Why Is Golf So Popular? An Old Game Making A New Push

Written by Michael VanDerLaan 

Golf is often a complete mystery to outside observers. Sparing all of the arguments over economics and the environment, many simply find the game boring or tedious. However, those who have been bitten by the golf bug often never recover. But why is golf so popular?

Globally, golf has had outlandish staying power. While many of the sports currently celebrated on the world stage are relatively new (basketball was invented just a few generations ago), golf in its current form traces its roots back hundreds of years, well before America was even formed.

So what is it that hooks these golfers? What is it about golf that makes it so captivating in ways that are so hard to explain to the uninitiated? Let’s take a look at some of the biggest reasons and try to understand why golf is able to garner the attention that it has for so long.

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Where Did Golf Start?

St Andrews is widely known as The Home Of Golf

Humans have probably been playing stick-and-ball games in some capacity since shortly after we first developed the propensity for using tools. Eventually, Scottish fishermen and herdsmen took to bringing sticks and balls to pass the time walking through the un-farmable links land that “linked” the inland villages to the sea. 

The game carried on informally like this for centuries.The first recorded instances referring to the modern game of golf show up in Scotland by the 1400s. The game was popular enough at that time that it was officially banned because its popularity was interfering with men completing their military training.

The “golfing grounds” at St. Andrews in Scotland were established in 1552 and would go on to become the Old Course at St. Andrews which is currently recognized as the oldest course in the world, and is referred to as the “home of golf” and is a bucket-list stop for golfers around the globe who want to celebrate the origins of the game.

While there is evidence of similar club-and-ball shenanigans taking place throughout Africa, Asia, and the rest of Europe at various points throughout history, the actual development of the infrastructure as we know it (courses, rules, competitions, etc.) all sprung from Scotland and quickly spread to its nearest neighbors in England and Ireland.

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Who Made Golf So Popular?

Tiger Woods

The first person to make golf popular on a large scale could be cited as King James IV of Scotland. In 1502 he removed the (albeit largely ignored) ban on golf after being gifted clubs, balls, and becoming a “golfer” himself. 

As far as who has had the biggest influence on golf’s popularity globally, it would arguably have to be Tiger Woods. He certainly ushered in an unprecedented spotlight on the game that increased visibility of the sport across perceived international, racial, and socioeconomic barriers.

In between these two bookends, each generation has had a golfer or pair of golfers that can be credited with transcending the niche of the sport and becoming well known pop culture icons. In America it was first Bobby Jones, then Sam Snead and Ben Hogan, followed by Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. Each paved the way for a lasting expansion and interest in the sport outside of its core demographic of hardcore golfers. 

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Top 10 Reasons Why Golf Is So Popular

Golf Is Great For Networking In Business

Businessmen Playing Golf

Golf is intimately intertwined with the business world both at the highest levels all the way down to everyday salesmen. The culture of the game makes playing it at exclusive courses a very valuable “perk” and is also a fantastic informal setting for getting to know people and building relationships. 

It is hard to hide “who you really are” over the course of 4 hours doing something that is both difficult and requires integrity, and over many rounds and years partnerships are definitely formed.

Golf Is Great For Meeting New People and Socializing

Golf is a great way to make new connections

Good “golfing buddies” are almost ever-present attachments for a golfer, as important to some as clubs and cleats. Just like with the business world, the golf course is a great place to get to know somebody socially. Unless you are stuck sharing a cart with somebody who you don’t like, it’s easy to ebb and flow with the situation and engage - or have an easy excuse to not engage - in conversation as much as feels natural. 

Many lifelong friendships are borne on the golf course, and for many, the game just isn’t the same without good company. If you're unsure about how to meet people at the golf course, taking lessons from your local pro and asking about groups or leagues is a great place to start!

Golf Is Great Physical Exercise

Walking the golf course is a great form of exercise

For your average triathlete or kickboxer they might scoff at the idea of golf being physical exercise. But for the other 99.9% of people, a game of golf is probably an ideal amount of exertion for maintaining a healthy lifestyle. 

Whether you walk or take a cart, there is plenty of activity in the game, and plenty of chances to get your heart rate up and break a sweat. The best part is, if done properly, golf can be played almost every day without long recoveries and help build lasting habits instead of a monotonous exercise routine that will be dropped and picked up only in emergencies.

As you get more and more into the game, you will also find yourself interested in workout programs such as GolfForever to help you improve your game!

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Golf Is Great For Mental Health

Golf helps people manage their mental health

It’s said that the game of golf is 99% mental. And while the golf course can be a magnet for complete mental breakdowns (usually from non-golf problems accumulating, boiling over, and being projected at inanimate objects or wildlife in front of close friends and family) for many more the game is a psychological Godsend.

Golf is great for mental health. Developmentally, it mirrors the challenges of life, and demands attributes like patience be developed. It requires an ability to deal with adversity and things that are unfair, and don’t go your way even when you’ve done everything right. A certain amount of resiliency is ushered in by seeing how a “silly game” can be so challenging.

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Some may not understand, but for those who do, it cannot be said better than it was said by the great Moe Norman.

