Participation rates fall: Fewer youths playing golf in Ireland

However, more old people – as well as more women – are taking up the game later in life

A haemorrhaging of golf club membership levels, which has seen a decline in the numbers playing the sport in Ireland, isn't due so much to economic factors – given the fall off started prior to the financial crisis – but more to do with changed family lifestyle factors, according to a report, "Golf in Ireland: A Statistical Analysis of Participation", undertaken by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ERSI).

The in-depth study, authored by Dr Pete Lunn and Dr Elish Kelly of the ESRI, was commissioned by the Confederation of Golf in Ireland (CGI) and covers four data sources over a period from 2003 to 2013. One of the primary conclusions is that the sport has become less popular among young adults, although an increasing number of older people – especially women – are playing the game.

The real alarm bell for the GUI and the ILGU – the governing bodies of men’s and women’s golf respectively – is that there is a clear and obvious divide among the generations, with the highest participation rates, for both men and women, being for those in their 60s and 70s.

Although the report does not factor in the impact of recent initiatives like the CGI’s “Get into Golf” and “Golf4Girls4Life” programmes, it provides trends over the past 20 years during a period where participation levels have dropped. The GUI’s membership spiked at 177,000 in 2007 and has now fallen to around 135,000 adults with a further 20,000 juniors. The ILGU’s membership currently stands at 36,000 women and 4,000 juniors.


The ESRI report identifies golf as one of the most popular sports and exercise activities in Ireland, but “unusually high” among activities appealing to older people and highlights in particular the fall off by those under 55 years of age playing, which it attributes to socio factors of the modern family lifestyles.

Lunn, a co-author of the report, explained: “There is a clear challenge. Golf’s got an awful lot of selling points but there is a challenge to make it gel better in the modern world. There’s multiple components to that. There is a clear move among younger adults wishing to do more physical activity, some of that is quite strenuous, fitting it around their busy lives, so that’s a factor.

“The fact we have so many more dual earning couples, in many cases where the woman has got the higher earning potential than the man, particularly true of couples in their 20s and 30s, [has] probably had an influence.

“All of these factors of modern life, the expectation that as a father you spend time with your children at the weekends as well, has certainly had an impact. We can’t measure those things. We can see the data and you can come up with possible explanations and that fits with the fact that the fall off is greater among people who have got [children], that’s consistent, but is that definitely what’s causing it? We don’t know. I think the primary conclusion I would make is there is a challenge there for making golf fit better with changing modern lifestyles and modern families.”

Redmond O’Donoghue, the chairman of CGI, said the report provided “bad news and good news” for those governing the sport here.

“The bad news was always well known to us. We saw drop offs in the mid noughties and some of the problems are the absences is a lengthy period, too long, maybe the cost and the difficulty of the game itself. The upsides are that golf very much appeals to all ages, there is a very favourable demographic in the older group, it’s a growing group, there’s opportunity there,” said O’Donoghue.

Among the findings of the ESRI report were:

  • The fall off in participation has been greater among those with children aged under 18.
  • Participation is generally higher in Dublin, Leinster and in urban areas rather than rural areas. However, these areas are also the ones that have seen the greatest decline.
  • Most golfers are club members. Almost half play more than once a week.

The report addresses the issue of decline in participation levels of young adults, calling it a “concern” for those tasked with promoting the sport.

“The more benign possibility is that it reflects not so much a decline as a delay in playing golf. That is, it could be that while adults currently aged under 55 years play less golf than the previous cohort of adults, they will participate in the same numbers once they get older.

“It has long been the case that people become more likely to take up golf as they age, and perhaps the current generation of adults is just leaving it later, perhaps engaging more in alternative forms of physical activity that are increasing in popularity, until children have left home and careers are coming to an end.”

Philip Reid

Philip Reid

Philip Reid is Golf Correspondent of The Irish Times