When Hideki Matsuyama became the first Japanese-born male golfer to win a major championship at the US Masters last year, a respected Japanese golf business observer described it as ‘an epoch-making event’.
Andy Yamanaka, executive director of the Japan Golf Tour Organization, said the win was a dream that could trigger a bonanza for the sport: ‘Maybe it can be like 1957 again, our first golf boom,’ he enthused.
Korean golfers spend more per capita on their golf equipment and apparel than any other country
The value of golf
HK$2.1bn (US$0.2bn) The amount 20 major sports events brought into the Hong Kong SAR economy in 2017
AU$3.6bn (US$2.7bn) The amount golf contributed to the Australian economy in 2017
SG$230m (US$170m) The amount golf is worth to Singapore's economy per year
KRW11.4 trillion (US$9.4bn) The value of the golf industry in South Korea
It was 65 years ago when Japan won the Canada Cup (now known as the World Cup) on home soil, with Torakichi Nakamura and Koichi Ono winning the 30-team tournament, which included South African superstar Gary Player.
Today, Japan is the world’s second-largest golf market, accounting for a fifth of the global golf business. According to the World Golf Report 2021, a joint research project of the global golf business produced by Golf Datatech and the Yano Research Institute in Japan, the country accounts for 22% of the global golf economy. Only the US market is bigger, accounting for 45%.
Deeper analysis of the Japanese market, however, shows the sport could benefit from a shot in the arm – the kind that Matsuyama’s win could provide (see panel 'Japan’s golfing decline').
On the rise
There is already an upward trend in other countries across Asia. The South Korean golf market features prominently in the World Golf Report 2021. According to the report, the country ranks third behind Japan in the listing of the top five world golf markets. It also finds that Korean golfers spend more per capita on their golf equipment and apparel than any other country.
But golf is on the up around the world. ‘Despite the worldwide pandemic, golf participation and sales are higher,’ says John Krzynowek, Golf Datatech partner in the report, ‘with 2020 global sales of equipment and apparel up 3%, at US$13.9bn. Consumer demand for golf equipment was higher in the majority of countries around the globe.’
In China alone, the number of golf courses has tripled in less than a decade
Analysis in Golf’s 2020 Vision adds weight to the growing importance of other Asian markets. For example, enthusiasm for golf is high in China and India (higher than in core golf markets such as the US and the UK). It says: ‘A boom in the number of children playing the sport in China and India means that the next generation will increasingly be from Asia: players like Shanshan Feng and Andy Zhang are a sign of things to come.’
One reason for the game’s popularity in Asia is that Asian consumers are turning to leisure activities as they get wealthier. In China alone, the number of golf courses has tripled in less than a decade – the complete opposite of the trend in Japan.
In Singapore, a new subsidised junior golf initiative plans to turn golf into ‘a sport for all.’
The South Korean golfer YE Yang said he hoped ‘all young golfers, Korean and Asian, would build their dreams and expand their horizons’.
Asia has already become a centre of the women’s professional game, and such growth will lead to changes in expectations about the facilities that clubs and courses need to provide to their members – creating a platform for golf to become known as the family game.
Asian women are already having a big impact at the top of the game
Asian women are already having a big impact at the top of the game. Chinese Yani Tseng and South Korean Na Yeon Choi top the list of Ladies Professional Golf Association superstars, following in the footsteps of Sweden’s Annika Sorenstam.
Yuka Saso's victory at the US Women's Open Championship last year kept the title in Asia's hands for the fifth straight year. The Filipino-Japanese player’s win meant that over the past decade, eight Asians have won the US Women's Open, with South Korea producing six winners. The East Asian country's dynasty traces back to 1998, when Pak Se-ri became the youngest winner at the time at age 20, triggering a golf boom in the country.
While it may take years to comprehensively gauge the impact Matsuyama’s win had on Japanese and Asian golf, the immediate suggestion at least is that the sport and players in the region will only continue to get stronger.
Japan’s golfing decline
Over the last 25 years, the number of golfers in Japan has fallen by almost a half, from 12 million to 6.5 million, while the number of golf courses has fallen by 300 to 2,500, according to Sadao Furuhata, one of Japan’s foremost course market analysts.
While Japan still has half of Asia’s golf courses, the country’s love affair with the sport suffered after the economic bubble burst in the 1990s. A struggling economy has seen a reduction in the number of players who can afford to pay club membership fees.
While sales of golfing equipment in Japan account for more than US$2bn a year, that figure has remained static for the past decade. Dunlop and Bridgestone are the two leading brands. The World Golf Report found that equipment sales are down 1% in the country over the last five years, while global sales during the same period were up 11%.