Millennials breathing new life into the stodgy game of golf, and here's how the industry is responding

Key Points
  • Millennials are on track to overtake all other age demographics as the largest market share in golf.
  • Brands are positioning themselves to take advantage of the potential influx of new consumers.
  • Topgolf is one company drawing young adults with its "cool" factor.
Jordan Spieth of the United States hits his tee shot on the ninth hole during the first round of the Shell Houston Open at the Golf Club of Houston on March 31, 2016 in Humble, Texas.
Getty Images

Millennial golfers are breathing life into the sport despite a steady stream of golf course closures in cities and towns across the country.

The National Golf Foundation's annual study of golf participation in the United States found that 36 percent of the nearly 24 million golfers in the United States are young adults aged 18 to 39, and over 15 million additional millennials expressed interest in taking up the game.

This increase has millennials on track to overtake all other age groups as the largest market share in the sport, and many in the industry have taken note.

At apparel maker Under Armour, golf as a category has grown 25 percent in three years and is one of its fastest growing segments, said Kevin Ross, the vice president and general manager of UA's global golf. "We have always positioned ourselves to be the 'brand of the next generation.'"

The company sponsors millennial pro golfer Jordan Spieth, 24, the winner of the 2017 British Open, and Stephen Curry, 29, a relative newcomer to the sport. Curry, a two-time NBA MVP, played his first professional tournament as a golfer earlier this month.

"We are also cognizant of the fact that leveraging team sports athletes, like Steph Curry, and their affinity for the sport not only allows us to reach a younger audience but also creates a 'cool factor' that the game doesn't see often," Ross added.

Hally Leadbetter, a member of Golf Digest's social media group, is working to make the sport more accessible to young people, and points to social media sites like Barstool Sports and No Laying Up as places that draw newcomers to the sport by poking fun at it. "Accounts like Barstool Sports and No Laying Up are great. The humorous approach these outlets take on the game is imperative for reaching new demographics and rebranding golf as something 'cool.'"

To be sure, millennials are not as interested in spending five hours on a golf course playing the sport the traditional way. The total number of players completing a traditional 18-hole round is down over 1 percent in the past year, the National Golf Foundation said. Nearly 70 percent of the 468 million rounds played in 2016 were played by golfers over age 50.

Off-course facilities are drawing the young. Over 4 million young adults have only experienced the sport at an off-course facility such as a driving range.

That has boosted the popularity of places like Topgolf, a souped up driving range that offers food, drinks and other activities and operates 33 locations internationally, with 16 more in various stages of development.

"Millennials want a parallel experience, and Topgolf is built on four things everyone loves – play, food and drinks, music and community" Erik Anderson, co-chairman and CEO of Topgolf Entertainment Group told CNBC.

It is also a chance to win over women as customers. Female golfers account for 40 percent of the over 8 million millennials skewing visitors to off-course facilities such as Topgolf, and women make up over one-third of the 3 million junior golfers in the United States.

Under Armour introduced a women's golf apparel line last year and has since hit over $1 billion in sales. "We know there is a growing appetite for younger, fashion forward product to outfit her on the course and in every aspect of her life." Ross said.

Foray Golf, a company founded last year by a former Victoria's Secret executive, bills itself as "not your mother's golf clothes," with youthful looking shorts, shirts and accessories.

"One of the main reasons that women and millennials stay off the golf course is because they don't like the clothing options" said Megan LaMothe, Foray Golf's founder. "They feel like they're dressing in their grandmother's closet."

The company also sponsors women's gatherings like a recent one at New York's Chelsea Piers sports complex, which includes a golf range. "Women of all levels come to our events because they know it's the right thing to do – they want to play and be part of the game, but they feel like there are so many barriers." LaMothe said. "With us, it's just a fun girls' night that helps create a larger network of women who want to be involved."

Golf Digest's Leadbetter has a lesson of her own for millennials interested in the game: "Golf can open so many doors, so get off the couch, stop scrolling through Instagram, and go hit some balls at your local driving range!"