For almost as long as golf has been around, there’s been an industry pitching contraptions and hacks to conquer the often frustrating sport. The latest are pricey mobile applications claiming that data will unlock your swing.
These apps are booming as one of the world’s oldest — and most expensive — sports has experienced a revival during the pandemic. U.S. golfers, eager to get out of the house, logged nearly 61 million more rounds in 2020, good for the biggest gain since 1997 when Tiger Woods became the game’s preeminent star and ignited interest, according to the National Golf Foundation.
The 502 million rounds (the most played in nearly 15 years) came as the sport, like many others, pushed deeper into analytics. Hungry to use the stats, such as wind speed, now woven into television coverage of professional tournaments, golfers have gone digital.
Take SwingU, which offers shot analysis and video lessons in its app for a $100 annual fee. Its subscription revenue jumped 85 percent in the first four months of 2021, compared to a year ago. Now its app has more than a million active global users. And there’s still lots of potential for growth, given that many golfers, who skew wealthy, don’t bat an eye at spending $50 on a 12-pack of Titleist balls or $500 for the latest Callaway driver in the $6.5 billion equipment market.
“There’s been an explosion in golf demand because of COVID,” said Charles Cox, chief executive officer of Hartford, Conn.-based SwingU. “We’ve seen that in rounds, monthly active user growth, downloads and all that good stuff.’’
Golf’s nascent comeback took shape after the sport appeared doomed. Woods, the game’s biggest star, had faded. And younger generations shunned it for being too expensive, too difficult and — frankly — too slow. They instead turned to more fast-paced activities, such as e-sports and basketball, that didn’t require upwards of four hours to complete.
The sport flirted with several ideas to speed up the game, like making the holes bigger, but avoided wholesale changes. One of the few bright spots has been the boom in souped-up driving ranges, like Topgolf. But these are more akin to a night out at Dave & Buster’s or a disco bowling alley than renewed interest in traditional golf. Enter COVID-19. In 2020, with lots of entertainment options off the table, a record 3 million Americans played on a course for the first time, according to the NGF. But the industry, like many others that experienced a COVID boom, needs to work hard to keep these new customers hooked as the economy reopens.
That’s where SwingU, founded in 2012, and other improvement apps could play a key role. The company’s application offers access to a digital caddie — which keeps track of shots and makes club re-commendations using live wind-speed data — as well as access to hundreds of lessons and drills.
SwingU is not alone in trying to cash in on helping players get better — U.S. professional golf instruction is estimated to be about a $1 billion industry, according to a 2019 NGF report.
“Virtually every teaching pro is probably having the best year they’ve ever had,” says Casey Alexander, an analyst for Compass Point Research & Trading. The industry will likely retain a third of those 3 million people who tried a course for the first time, creating a “bull market.”
Now more than 40 percent of core golfers — defined as playing at least eight rounds a year — use a golf-related app, NGF said. And they have plenty of options.
Golfshot, which more than doubled downloads in April according to Apptopia, pitches an augmented reality feature that displays distances as an overlay of a live course view. 18Birdies says that “swing practice will never be the same” thanks to its coaching software powered by artificial intelligence. And Golflogix touts a “game-changing app” with 5 million users worldwide.
The ability of these apps to track shots and provide enhanced statistics ties into the analytics revolution that has recently taken over the professional circuit. When viewers tuned into CBS’s coverage of the Masters in April, the broadcast offered data like ball speed, arc and distance. Many of these apps are trying to replicate that experience, which could go a long way in maintaining the sport’s gains over the past year. The sport’s leisurely pace also makes it ideal for phone-enabled assistance.
Golf’s renewed popularity has also spurred other parts of the market, rewarding companies that stuck with the sport when its future looked bleak. At Callaway Golf, sales of clubs rose 26 percent in the first quarter, spurred by demand for custom-fit options. It’s stock recently hit an all-time high. Puma’s golf products are now growing at an annual rate of as much as 30 percent. Purchases of training aides, such as nets and putting mats, have also surged during COVID, according to researcher NPD Group.
However, relaxed rules on masks and travel will give golfers more choices. The next few months will be a crucial test as peak golf season in the U.S. intersects with what is expected to be robust vacation spending this summer.
“It’s to be determined on whether folks still play as much in a post-COVID world when all of the options are back on the table,” said SwingU’s Cox, also an avid golfer. “But it’s so far so good.”