“It is a buffer for the stresses of today’s living.

It cleans the mind and rejuvenates the body.

It is these things and many more for those of us who know it and love it.”

Sunshine And Being Outdoors Makes You Feel Good

Playing golf on a sunny day

There is plenty of research to show that exposure to the sun is a key element of both physical and mental health. Of course, the sun can also have some damaging effects on your skin so having the proper sun protection is important!

The sun and fresh air provide the other huge mental benefit to golf, which is simply being an escape, so to speak. It is perhaps the pinnacle of adult leisure sports and recreation in our culture today. The simple fact that the game is played outdoors and takes multiple hours to play is virtually irreplaceable and invaluable for the health of the psyche in our modern culture. In spite of anything else, the fresh air, the movement … the pauses … the orderliness and flow of a proper round … all help to re-synchronize ourselves with something more natural than what the rest of our lives bombard us with.

This benefit of the game really was catapulted to the forefront during the COVID-related restrictions as many flocked to the game as an alternative to spending too much time inside and the compounding stresses of their life situation.

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Golf Teaches Life Lessons

As mentioned before, as silly as it may sound to an outsider, golf is often like a mirror for your life or internal state. 

Nobody has ever seemingly truly conquered the game of golf (except perhaps for Byron Nelson who stopped practicing at his peak because he didn’t need to and then walked away in his prime to become a rancher). Most keep chasing a seemingly unattainable perfection. Without getting too philosophical, many metaphors for life are found in golf and there are many chances to reflect on what is happiness, what is “enough” and what, if anything, is consistently keeping those things away.

Golf Teaches Honesty

Golf is often referred to as the “gentleman’s game.” The phrase has farther-reaching connotations about social structures, etc. but also very much reflects on the integrity of those who play it.

By its very nature, golf, even at the highest levels with officials, TV replays, and other outlets, relies heavily on self-policing. The scope and dynamics of the game give ample opportunities to cheat or defraud your opponents with little chance of being detected, for example while searching for a ball while everyone else is distracted or far away.

Ultimately, it’s not uncommon for people who play golf together to have to essentially take each other's word that the rules were followed. Not following the rules, and especially trying to lie or cover it up, are virtually unforgivable given the nature of the game and its customs and rules.

Golf Teaches Respect

Golf teaches people to respect one another and themselves

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One of the most interesting things about golf is that, with very few exceptions, it is completely dependent upon other people in order to play. Even in medieval Scotland, the lands that golf were played on started out as communal land, shared by everyone. In modern times, even if you can get a tee time by yourself, your access to the game is completely dependent upon a massive coordination of effort from dozens of maintenance employees and other golfers willing to finance and organize the whole thing (hence the model of public and private golf clubs). 

Because of this, everyone who plays is tasked with fundamentally caring for the course. This ensures not just our own playing experience, but the experience of everyone else who wants to play. This involves things like repairing divots, raking bunkers, letting others have their turn, and not disturbing others with bad attitudes or outbursts, amongst many other things.

This joint responsibility helps illustrate in real-time the importance of doing things the right way, treating things properly, and always having an eye on the bigger picture rather than your own petty shortcut or frustration.

Golf Is A Lifetime Game That Anyone Can Play

Perhaps the biggest defining characteristic of golf - and hence very related to its staying power and popularity - you can learn to play the game at any age.

The same just cannot be said about very many other sports. Most of us played one sport or another when we were young. As we get older, and our bodies can’t handle the strain of higher impact sports anymore, it seems that we all turn to golf. There is currently a huge movement of people in their 30’s and 40’s taking up the game. Even more remarkable is that many golfers do not even start playing until they are in their 50s or 60s or even retired.

Many golfers are able to play all the way up until their final days, or very near to it.

In addition, this flexible nature of the game lends itself also to a massive opportunity for women to compete by themselves or alongside men as well as many adaptations that make it a great option for physically disabled individuals or people who just don’t consider themselves “that athletic”. Check out some amazing highlights from our friends at the US Adaptive Open in the video above!

The power of the equipment and the scope of the courses makes it so anyone can, maybe with a little luck and some elbow grease, produce absolutely eye-popping results (at least once in awhile) that are almost universally captivating and addicting in the chase to re-create them.

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Why Is Golf So Popular In Asia?

Asian Golfers Practicing Putting

One thing you will notice - whether looking at a popular golf resort or at the leaderboards of your favorite PGA or LPGA tournament - is that the sport is extremely popular in Asia, with many passionate golfers traveling globally to play and competing at the highest levels.

There are several theories around this, and the ultimate “causes” might revolve around quite complex social and economic tendencies that we don’t fully understand, but some factors we do. First of all there are several Asian countries with a very wealthy segment of the population that tend to push their kids into golf at a higher rate than other countries, as well as Asian culture tending towards specialization in one sport from a young age and training that full time.Let’s take a look at the popularity of the game in a few of the biggest countries in Asia.

South Korea

South Korea is definitely a golf hotbed. The country boasts over 800 courses, which puts them just outside the top 5 in the world ― for a place the size of Indiana (Indiana has about half as many golf courses). 

