Local courses court the next generation of golfers

Clubs targeting millennials, but baby boomers still dominate the links in B.C.

Kris Jonasson, executive director of British Columbia Golf: the push is on to attract millennials to the sport | Rob Kruyt

According to British Columbia Golf (BCG) research, the number of golfers aged 65 and over who played at least 18 holes last year shot up almost 10%. And while the overall number of golfers across the province has returned to levels prior to the 2008-09 economic recession, there is still a generational gap when it comes to cultivating interest in the game.

One of the biggest drops in numbers of people who played at least one round of golf last year occurred among golfers in the 25-to-34 age group.

In 2015, millennials (born between 1982 and 2001) represented 16% of B.C. golfers. However, in 2016, that number dropped to 7.3%.

According to provincial government statistics, millennials will soon pass baby boomers (born between 1945 and 1965) as B.C.’s largest population demographic.

For Kris Jonasson, executive director of British Columbia Golf – the governing body for amateur golf in the province – keeping young golfers involved in the sport presents both a challenge and an opportunity.

Jonasson, who has been at the helm of the organization since 1996, said that when he first started, the game seemed to be doing everything in its power to avoid changing with the times.

“When I was hired I said one of the challenges was how golf was going to marry the traditions and the history of the game with the changes that were coming from a technology point of view,” Jonasson said. “And, realistically, I’m not sure that we did that great of a job initially when it came to technology.”

Jonasson noted the advancement of technology and mobile apps into everyday life has created a challenge for a sport that has been around for 600 years and is dominated by baby boomers and retirees.

He noted a BCG study showed the game has a relatively solid short game, but the long-term outlook might be more challenging. According to the organization’s data, the number of people who played at least one round of golf in 2016 dropped for every age demographic except for those aged 65 and over.

“The baby boomers did take up golf, and they continue to take up golf, and I think the immediate future for the next 15 or 20 years looks pretty strong,” he said. “But I also think that we’re going to drag a younger generation along with us, because when we were younger we really didn’t have that much time to spend with our children.”

Jonasson said the game might even skip a generation thanks to retired boomers taking their grandchildren out to the links for a round while the parents work.

Brent Gough, general manager and chief operating officer for the Vancouver Golf Club, said there is a yearlong wait list for the club’s full-play category, but he acknowledged that “the millennials are certainly bringing a change to the private club world.”

“They have much different wants and needs than most of us over 50. All clubs must continue to adapt to these changes or they will find themselves with fewer and fewer members. We are making these adjustments slowly but surely.”

Adam Zubek, general manager and chief operating officer for the Point Grey Golf & Country Club, said his organization is trying to maintain its loyal boomer membership while finding new ways to attract millennials and gen-Xers to the sport. He noted the club also plans to modernize its facilities, particularly its practice area, where new golfers can learn the game before playing a full round.

“We see the practice ground as a quick way to enjoy golf, get that instant feedback on performance, and as a means of getting new members into the club,” Zubek said.

Jonasson said that aside from upgrades at many golf courses, hopeful trends in the industry include the rising popularity of simulated golf among young people.

At one Vancouver venue, One Under Golf on Granville Street, patrons can play a round of virtual golf, order food and beer and watch other sports games.

Jonasson said the experience has been a hit with young people and a potential bridge for those who want to try out the real thing. 

“They get a chance to experience golf in a real fun atmosphere, and they find out it’s not quite as easy a game as they thought it was.”