Why we should be looking at Germany to solve golf's participation problem
Sometimes change hits you in the face – and sometimes it takes a little longer for you to realise you’ve seen a better way of doing things.
So it was on a bright and sunny day at Frankfurter Golf Club, deep within the forest that lies between the airport and the city of Frankfurt.
Golf journalists from across Europe were milling around on the balcony which overlooks the first tee and the practice putting green, chatting about the state of the game, wondering about the future.
It took at least two hours before a reality dawned.
“Have you noticed just how many women are playing today?” asked a voice.
“Funny you should mention that,” said another, “I was just downstairs and noticed the tee times. It’s full of mixed groups. I asked about them and apparently it’s quite normal.”
Once spotted it was impossible not to see. Had we been in Britain the suspicion would have been that it was a ladies day, but it was no such thing. It was simply a straightforward split of men and women, whether it was in the restaurant, on the course, on noticeboards or even in the photographs on the walls – which showed women and girls enjoying the game ever since the club was founded in 1913.
It ought not to have been a surprise, however, because the KPMG Golf Participation Report for 2017 noted that 35 per cent of Germany’s golfers are women. In Europe only Slovakia (smaller market but 45 per cent) has bigger. In stark contrast England has 13 per cent with Scotland and Wales at 12 per cent.
Little wonder we felt, if not quite in another world, then very definitely in a different part of it.
The R&A is alive to the on-going problems of attracting women and girls to the sport, hence last month’s launch of the Women in Golf charter. It is also keen to promote formats which are attractive in the modern world, and these two factors explained our presence in Frankfurt: the governing body was giving its backing to the internationalisation of a German competition which promotes fast golf to both sexes.
The Mercedes-Benz After-Work Golf Cup is a nine-hole event that started small, but in ten years has grown to 3,200 tournaments on more than 300 courses with 75,000 participants.
The tournament has global aspirations, but in its first phase will branch out to Sweden, Argentina and South Africa. The R&A is excited that the short format and open to all nature of it appeals to golfers who are currently finding less time to play the game: the 20 to 50 age range.
In adding their support Martin Slumbers, Chief Executive of the R&A, said: “Nine-hole golf is continuing to grow in popularity among golfers worldwide. This is a pioneering new competition which enables golfers around the world to play the sport in an exciting and convenient way.”
The R&A is well aware that the future health of the sport, and of the clubs which sustain it, is reliant on greater numbers playing. That means not only at the weekend, but also in the week. More players equals greater footfall in pro shops, bars and restaurants.
“We need new ideas and new initiatives,” said the R&A’s Mike Tate. “The powerful growth of this competition suggests to us that it has the power to adapt around the world.”
Statistics demonstrate that shorter formats are proving popular. From 2016 to 2017 Ireland witnessed a 60 per cent increase in competitive nine hole club rounds. Portugal’s increase in the last ten years is 269 per cent.
The Australian Open holds an annual nationwide nine-hole competition, the prize being to tackle the back nine of the host club itself ahead of the tournament proper, and this year organisers expect 10,000 entrants.
Short form, open to all golf is working in Germany. It opened our eyes to what can be achieved. The R&A hopes the rest of the world catches on.