PGA Championship

Don’t be fooled by craft beer and Ray-Bans: Golf knows it has a millennial problem

Normally golf courses are quiet, but not after this round

Golf courses are normally quiet, with noise being frowned upon. But on Wednesday, when golfers finished their practice round for the PGA Championship at hole 18 at Quail Hollow Club, there was an explosion of young eager voices hoping to get an au
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Golf courses are normally quiet, with noise being frowned upon. But on Wednesday, when golfers finished their practice round for the PGA Championship at hole 18 at Quail Hollow Club, there was an explosion of young eager voices hoping to get an au

You probably wouldn’t guess it from the thousands of twenty- and thirty-somethings flocking to Quail Hollow this week, but millennials are killing golf, supposedly.

Those of us under 37 are said to be responsible for the demise of an ever-growing litany of things, from marriage to department stores to cable TV. Like NASCAR, golf is a sport that’s lost some traction with young people for whatever reason – be it shorter attention spans or changing TV habits.

And like leaders in NASCAR, PGA of America executives are keenly aware of the problem. They say growing its base of younger fans is a priority, in fact.

Going into the PGA Championship this week, perhaps the most-watched player was 24-year-old Jordan Spieth, who had been hoping to become the youngest golfer in history to win a career Grand Slam.

Spieth, along with players like Rickie Fowler (age 28), Jason Day (29) and Brooks Koepka (27), are among the “crop of young superstars” the PGA hopes will help draw in young fans.

“If we’re going to grow, stay relevant and increase our relevancy … we need more kids, we need more women, we need more minorities in the game,” said Pete Bevacqua, CEO of PGA of America. “It’s part of our strategic plan.”

The league is also working to get players interested in the game early on through grassroots efforts like its co-ed Junior League for kids ages 7-13. The league is coached by PGA or LPGA golfers, and it partners with local youth organizations across the country.

“Between what we’re doing with our grow-the-game initiatives and what’s happening on television week in and week out, we think that’s a really powerful one-two punch to get millennials and more kids excited about the game,” Bevacqua said.

The first day of competition at Quail Hollow brought with it a sea of Lily Pulitzer-wearing, Ray-Bans-sporting, craft-beer drinking young fans and casual spectators just here to see and be seen. Organizers of the Wells Fargo Championship, which returns to Quail Hollow next year, are conscious of (and embrace) the fact that it’s evolved from a rigid country-club event into a popular pickup spot for young Charlotteans.

Maximizing ticket sales – in sports, it’s butts-in-seats (or in this case, feet on the golf course) – is the goal of any spectator sporting event, so it doesn’t matter to organizers whether young fans show up for the golf or for the beer and babes. The PGA Championship has been sold out for months.

Still, industry experts warn about the long-term health of the sport if it’s unable to attract young people. “2016 was not kind to the golf industry,” the research firm NPD Group wrote in a blog post earlier this year.

Nike exited the golf equipment business, hundreds of courses closed and Golfsmith went bankrupt, the group noted. The recession forced people to cut back on spending on leisure activities like golf, and the industry has failed to attract millennials back.

There were 400,000 fewer golfers in 2013 than before the recession, with half of the decline coming from millennials, according to the National Golf Foundation.

At the PGA Championship Thursday, Drew Reading and Cassie Ray, both 21 and from Charlotte, said they’ve been coming to tournaments at Quail Hollow since middle school. They both play and watch golf pretty regularly, but acknowledged not everyone their age is as engaged with the sport.

“I think it’s a how-you’re-raised-thing. My dad played golf, his dad played golf, I was expected to play golf. It’s not a cheap sport, and it’s also seen as a more snooty sport,” Reading said.

Golf isn’t exactly the cheapest sport a kid could chose – between the cost of equipment, lessons and even country-club memberships. That’s one major barrier that makes golf inaccessible for athletes from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

“We know that golf needs to be more inclusive. We know that golf needs to be more diverse,” said PGA’s Bevacqua. “The face of the game has to look more like the face of society.”

Katherine Peralta: 704-358-5079, @katieperalta

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