GCI’s Guy Cipriano analyzes a recent National Golf Foundation report and describes the challenges the industry faces reaching millennials, a generation responsible for the industry’s long-term health.

Resting on the cusp of obtaining millennial status stinks.

You’re too old to regularly use emojis in texts and tweets, and too young to schmooze like a baby boomer about American golf’s period of grandeur. Instead, people like myself, age 35, are technically part of something called Generation X.  Guess T, U and V were unavailable when naming our ilk.

Generation X-ers – at least this one – receive odd stares from millennials when we bypass the headphones and in-flight TV, and begin reading printed reports on airplanes. On a recent flight to Colorado to attend an event filled with industry baby boomers, the National Golf Foundation’s “Golf & the Millennial Generation” seemed like ideal reading material. 

The report is 76 pages. For those without the time or desire to wade through another lengthy industry study, let’s condense the intended objective. The NGF spent a lot of time (and presumably money) trying to help industry stakeholders convince millennials they need to be completing fewer adventure races, playing less fantasy football and taking fewer selfies, and playing more golf. 

According to the report, millennials are males and females ages 18-34, and they are responsible for playing 90 million rounds and spending $5 billion annually on golf. The report suggests the numbers aren’t as bleak as industry outsiders make them appear yet aren’t as strong as they could be.    

The report also doesn’t mention perhaps the most important person at every golf facility: the superintendent. No surprise here. Superintendents are not viewed as the reason for the industry’s participation challenges. They are successfully doing their part to turn curiosity-seekers into regular customers. A millennial doesn’t need a six-figure salary to play a five-star course because of the focused and progressive work of superintendents and their crews. If superintendents fail, the industry fails. 

Superintendents, though, are one of golf’s few gimmes. They have adapted to leaner times. 

Two participatory events experienced by this Generation X-er away from the golf course this summer illustrate why industry leaders feel a need to publish lengthy reports about the relationship between golf and millennials. Both events involved physical exertion, but required a minimal time commitment. 

The first occurred on the streets of downtown Cleveland, a Saturday evening road race called “A Shot in the Dark.” The event was sponsored by a local restaurant/bar and registration fees ranged between $25 and $40. The running portion of the event lasted approximately 30 minutes. Participants ranged from 9 to 75. The event had a heavy millennial presence and numerous elements golf lacks: loud, energetic music, a chance to mass-burn calories and opportunities to mingle with the opposite sex. A post-race party offered more opportunities to listen to music, mingle and drink a few guilt-free beers. Participants could expedite or extend the experience based on individual desires. There was no waiting behind a methodical foursome or somebody telling you how to dress or act. The price was equivalent to playing nine holes riding or 18 holes walking on a weekend here in Northeast Ohio.    

The second experience followed 2 ½ days of meetings and golf course visits in Colorado. In an adventure-seeking mood after an outstanding late-afternoon weeknight visit with The Broadmoor Resort director of golf course maintenance Fred Dickman, I drove to the base of a daunting trail called the Manitou Incline. The incline once carried materials to build pipelines on Pikes Peak. Today it’s a nearly one-mile ascent consisting of 2,744 railroad ties. Parking at the base of the incline is tricky to find and costs $5. The ascent is not for the weak. It’s intimidating and grueling. It’s also a damn good time, and a go-to venue for millennials looking for a physical challenge and social interaction. The top is a gathering and recovery spot, with hikers gulping water, snapping pictures and swapping stories. I saw some crazy stuff on the way to the top – a hulking millennial carrying a 5-gallon water jug on his back – and encountered more millennials by the 300th tile than I have on a golf course this year. 

The trek down is ultra-dangerous and most opt to descend on a 3 1/2-mile trail on the side of the incline. The total journey took 1 hour, 30 minutes, equivalent to what it takes me to walk nine holes on a traffic-free course. 

I didn’t need to keep score, follow written rules or book a starting time to climb the incline. I burned enough calories to work off the two clubhouse hamburgers and hot dogs. I boarded an airplane the next morning and reread the millennial report. I wondered how the intended audience would react to the scene on the incline the previous evening. 

Less time and formality, a little noise, the ability to create their own experience, some heart-pumping moments. Determining what millennials want isn’t tough, and it’s far different than what traditional customers seek. But are operators ready to alter business models to deliver it? Now, that’s the report we need to see.

Guy Cipriano is GCI’s assistant editor.