Interview: Scottish Golf Union boss Hamish Grey

Get Into Golf was launched during last year's  Ryder Cup at Gleneagles, where Alex Salmond, met participants. Picture: Getty

Get Into Golf was launched during last year's Ryder Cup at Gleneagles, where Alex Salmond, met participants. Picture: Getty

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Grey stresses the importance of mum and dad playing the game with youngsters

SCOTTISH golf clubs have been encouraged to play the sport’s “cradle to grave” card more in the ongoing fight to counteract dwindling membership.

Hamish Grey, the Scottish Golf Union’s chief executive, is delighted how the country’s near-600 clubs have responded over the last couple of years to a membership crisis – almost 50,000 paid-up players having been lost over the past decade in the game’s cradle.

Helped by advice from a team of Scottish Golf Development Officers, the vast majority have improved governance and business planning, come up with better marketing ideas and introduced new membership packages.

However, Grey has warned it is still early days in the sport’s fight to combat a changing marketplace and is encouraging clubs to embrace a new ‘Get Into Golf’ initiative. Launched during last year’s Ryder Cup at Gleneagles, where then First Minister Alex Salmond announced a £1 million funding package, it is part of Clubgolf, the national junior programme since 2003.

While it has introduced more than 350,000 children to the game, the retention of these youngsters as club members has now become the focus, with the new initiative encouraging parents to participate with their children to maximise golf’s ability to be a family sport.

“We need to do more work to help clubs make a more welcoming environment for those youngsters coming in from the schools’ programme,” Grey told The Scotsman. “They need to put an arm around them and say, ‘you’ve shown a real interest in this game, how can we help you play it for life?’. That’s where our focus is now. We need to ensure we have robust welcoming golf clubs so that they can welcome and retain youngsters.

“While we’ve seen a decline in junior members, we know that clubs doing Clubgolf – just over 300 – have nearly three times more juniors than those that don’t. I don’t think there is any coincidence there. I’m not saying Clubgolf is the only factor, but it’s a significant factor.

“Of all new members recruited last year, 26 per cent of boys and 63 per cent of girls were introduced to the game by Clubgolf at school. There’s always been a culture in our game of mum, dad, friends etc introducing youngsters to the game and we haven’t stopped that or want to stop it. But it can’t be the only means. How many potential golfers have there been out there in previous generations that didn’t have someone in the family that was a golfer?

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“Yes, it’s been a big investment [in Clubgolf]. Has it been the right thing to do? Looking at it in the context of things, absolutely. Can we do better? Absolutely. We’ve got a lot more to do and that focus will be around families and helping clubs provide the right environment.

“I don’t think we make enough of the fact golf is a game where you can play from cradle to grave. There’s people finishing other sports that would like to stay active in them but can’t whereas golf you can play right through life.

“I was with an 85-year-old recently at a rugby match and he was talking about how he’s still playing golf twice a week. It’s a key part of his life and that’s fantastic. I don’t think there’s any sport other than bowls that can offer that and there’s more exercise playing golf. I don’t think we’ve used that enough in clubs and is something we are looking at with adult participation programmes as well.”

Part of Scotland’s Ryder Cup legacy, Clubgolf was lauded by European officials, including director Richard Hills, in the build up to the Gleneagles event and recently earned a top project development award from the PGAs of Europe.

“I think it is essential that we try and get the new generation and make it as easy as possible for them to access golf. We’re 11 years on with Clubgolf and it was ’05-06 when we ran that out nationally,” added Grey.

“From a sport development point of view, in a fairly short period of time we’ve got 81 per cent of boys and girls in Primary 5 being introduced to structured coaching at schools then up to 13-15 per cent transferred from school to club, which is world class. I think it is right to keep that going, but we need to retain youngsters better at club level.

“All the research shows that if you have the family involved – mum, dad whatever – and there is a great attachment on the social side then you are more likely to have those youngsters staying involved the whole way through.

“There’s only been a slight decrease in participation but there’s a more significant decrease in the people participating as members of clubs. They are choosing to participate in a different manner. That’s a challenge for us as a sport because all the financial models for clubs are based on a member model and that’s now being challenged by consumer behaviour.

“There’s no doubt that if we can get more adults involved through family participation then that will help with the financial viability of clubs. That’s critical. In Scotland, we have a golf course for every 9,800 people. In England, it’s 27-28,000. In France, they’ve got 112,000 people per golf course.

“We are more than well provided for in Scotland when it comes to golf courses. You could argue that we are over provided for in terms of viability.

“What’s really important is that all our research shows that by focusing on families gaining and retaining youngsters is going to be easier, which will be the lifeblood of the game going forward. I’m delighted to say that the Scottish Government bought into that quickly.

“Our focus within ‘Get Into Golf’ is still juniors, but it is a different way to get to a better end. The whole purpose of Clubgolf is to get the future generation of golfers. It has never been about poster boys or poster girls. If you broaden the base you are more likely to pop through talent but the real focus of what it should be judged on is how that is helping clubs get future members.”

While at least two clubs – Lothianburn and Torphin Hill – have been forced to shut their doors over the past 18 months or so and others may suffer the same fate before things settle down, a willingness to change is helping lots of others to stay afloat.

“The real issue here is that the financial model clubs are based on is being challenged by changing individual needs,” said Grey. “People are looking for more flexibility. They are looking for something on the golfer’s terms not necessarily what the club says. The one-stop-shop of ‘here’s our membership, take it’ is increasingly under question.

“We’ve spent a lot of time researching and understanding that. We’ve started a series of seminars with clubs and the feedback has been fantastic. It’s about getting governance right, business planning and training of club managers. That’s all a key part and we are three or four years into that now. It is starting to make a demonstrable difference with the clubs. They are being given the tools to understand what flexible means for their situation. I’m really encouraged by their response.

“In the end, it’s a bit like working with the elite golfers. We can only help the clubs to help themselves. It is over to them to do what they wish to do. We wouldn’t dare tell a club what to do, but we can help them learn by sharing good practice from other clubs.

“To me that is the most important thing we will do for the next decade and beyond. This isn’t something that can be changed straight away. It is a constant evolving of how the sport responds to a changing social economic environment. Our clubs are responding and I say that generically. There are some that don’t and some that do a huge amount. There are some that don’t need to change as they have full membership and more.

“What we need from a sport’s point of view in Scotland is a variety of options. Whether it be the price point or style of membership, there needs to be a variety.

“If you look at my work programme as CEO of the SGU from ten years ago until now there’s a much greater emphasis on helping and understanding clubs and the viability of the game than the playing of the game. I’m not saying that the playing of the game isn’t important as we still want to develop champions. Our priority, though, is trying to help clubs because if you haven’t got healthy and vibrant clubs you can’t grow the game and you certainly can’t develop talent.”

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