The Swedish model is one worth looking at
By Duncan Simpson
New Zealand PGA Chief Executive
If you took a map of the world and tried to decide which countries were most likely to be fertile breeding grounds for the game of golf, Sweden probably wouldn’t be high up the list.
With a climate that restricts play to around six months of the year or less, a terrain mostly unsuitable for golf courses, and a culture with a strong emphasis on social democracy and winter sports, you would expect golf to be a fringe activity at best.
Yet this country, with a population around double that of New Zealand, has produced a string of world class golfers across both genders, with 22 men currently in the top 500 in the official world golf rankings.
By contrast, New Zealand has five. Sweden can also lay claim to one of the greatest female golfers of all time in Annika Sörenstam, who retired at age 38 with 10 major championships and 72 LPGA victories to her credit.
Our own Lydia Ko may be well on track to eclipse that, but as Tiger Woods knows, the mountain can get steeper the closer you get to the summit.
We can say we are ahead in wins by males in majors, but only just after Henrik Stenson’s stunning victory in last month’s Open Championship. The ranking numbers to build rapidly on this are certainly in Sweden’s favour.
It’s not just the competitive area that Sweden is doing well in — golf is the third highest participation sport after football (soccer) and equestrian sports in their country.
There is a well integrated network of golf clubs throughout Sweden, with a higher proportion of club members (as opposed to casual players) than we have here.
This is probably helped by a Swedish penchant for joining clubs as a natural part of any sporting or leisure activity, but research indicates that well organised golf clubs operating to common goals and standards, backed by good development programmes for junior and beginner golfers all help to support the success Sweden enjoys in both the recreational and competitive aspects of the golf industry.
There are also a couple of X factors. Firstly, a strong “Team Sweden” approach not only amongst elite golfers, but also through club players following their heroes on the world stage.
Secondly, the use of research to guide and influence industry strategy. The best example is the Swedish research into golfers’ longevity by the Karolinska Institutet which found that golfers in Sweden had a death rate 40 percent lower than other people of the same sex, age and socio economic status, meaning they lived five years longer on average.
Results were even better for golfers with lower handicaps. No wonder Henrik Stenson said “Forty is the new thirty” after his triumph at Royal Troon in Scotland. The reasons given in the paper point to the physical exercise involved in playing golf, and also to the social and mental benefits associated with the game.
It’s been a great surprise to me that more use hasn’t been made of this research with governments and the public at large, because the economic benefits appear obvious (or don’t governments want people to live longer?), and golf could certainly use some positive profile to counter the negativity it tends to attract from both outside and inside the sport.
The Swedes have also done excellent research into the reasons why people drop out of golf and golf club membership. A lot of it relates to frustration and a feeling that the game caters mainly for golfers of high ability, and shows clearly that the higher the handicap, the more likely a golfer will leave a club and/or give the game up.
There is a clear opportunity here for using the tools we have through the NZ handicapping system, and for PGA professionals to recognise the strugglers and get them on the right track.
Overall, there is much to be admired about Sweden in general, but in particular how they go about the game and business of golf in particular. You can expect to see a few more Annika Sörenstam and Henrik Stenson-like triumphs in the months and years ahead.
1 “Golf: — a game of life and death — reduced mortality in Swedish golf players’’, Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, May 2008.