Last updated on: 4/24/2023 | Author:

History of the Golf Debate

U.S. golf was an $84 billion industry in 2018, up front $69 billion in 2011. Add in golf’s worldwide appeal and the industry easily tops $100 billion annually.  But despite the obvious popularity of golf and its omnipresence globally, debate still rages over how to classify the game and its participants. Specifically, is golf a sport and its players athletes? Read more background…


Pro & Con Arguments

Pro 1

Golf meets the definition of sport and golfers that of athlete by requiring physical exertion.

Golfing without a cart burns an average of 360 calories per hour. Golfers who play a nine-hole course (2-2.5 miles) without a cart while carrying their own clubs burn 721 calories (613 calories if a caddie carries the bag of clubs, which weighs 30-50 pounds on average). Professional tournaments have four rounds of 18 holes, which would be 4,904 calories burned over four days. [8] [9] [10] [11] [29]

Further, golf’s demand for physical exertion often results in injuries. Golf is so physically demanding that up to 62 percent of amateur golfers and approximately 88 percent of professional golfers suffer injuries each year. Playing golf can lead to problems in the lower back, elbow, wrist, hand, shoulder, or head. More than half of professional golfers have had to stop playing because of their injuries. One-third of PGA (Professional Golfers’ Association) players have experienced lower back injuries that lasted more than two weeks. [21] [22] [23]

Stephen W. West, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Sport Injury Prevention Research Centre at the University of Calgary, explained, “The physical demands of competitive golf are characterised by long periods (typically over 5 hours) of low/moderate intensity exercise, punctuated by the high speed movements required to accelerate the golf ball to speeds exceeding 160 mph. Successful performance is reliant upon the athlete’s ability to execute a wide range of fine motor skills within the context of very changeable environmental conditions.” [80]

For the casual or recreational player, golf still offers the benefits of sports and athleticism: strength and endurance, flexibility, aerobic fitness, and balance and core stability because the sport requires walking, strength training, and balance. Carrying his own 25-pound golf bag, the average male golfer can expect to burn about 1,442 calories playing 18 holes. Even using a push-cart for the golf bag results in burning about 1,436 calories over an 18-hole course. [78] [79]

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Pro 2

Golf meets the definition of sport and golfers that of athlete by being competitive.

“Golf is a sport. Many people enjoy it on a solely social level and that’s fine. But, first and foremost, it’s a sport where players compete against the course and each other, trying to better previous performances or outplay an opponent,” according to Fergus Bisset, Contributing Editor of Golf Monthly. [86]

Golf tournaments such as the four Majors can be some of the most difficult contests in all of sports to win. Golfers are not only playing against their opponents but themselves, the golf course itself, and external conditions including the weather. Padraig Harrington, who won multiple Majors, stated, “The test is there for all golfers, all across time…. It’s what we all want to measure our careers.” [88] [89]

Golfers can be competitive as athletes when playing socially and not playing in a tournament. A post at, stated: “Still, I don’t think of golf as your usual competitive sport. At least not for me. When I play a round of golf my focus is seldom on beating the other players. I actually pay very little attention to anyone’s score but my own. My competition is with my own game: with how I am playing today compared with how I have played yesterday, or the day before. I am always competing with myself: one hole at a time, one round at a time. I am always trying to best my past record, lower my handicap and increase my ability.” [87]

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Pro 3

Golf meets the definition of sport and golfers that of athlete by requiring skill to play.

Golf requires coordinated muscle use. The golf swing uses at least 17 muscle groups in the coordinated movement of the hands, wrists, arms, abdomen, and legs according to a study in the British Medical Journal. Playing golf on a professional level requires athletic ability to walk long distances (4-5 miles per 18-hole course) and hit long drives with consistent depth and aim. [8] [13] [14]

Plus, physical training leads to improvement in a golfer’s performance. In golf, like in other sports, there is a correlation between an athlete’s physical training and improved performance. A 2009 peer-reviewed study found that golfers who focus on balance, flexibility, posture, core stability, strength, power, and cardiovascular training have better results. [8]

Rory McIlroy, World No.1 for 95 weeks (2012-2015), credits his training regimen with helping him reach the top spot. Tiger Woods has reportedly bench pressed as much as 315 pounds. [20]

Golf Educate summarized, “Golf is rated as one of the most difficult sports to play well, and while there are millions of golfers in the US, only 3% of them play at very high skill levels of scratch or better, and only 10% of golfers break 80 regularly. There’s no denying it; golf is hard.” [82]

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Con 1

Golf does not require enough physical exertion from golfers to meet the definitions of sport or athlete.

