Golf in Sweden has enjoyed a significant increase in membership numbers and rounds played this year, aided by the introduction of the new World Handicap System (WHS).
A remarkable number of new, lapsed and current golfers have headed for the fairways at the 500 courses across the country, with golf one of the few sports still able to be safely played in Sweden throughout 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The surge has also been aided by the Swedish Golf Federation (SGF) adopting the new WHS system following a nationwide launch on 1 March, leading to a dramatic increase in rounds registered across the year.
With other Scandinavian countries also seeing a renewed interest in the sport despite the challenges of the pandemic, Sweden is reflecting on an unprecedented year for golf growth.
Key figures from the SGF in 2020:
- Rounds increased by 3.5 million to 11.6 million (+43%)
- Registered handicap rounds increased by 5.5 million to 6.5 million (using WHS)
- Membership increased by 54,000 to 538,000 (+11%)
- Biggest membership growth was from golfers aged 25–45
- Average age of playing golf in Sweden decreased from 49 years to 46 years
Gunnar Håkansson, who has been General Secretary of the SGF for the last 11 years, admits it has been a very encouraging year for golf in Sweden despite the challenges of living with the pandemic.
Positives from a difficult year
“It has been a fantastic season. Golf clubs are happy and golfers in general are very happy,” said Håkansson. “Despite the challenges of COVID-19, there have been positives from this very difficult year. Most sports have suffered in Sweden but we have been able to play the whole season and people have realised golf is a great thing to do.
“With new working environments, people have been working from home and therefore had more flexibility and more time to play. With travel restrictions also in place to other countries, it has kept people at home to have a vacation and golf here.”
Membership numbers in Sweden peaked at around 554,000 in 2004, with the country now trending back towards those levels.
“Growing by 54,000 this year is just incredible,” adds Håkansson. “People have come back to the game and we’ve seen a massive growth in the 25–45 age group. They started learning when they were children, left the sport and now they are coming back.
“We probably already have a maximum number of senior people playing, so finding more young people to play is great. Golf membership in Sweden has also never been expensive, an average club charges around £400 to £500, while there are also cheaper options.”
Demand for tee times
Håkansson admits one of the biggest challenges has been for golfers to secure a tee time in 2020.
He continued: “Overall, the number of rounds played is also unheard of. We have a national tee time booking system and they rarely start before 9am, except for the weekends, and probably go to 4pm. But this year it has seen tee time bookings from 5am until 8pm! It’s been crazy, especially in the bigger cities. There have been downsides, with crowded courses and course maintenance challenges.”
The introduction of WHS has also aided Sweden’s success, a system designed to be more inclusive, accessible and to make golf easier to understand for all.
Following a significant media campaign and other key materials circulated to clubs and players, Håkansson and his team were ready for their launch back in the spring. After overcoming some early challenges in the administration of the system, both the national Federation and golfers are now enjoying its benefits.
“Players and clubs really like the handicap changes and we believe WHS has improved the joy of golf,” noted Håkansson. “Overall, it has been a large success. The system is making the correct calculations, while golfers can do their own calculations and understand it.
Development of the sport
“It’s really pleasing when we have a season when so many golfers enjoy the system and so many are registering. The old system we had didn’t favour the rapid change of handicapping that we have right now. The introduction of the 54 handicap is also allowing newcomers to play and compete. I see some great development together with The R&A and we hope to be able to develop that further.”
Looking to 2021, the Federation is aware of the importance of recruiting and retaining golfers. Current programmes include Vision 50/50 – the SGF’s innovative programme aimed at increasing women and girls’ participation in golf throughout Sweden to the level of 50%.
Next year they also intend to keep developing their new digital ‘green card’ (25,000 new players registered on the SGF IT system in 2020) and build knowledge around opinions and demand within the key target group of those aged 19–30.
“The digital green card is basically an educational web platform to really give the first introduction to an interested golfer for what the sport is all about,” explains Håkansson. “It includes films, interviews, explanations and questionnaires. It is an easy-to-do introduction to the theory of golf, ahead of perhaps getting some lessons and coaching.
“It gives the golfer a better understanding of golf and then it’s up to our clubs to harness that and encourage them to start coming along with a view to joining.”