Club closures show crisis in golf membership

SGU throws its weight behind challenge of providing a welcoming environment to attract new members. Picture: Greg Macvean
SGU throws its weight behind challenge of providing a welcoming environment to attract new members. Picture: Greg Macvean
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HAMISH Grey, the Scottish Golf Union’s chief executive, has predicted more club closures in the home of golf on the back of Lothianburn already being forced out of business and one of its near neighbours, Torphin Hill, facing the same fate.

The Kiwi, who has seen waiting lists almost disappear from the Scottish scene during his 15 years in the post, also claimed some clubs could “still do better” in terms of providing a more welcoming environment for prospective new members.

But, with the SGU now actively involved in trying to help its 576 affiliated clubs, he is encouraged that the majority are starting to see that “traditional” memberships need to be replaced by a range of “flexible” options in order to have a better chance of survivng.

Lothianburn, where the membership fell from 800 to 300 in just eight years, lost that fight earlier this year and now Torphin Hill, with just 200 players on its books despite slashing annual running costs from £200,000 to £130,0000, will also close unless it can get a £20,000 cash injection before a crunch meeting next week.

Until now, Whitemoss, a course in Perthshire that closed two years ago and was reverted to farmland, and a nine-holer at Gretna had been the only other casualties of the membership crisis gripping Scottish golf.

It has prompted the SGU to put three Club Development Officers out in the field and over 60 per cent of those affilited clubs have “engaged” with them to either discuss governance or look at various toolkits that are being made available by the governing body to help committees in these troubled times.

“I started as chief executive in 1998 and, though membership in Scottish golf clubs was still growing until 2007, it has been a matter of time regarding club closures,” said Grey during an annual chinwag with the media. “I’d be very surprised if there aren’t more closures, though I have no idea how many and it would be wrong to speculate on the number.

“Did I see clubs being in the position they are now? To the extent they are, possibly not. What I’ve always felt, though, is that you always have to look after the people who are your customers and maybe it was a case in golf when clubs had long waiting lists that they were too relaxed and didn’t feel as though they should be worried about the future.

“However, I think there are elements we are facing now that aren’t bad for the game. Clubs are now having to ask themselves how can we run ourselves better. If clubs can get their houses in order in these tough times, then they can come out in a much stronger position on the other side and I think that’s our challenge. It’s not just about helping clubs for the next few years; it’s the next 15-20 years we are looking at.

“The problem is deeper than just the recession. The real issue is that consumer behaviour is changing and that’s not unique to golf, it’s happening to gym memberships, to political parties. People are engaging in different ways. There is more choice than ever, not just what you do but how you do it.

“People are more picky, there is more choice. For golf, the good news is that there is no less people playing. It’s still the same, half a per cent here and there. But how they are playing is different – ie nomadically.”

With a course for every 9,800 people – England is the next closest in Europe with about 28,000, while in France it’s 112,000 and Germany 114,000 – Scotland is the envy of the golfing world.

But, with waiting lists disappearing and joining fees also becoming a thing of the past, it has become increasingly difficult for clubs to retain members year to year, a challenge the SGU is throwing its weight behind more than ever.

“Eighteen months ago we put three Club Development Officers in place and we are now engaged with 86 clubs,” added Grey. “We can’t tell clubs what to do and we wouldn’t want to. But we can help them go through a process to understand what their business plan should be and define that. You are not going to see immediate results, ie in six months’ time. But a club planning for the future has a much better chance.

“It’s about understanding what they are about as club. One might be a community club, another may be a top end club. They have to understand where they fit. And that means a good business plan – it’s fundamental.

“When they have a general understanding among members, then they need good sustainable governance going forward. You don’t want a captain that’s great and all-powerful one year and membership goes up then a year later one that’s not so good on the skills set and it goes down. You can’t run a business like that.

“Clubs also need to go to the market. The market used to come to them. You have to understand that the product you are offering has to change to match what the consumers want. The menu will be variable. What’s right for one club may not be right for another and that’s what we are working on.

“Yes, we have declining membership, and that’s been year on year since 2006, but 30 per cent of clubs have increased their membership and are growing. That’s been constant.”

Fortrose & Rosemarkie, on the Black Isle, is one such club, while Prestonfield in the heart of Edinburgh has seen a remarkable 74 new junior members join this year on the back of a coaching programme run through clubgolf, the Scottish junior initiative. Part of the Ryder Cup legacy, critics of it reckon it was failing to deliver sufficient junior members to vindicate an outlay that currently stands at £800,000-£900,000 per annum, but, according to Grey, there is statistical evidence to prove that is not the case.

“The latest club membershup figures show that 50 and 61 per cent of boys and girls respectively started the game through clubgolf,” he said. “The reality is that we’d be in a much worse position without clubgolf. How much worse? I can’t answer that. But those clubs that are delivering clubgolf have a significantly higher number of junior golfers than those that don’t.

“I wish I knew how long it is going to take for clubs to get back on a sound footing again, but our job as a national governing body is to get more people into the game and we are doing much more to try to get more people playing and supporting our clubs. That’s a very deliberate policy of our board and one we will see continuing into the future.

“We have done a power of work in understanding the trends that are affecting membership. There’s no doubt in my mind, where we are now is not where we need to be in 20 years’ time, and that’s how far we are looking ahead.

“If we continue to offer what we would all recognise as traditional memberships, as a take-it-or-leave approach, then more and more golfers are going to say ‘no’ to that. They’ll not take it. They want flexibility and that varies through life. Whether they have a family and when they may be empty nesters when they have more time later in life.

“They might want to take up different options and we have to respond to that. I think clubs are aware of the symptoms and understand change is needed. They understand what will work for them and if we can help them help themselves then in 12 months’ I’ll be much happier than where I am now.

“But, no matter what happens in the participation programmes, clubs need to provide the right welcoming environment. We need to make people feel welcome in golf clubs – and we need to do better at that.”