How Many Americans Play Golf? Fun Facts and Demographics

By Nick Heidelberger

Four golfers on scenic putting green

If you’ve ever had a mid-morning tee time on a Saturday, you’ve probably felt like every last human in the United States is on the golf course. Well, that’s not quite the case, but a pretty good percentage of them are.

According to the National Golf Foundation, 25.1 million Americans played golf on a course in 2021, and a total of 36.9 million Americans played golf either on a course, simulator, driving range, or golf entertainment venue in 2020. Going by that latter number, that’s 12 percent of the United States’ population of 329.5 million. Let’s take a closer look at the American golf population.

What Drives Americans to Golf Courses?

One of the eternal facts of golf is that it simply does not appeal to everybody. Golf is an expensive sport to get into, and it can be a frustrating journey to improve from an eager beginner to an experienced and confident player. 

On the other hand, golf can be an extremely addicting and rewarding game, and many players who dabble quickly become hooked (excuse the golf pun). But what drives Americans to give golf a shot in the first place? Two forces have undeniably driven Americans to the game over the last 25 years: Tiger Woods, and COVID.

National Golf Foundation beginning golfers chart
National Golf Foundation

The Tiger Boom

In 1996, the year before Tiger Woods turned in his record-setting Masters masterpiece, the NGF reported the fewest number of beginning golfers since 1986. However, beginning in 1997, that number grew each year until 2.4 million Americans played golf on a course for the first time in 2000, proving the Tiger effect was for real.

The total number of golfers in the United States grew from 28.8 million in 2000 to 30 million in 2005, but that number dipped to 26.1 million by 2010, illustrating a healthy economy’s impact on golf.

The COVID Effect

In 2021, the total number of on-course golfers in the United States checked in at 25.1 million, topping 25 million for the first time since at least 2016. That marked an increase of 800,000 on-course golfers since 2019, the last pre-COVID golf season. 

A big reason for the increase in golfers was families playing golf together during the COVID pandemic. In 2020, 3 million Americans played golf on a course for the first time, doubling the 1.5 million who did so in 2011.

Many golfers who took up the game during the pandemic seem to have stayed, which means an overall increase in rounds played. Even after a sharp 13.9% national increase in rounds played in 2020 compared to 2019, that number jumped again by 5.5% from 2020 to 2021. When looking specifically at the increase in rounds played at public courses, golf rounds jumped 6.7% in 2021 compared to the already busy, although interrupted, 2020 golf season.

Is Golf Reaching a New Demographic?

New golfers continue to flock to courses. A record 3.2 million new golfers played on a course in 2021, following up the impressive 3 million who tried the game in 2020. 

The 2021 newcomers, however, illustrated at least a small shift in the new golfer demographic, which was made up of 37 percent women. That means that 1.184 million women played golf on a course for the first time in 2021. That represents both the largest total number of beginning women golfers, and the largest female share of beginning golfers since at least 2016. That’s a 52.7 percent increase in first-time women golfers over 2019 when 775,000 women played golf on a course for the first time.

What’s Next?

While no sport or industry can survive on unpredictable phenomena like a global pandemic or an iconic figure, golf has certainly benefited from both over the last quarter-century. However, there are countless programs, such as Youth on Course, and the First Tee, designed to help introduce the game to youngsters and communities that wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to golf. As we know, many of those who give golf a try will become hooked, and turn into lifelong golfers.

About the Author

Nick Heidelberger is the Editor of GolfLink. He has a degree in journalism from the University of Idaho and has been an avid golfer for more than 10 years. In the years prior to joining GolfLink, he worked for the New England Section of the PGA of America.