Over 50 million rounds of golf were played in South Korea in 2022, which is about the same as their population. For comparison, about 75 million rounds of golf were played in the USA in 2022. That is staggering when you realize there are about 6-7x as many people in the USA than there are in South Korea, and we have about 20x as many golf courses.

Needless to say, make sure you have your tee times booked well in advance.

Why Is Women's Golf So Popular In Korea?

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Asian Woman Golfer

As mentioned, there are some cultural and socioeconomic factors that allow South Korea to focus heavily on golf. However, the popularity skyrocketed in the late 90s when Se-Ri Pak burst onto the professional scene. She wasn’t an outlier just for her nationality - she was an absolute phenom.

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Within a decade, there were dozens of Koreans playing on the LPGA, and for a time the #1 source of revenue for the LPGA was selling TV rights to Korea. This basically cemented a cultural shift especially amongst young Korean women and the impact on the game internationally is still being felt, with over 250 LPGA wins going to South Korean competitors in the meantime.

Japan

Japan boasts by far the most golf infrastructure in all of Asia - with half of all the courses in Asia existing within its borders. That says a lot for a country who doesn’t exactly have a lot of spare land! The country has over 3,000 golf courses, which is very comparable to the amount that are in the UK. Both countries are second only to the United States (about 16,000 courses). 

People in Japan generally enjoy golf for the same reasons as people in other countries - great exercise, great for socialization/business, and can be played by a wide variety of people at all ages. There might be some extra emphasis on golf with Japan’s tendency to swarm to “American” pastimes as well as the cultural importance of status and the symbolism that a golf club membership brings with it.

Golf is generally considered to be on the decline in Japan, down from its peak in the 1990s before an economic bubble burst, and perhaps infrastructure was over-built. 

While there have been many Japanese players to make the PGA TOUR, fans of the game received a boost when Hideki Matsuyama took home the 2021 Masters, the first major championship for any men’s golfer from Japan.

China

Asian Male Golfer

China would be the “late bloomer” in the Asian golf scene. The game (along with the land and everything else) is extremely expensive in China, with prices that often would make even casual European and American golfers blush. It is a sport that isn’t even entertained by the middle class, but there is a big push from the wealthy to expand it’s presence within China.

While China only has around 500 courses, it has a very interesting history with the game. There were no courses until the 1980s, and for most of the 2000s it has technically been illegal on a federal level to build more golf courses due to water and land conservation concerns. However on a local level many courses have still been built in order to cancel out the over 100 that have been forced closed by the government in that time. China also hosts the largest golf facility in the world: the 22-course, 396-hole resort at Mission Hills.

All in all, China boasts arguably the most rapidly growing population in the golf world. While the number of golfers and courses can’t compare to its neighbors (much less the West) at the moment, it is projected that there could be up to 20 million golfers in China in a decade, putting it on par with the USA as far as total golfers. It should be noted, however, that this has been projected before, but the numbers never materialized.

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Where Is Golf The Most Popular Sport?

Old Head Golf Club in Ireland

Golf is the most popular sport in the British Isles, closest to where it originated, and even more specifically Scotland and Ireland.

Scotland boasts the most golf courses per capita in the world, with one course for every 9,000 people or so. For comparison, despite the USA having dramatically more courses in total, there is still only 1 course for every 20,000 people.

In Ireland, however, the game might be even more popular. Despite having fewer courses, the Irish population of around 5 million played over 5 million rounds of golf in 2022, and the rate was similar in Northern Ireland. The rate drops off slightly for Scotland and England and Wales. The only country who can boast a similar rate of play is South Korea, and only in recent years. Many nations that are associated with golf only see a fraction of this many rounds, per capita.

Final Thoughts

Many people might wonder “What is it about golf? Why do people even play?” But at the same time those who do get into it are crazy about it. The game has managed to grow despite a lot of economic and environmental challenges working against it in the past 50 years.

Ultimately, the question of why is golf so popular is usually personal. For most, there is not just one reason, but a laundry list of reasons. The great thing about golf is, on some days, you get to shoot a great score, or hit some great shots, and that makes it fun. On the days that you don’t, you still get exercise. You still get life lessons. You still get alone time or time with friends, family, or even complete strangers that you would never get anywhere else. You still get the outdoors, fresh air, and a sense of escape. You still have an opportunity to learn something about yourself or about life.

But one thing all golfers have in common is: no matter how hard it might be, or what you might have accomplished, there’s no end to the “milestones” in golf. And in some twisted way the game never gets less challenging, no matter how good you become. Because no matter how well or how poorly today went, the only shot that ever really matters is the next one.

Again quoting Moe Norman “Its price is high, its rewards are richer. For those of us who know and love it, golf is truly happiness.”

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Michael VanDerLaan

Michael is an Associate Editor here at Golf Gear Advisor. He is a playing professional with a passion for finding the best equipment through product testing and evaluation. He has an intimate knowledge of the golf swing and a very effective way of communicating his knowledge to those that are interested in learning more. As an Associate Editor at Golf Gear Advisor, Michael shares his knowledge about the golf swing, fitness and finding the right equipment for your game.

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