 million golfers in the US as opposed to the 26 million cited by the NY Times author.

Added later is a comment regarding data sources that leaves me perplexed.

I’m not sure where the writer found his data for avid golfers (those playing 25 or more rounds annually). These are not from the NGF, though many readers came away with the impression that we were the source.


The article also states that the total number of golfers dropped from 30 million in 2000 to 26 million currently. This is not correct, and NGF did not provide these numbers to the writer. Our data shows that the number of total golfers actually increased from 28.1 million in 2000 to 28.7 million in 2006, an increase of approximately 2%.
I have to say that a number of people have e-mailed me in the past about golf participation numbers that I use in my pieces on the topic. None have ever actually referenced NGF by name until I mention their existence. They are a relatively under-the-radar organization to the average golfer.

Also, I am curious, then, where the writer acquired his data. Still, that does not mean that the data should be presumed to be wrong or off. The USGA does quite a bit of research on its own and I am sure other industry elements are tracking participation.

In fact, if you have $3000 to blow, you can read this industry report from a consulting firm.

The data from the NGF in recent years, though, does not necessarily paint a picture of very mild growth in participation. The NGF itself said it 2003 that the number of rounds across the US is decreasing - at least according to this report. Of course, that does not provide trending data to the present, but it is something to keep in mind.

Also, from a piece on (owned by NCGOA), the NGF has presented pretty damning data that does not directly tie into participation rates - but it may as well. That data is the number of course closings.
To view recent course closings and openings in a different light, consider that 2006 was the first time in six decades that golf had negative net growth: 146 closings versus 119.5 openings. (The NGF isn’t scheduled to release 2007 data until May 2008, but most observers expect the number of course closings in 2007 will be on par with previous years.)
That says something about real estate and, probably, participation rates.

Finally, I want to close this post with an interesting twist on this call out. As I posted yesterday, I did a piece calling for the bifurcation of the rules of golf - a set of rules for amateurs and one for pros. Why? Because amateurs want to see the benefits from technology, real or not, and I feel that professional golf needs to be restored to a game of more strategy and skill than power.

In the piece, though, I cite a statistic that is ofter quoted around the golfing world - and it comes from the NGF. That statistic is that golf scores, on the average, are stagnant. Therefore, on the whole, golfers are not getting better. Here's the NGF's exact text on that statement:

Average score is a statistic that is very unlikely to change over time, because the pool of golfers is constantly being refreshed by newer, less skilled ones. Also, average score increases as golfers age, which tends to balance out better scores by younger players.
Makes sense, right? I have used this data SEVERAL times in pieces related to golf participation and technology and taken it as gospel. Well, maybe we should not.

Dick Rugge, Senior Technical Director at the USGA, contacted me yesterday concerning my usage of that data from the NGF. He presented me with some data from the USGA handicapping system (covering millions of golfers, not a sample size) to the contrary of what NGF is claiming. BTW, this also stands as a personal correction for my Sports Central piece.

Now, according to the NGF, only 21% of golfers actively maintain a handicap. But, the point of showing off the data is to prove that the golf industry may not as statistically sure as it could be. Industry sources - including the NGF - seem to be giving indications the golf participation is down. The NGF is saying that scores are staying about the same when the USGA is showing that, among golfers with a handicap, they are steadily improving over time.

So, my question then is: how much do we REALLY know about our golf, who plays it, and its impact on the national economy?

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