Proponents say that golf meets the definition of "sport" found in the dictionary, requires physical exertion and coordination, and is recognized as a sport by sporting goods companies, athletic associations, fans, the media, and more. They point to golf's inclusion in the Olympics starting in 2016 as further evidence of its qualification as a sport.
Opponents say that golf better meets the definition of "game" than "sport," does not require rigorous physical activity, and can be played professionally by people who are overweight, injured, or non-athletic. They argue that golf is a game or leisure activity, and they cite golf's 112-year absence from the Olympics as proof that it is not a sport.
Top Pro & Con Arguments
Golf meets the definition of the word "sport" found in many dictionaries. Merriam-Webster defines sport as "physical activity engaged in for pleasure: a particular activity (as an athletic game)." Dictionary.com says a sport is "an athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess and often of a competitive nature, as racing, baseball, tennis, golf, bowling, wrestling, boxing, hunting, fishing, etc."
Golfers burn more calories than gymnasts. Golfing without a cart burns an average of 360 calories per hour (306 with a caddie), compared to about 345 doing gymnastics and 273 bowling playing table tennis or doing yoga. 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.
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 BMJ (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.
The International Olympic Committee considers golf a sport. The Olympics are the ultimate worldwide sporting event, and golf was selected by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for inclusion starting in 2016. It had been included in two prior Olympics of 1900 and 1904.
College and university athletic departments classify golf as a sport. Golf falls under the purview of the athletic departments of colleges and universities, and is subject to the authority of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Golf athletic scholarships are offered for men at 294 Division I schools and for women at 238 Division I schools.
Professional golfers are considered athletes by mainstream media. The Associated Press has named a golfer as its Female Athlete of the Year 24 times since the award began in 1931, meaning golfers account for 30 percent of the honorees. The Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year has been a golfer nine times, or 11 percent of the honorees.
Sports agents, sponsors, and sporting goods manufacturers consider golf to be a sport. Nike's website calls golf a "great sport" and makes products to help "athletes to perform at their physical and mental peak."Golfer Tiger Woods is the richest athlete in history and was the first athlete to surpass one billion dollars in career earnings (prize money and endorsements). Woods has many sponsorships in common with athletes from other sports, including Gillette, Rolex, and NetJets. Golfers are often represented by agents from major sports management companies.
Physical training leads to improvement in golfer's performance. In golf, like in other sports, there is a correlation between 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. 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.
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.
Golf is one of dozens of independent sports like running or swimming. A June 2011 peer-reviewed study categorized 159 sports as one of three types: combat, independent, or object. Golf is one of 74 independent sports, along with others such as gymnastics, track and field, swimming, speed skating, and surfing. Not all sports have to be object (like football and baseball), or combat (like boxing and karate).
Golf has many more commonalities with other sports. Golf has many things in common with other sports, including: professional men's and women's tours with rankings, tournaments all over the world, millions of fans, television coverage, scoring, and winners. The TV guide lists golf events under sports programs. Golf even has an anti-doping policy and conducts drug tests on the players because performance enhancing drugs could improve a player's results.
Golf better matches the definition of a game than a sport. Merriam-Webster defines a game as an "activity engaged in for diversion or amusement." Dictionary.com says a game is "an amusement or pastime; a competitive activity involving skill, chance, or endurance on the part of two or more persons who play according to a set of rules, usually for their own amusement or for that of spectators."
Unlike a sport, golf does not require rigorous physical activity. Burning 360 calories per hour playing golf without a cart or caddie is far less than the number of calories burned per hour in competitive sports: 900 in soccer, and 727 in football, basketball, and tennis. Nearly half of the maximum calories burned while playing golf are from walking the course and carrying the clubs, but the US Supreme Court ruled that walking is not an essential aspect of golf. In PGA Tour 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 by 42% percent (from 721 to 411 for nine holes).
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. 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 smoked and drank while playing (John Daly).
The fact that golf can be difficult and requires practice and skill to achieve proficiency does not mean it qualifies as a sport. Brain surgery, chess, and computer programming are difficult tasks that also require practice and mental acuity, but they are clearly not sports.
Golf involves competition, keeping score, and declaring a winner, but those qualities alone do not make it a sport. 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.
Sports experts agree that golf lacks the athletic rigor needed to be a real sport. Golf was ranked 51 out of 60 activities by a panel of sports scientists, athletes, and journalists assembled by ESPN. They ranked the athletic difficulty of 60 activities based on ten categories such as endurance, agility, and strength. The panel determined that the level of athleticism in golf ranked lower than ping pong and just ahead of roller skating.
Athleticism does not correlate with performance when it comes to golf. The fact that golfers are able to be competitive professionally so far past the age of peak athleticism -- age 26 according to a June 2011 peer-reviewed study -- shows that golf is not 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.
If you can compete in a professional tournament with a broken leg, it is not a sport. Tiger Woods not only played the 2008 US Open with two stress fractures in his left tibia, he actually won the whole event. Woods even played an additional 18 holes to break a tie score following the first four rounds.
The possibility of getting injured while playing golf does not make it a sport. Many non-sport activities, such as sitting at a desk and typing all day, lifting a heavy box, or sleeping in the wrong position, also commonly lead to injuries.
The decision to include golf in the 2016 Summer Olympics is questionable. Golf has been excluded from the Olympics for more than a century, as have other non-sports, including croquet (last included in 1900), motorboat racing (last competition in 1908), and tug of war (last done in 1920). After being included in the 1900 and 1904 Olympic games, golf was removed for what will have been a 112-year absence before returning in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Race walking, pistol shooting, and rhythmic gymnastics have been in the Olympics longer than golf. Some people believe the decision to allow golf in the Olympics was a political move based not on its merit as a sport, but as a game that attracts lucrative financial sponsorships.
Golf does not require defense against the player's opponent. Some people think that if an activity does not involve defense or an opponent trying to affect your performance, then it is not a sport. In hockey, a player can steal the puck and a goalie can block a shot. In football, a pass can be intercepted and someone can be tackled to prevent him from scoring. There is no defense in golf, and participants are unable to impact the outcome of their opponents' scores.