A Scottish golf club which has been in existence for more than 120 years is fearing “potential disaster” after receiving just four paid-up memberships for this season due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Officials at Leslie Golf Club, which sits around 20 miles to the west of St Andrews, have provided The Scotsman with an insight into the grim situation being faced by many clubs in the sport’s cradle after being closed for nearly two months.
Leslie, which was founded in 1898, only had 40 registered members last year, having seen that figure drop from over 80 a decade ago, but it is in the early stages of a five-year “regeneration plan” aimed at making it a community hub with golf at the centre of that project.
The nine-hole course was designed by Tom Morris, but a cloud is now hanging over the club due to it lying empty and members, many of whom are feeling the pinch financially at the moment, being slow in paying an annual subscription of just £165 for ordinary membership.
“Money we expected to bring in for membership for this year has never arrived due to the Covid-19 situation, and we were relying on that to maintain our course maintenance/ greens machinery and for daily running costs,” said Susan Vines, the club’s treasury and social secretary. “Also, plans to bring on board more volunteers were scuppered due to this crisis.
“Our clubhouse kitchen [café] development, having received a grant from Fife Council, has also temporarily halted. This would potentially have provided very important and necessary additional income and, ideally, it would have been completed before the start of the golf season.
“The finance we would have been bringing in through our clubhouse in terms of the bar and functions has also dried up and we have been unsuccessful so far in obtaining any funding to assist us through this crisis.”
Asked if the current closure could be a bridge too far, something that may well be the case for other clubs around the country, Vines added: “It is potentially disastrous. To date, we have four paid memberships for this year out of 40 registered members we had last year. A decade ago, we had around 80-plus members. On top of that, we have no current business bringing in finance due to the current crisis. Until we regenerate the club fully, and build membership over the next five years, we are operating month to month.”
While the current membership level seems dangerously low, the club has no full-time staff and is run by a hard-working and enthusiastic band of volunteers on the committee, giving up 20-25 hours per week when the course is open to help out with any work that is required, be it course maintenance, machinery maintenance, marketing, community development or the daily running of the club.
“We are just entering into our second year of a five-year regeneration plan,” said David Fraser, the club’s development officer. “The plans are to generate more community activities. We plan to become a more community inclusive, local facility hub, with golf development at the basis of our project. This is aimed at grass-roots development, with our target group being young people, women and families.
“Our engagement with the local community over the past two seasons suggests the golf course is important to them. Our membership has increased by 50 per cent in that time while the pay-as-you-play footfall has gone up by 70 per cent, welcoming several overseas visitors following the Tom Morris trail.
“However, local politics surrounding the development of the neighbouring quarry does impact on the local communities’ willingness to be more involved with the golf club’s development.”
Scottish Golf is supporting member clubs by offering a rebate on the national affiliation fee of £14.50 but, even if it applied, that is not going to make much difference to a club like Leslie.
“In the past year, we have attended Scottish Golf events and programmes, and networked with other golf clubs who find themselves in similar circumstances to us, all of whom through conversations are disappointed with the level of support provided to grass roots golf courses,” said Vines.
“We have been looking for an opportunity to involve Scottish Golf to assist us promote grass-roots golf,however we are not at this stage in our regeneration project as of yet. Disappointingly in our experience, Scottish Golf are not proactively liaising with and assisting struggling courses/clubs more than perhaps they should.
“Leslie Golf Club has historical significance to the local area and Scotland in general. Golf was first recorded in Leslie as early as the 1860s and the club in its current form has been around since 1898. This seems to mean little to those running golf, whereas in sports such as football grounds are seen as spiritual and sacred.”
In response, the governing body said: “Scottish Golf recognises that some clubs will be facing exceptional extenuating circumstances during this period and we would encourage any club in this position to contact us in confidence. We are here to offer support and guidance to all of our affiliated golf clubs during these unprecedented times.
“All clubs can apply for a 25 per cent refund on their total 2019/20 affiliation fee invoice and clubs that have already paid this can apply for a refund or carry over a credit for the 2020/21 invoice year.
“Since opening our rebate process on 7 May 2020, Scottish Golf has received 290 applications and despite operating with a reduced staff due to furlough, 284 applications have been processed offering over £330,000 through our 25 per cent affiliation fee rebate and £130,000 in cash refunds.
“Alongside the 25 per cent rebate, we also set up a Club Support Fund and we are pleased to confirm that clubs from across Scotland have generously donated to this fund. Once the window for donations closes, we will be able to understand the value of this fund and at that point will communicate how this can be accessed.”
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