Burning 360 calories per hour playing golf without a cart or caddie is far less than the number of calories athletes burn per hour in more vigorous sports: 900 in soccer and 727 in football, basketball, and tennis. [9] [29]

Moreover, nearly half of the maximum calories burned while playing golf are from walking the course and carrying the clubs, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that walking is not an essential aspect of golf. In PGA Tour, Inc. v. Martin (2001), the justices ruled 7-2 that the pro tour had to allow a golfer with a disability to use a golf cart because it would not “fundamentally alter the nature” of the activity. Using a cart while playing golf reduces the number of calories burned even further, by 42% percent (from 721 to 411 for nine holes). [4] [9]

Professional golfers are sometimes overweight, old, or out of shape, and their caddies carry the equipment for them. There is no running, jumping, or cardiovascular activity in golf. Many pro golfers smoked while playing (Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Fuzzy Zoeller) or both smoked and drank while playing (John Daly). If an activity does not make you break a sweat, or if it can be done while drinking and smoking, then it is not a sport and the player is not an athlete. [73]

When ESPN ranked the athletic difficulty of 60 activities in 2004 based on ten categories such as endurance, agility, and strength, it ranked golf 51, lower than ping-pong and just ahead of roller skating. [31]

Golf is certainly competitive, and it requires skill, but it is simply good exercise and does not require enough physical exertion to be a sport. For elderly male golfers, an 18-hole game is moderate to high intensity; however, the game requires only moderate exercise for middle-aged men and is low intensity for young men. Regardless of age, all golfers perceived their exercise as weak to moderate, which is a far cry from the sweat dripping off the faces of basketball and football players. [81]

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Con 2

Golfers are not consistently competitive enough to meet the definitions of sport and athlete.

Golf involves competition, keeping score, and declaring a winner, but those facts alone do not make it a sport and do not make golfers athletes. Spelling bees, poker, and darts are competitions with scores and winners, which are sometimes broadcast on the sports network ESPN, but those activities are not sports and the players are not athletes. [30]

The fact that golfers are able to be competitive professionally so far past the age of peak athleticism — which is age 26, according to a June 2011 peer-reviewed study — shows that golf is not competitive enough to be a sport. For example, Tom Watson nearly won one of the biggest tournaments in professional golf, the British Open, at age 59 in 2009. Jack Nicklaus won 11 of his 18 majors after turning 30. [32] [33]

According to Chris Mile, President of Miles of Golf, “‘Golf’ and ‘Competitive Golf’ are almost two different activities. Both are fun but the competitive part of the game makes it really different. Golf is mostly about being with friends and enjoying the beauty of the game, the exercise, and the challenge. Competitive Golf should have everything that Golf has but with the added twist of beating other players. The addition of this little variation really changes the game.” Golf is frequently played during business meetings or for social events, without much or any competition. By contrast, few players distinguish between “tennis” and “competitive tennis,” because the goal is nearly always for one side to win. [85]

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Con 3

Golf requires skill but involves too much happenstance to be considered a sport and its players athletes.

“The more I practice, the luckier I get,” said golfer Jerry Barber (although the quote is frequently attributed to golfer Gary Player). [82]

From avoiding water hazards and sand traps to hoping your ball isn’t carried off by winds or local wildlife, golf is widely influenced by luck. As Gary N. Smith, Fletcher Jones Professor of Economics at Pomona College, explained: “A total of 222 golfers have won at least one of the four majors (Open, Masters, U.S. Open, and PGA Championship). Of these major winners, 140 (63%) never won another major afterward. Even among the best golfers, luck is endemic. There is considerable happenstance in gusts of wind and in fortunate and unfortunate bounces. Sometimes a ball lands on a bank of grass and sticks; sometimes it rolls into a lake or sand trap. Sometimes a ball whistles through a tree; sometimes it bounces off a branch. Sometimes a branch ricochet puts the ball back on the fairway, where the grass is cut short and the ball can be played cleanly; sometimes the ball bounces into foot-high grass.” Rarely if ever is an ace in tennis, a three-point bucket in basketball, or a pitched strikeout in baseball affected by a wind, a wet or dried-out and bumpy playing service, or a freakish happenstance of nature, all of which routinely affect golf and who wins and loses. [90]

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Did You Know?
1. Golf was banned in Scotland in 1457 because King James II worried that people were too distracted by the game to develop archery skills needed to protect the country from the English. [1]
2. Golf was included in the 1900 and 1904 Olympics, then removed for 112 years until its return at the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. [2]
3. Golfer Tiger Woods in 2009 became the first athlete to surpass one billion dollars in career earnings (prize money and endorsements), making him the richest athlete of all time. [3]
4. The Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in PGA Tour v. Martin (2001) that allowing a golfer to use a cart instead of walking the course would not "fundamentally alter the nature" of the game. [4]


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