Golf in Scotland is sinking fast, delegates told

Eleanor Cannon, Chair of Scottish Golf Ltd, at the first Scottish Golf national conference at the EICC. Photograph: Jon Savage
Eleanor Cannon, Chair of Scottish Golf Ltd, at the first Scottish Golf national conference at the EICC. Photograph: Jon Savage
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It was easily the soundbite that made the biggest impact during a four-and-a-half hour discussion about the future of golf in Scotland. “We are all on the Titanic if we choose not to do anything,” around 500 delegates were told at the first Scottish Golf national conference at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre.

When he was subsequently accused by one delegate of being responsible for “a lot of negativity” about the state of the game in its birthplace by delivering that message, Stewart Darling, a Scottish Golf board member, stuck firmly to his guns. “It’s not negativity – it’s reality,” he said in response.

Eleanor Cannon, the Scottish Golf chair, kicked off the day’s proceedings in the capital by asking a wide cross section of the game to “suspend disbelief” following recent negativity towards the governing body on the back of a controversial proposed new strategy being put on hold as some keynote speakers addressed the audience and, with all due respect to the others, it was Darling who definitely made the strongest impression in the hall.

He highlighted that Scottish clubs had been losing roughly 5,000 full members every year in the last 10 years. He warned that the consequence of not doing anything to try and address that situation was an average annual subscription of £478 rising by 34 per cent in five years’ time and to be 84 per cent higher in 10 years’ time. “That is a fairly challenging prognosis in any walk of life,” he said.

One of many illuminating graphics Darling, the CEO of Vianet Group, a strategic insight and cloud based technology business, used to get his message across highlighted golf’s demographic being its biggest problem. Over 55s make up more than 100,000 of golf club members whereas 24 and unders provide just more than 10,000.

He also pointed out that it used to take 20 rounds per year in 2007 for someone to justify their subscription fee and now it is 40. He revealed, too, that only 47 per cent of members submit enough cards (three) to retain a handicap while just 53 per cent play in a formal competition. Having too many courses is one of the game’s problems. “We can’t sustain 600 clubs in 10 years’ time,” he warned.

Darling’s strongest message, though, about what needs to change more than anything was about getting more women into the game. That is based on the fact that women currently make up less than 14 per cent of membership in Scotland. “There is going to have to be a fundamental re-think,” he said. “We need to think very clearly about the future and how we get women in. It is a big opportunity if we accept this to be the case. Some clubs are not welcoming to women and children - that is a fundamental issue.

“Also, we are not connected as a golfing community and need to harness the power of that. Data is the new oil and new water. The power of it is massive for golf. At the moment, we have so little data on our game. We can have power if that changes and that is really important.”

At the moment, only 6 per cent of Scottish Golf’s income is from a commercial source. Roz Cushieri, another board member, agreed when that situation was described as “absolutely disgraceful” by a delegate. “But we need to make sure what we are offering the long list of companies we are engaging with is attractive in terms of inclusivity and other things,” she said before another delegate revealed that one company looking to invest a seven-figure sum in golf had said “no” to Scotland because it felt the game in this country wasn’t “family friendly”.

One of the proposals in that new strategy was to raise the affiliation fee paid by every club member from £11.25 of to £24. Asked if that could still be on the table at the agm in March, board member Malcolm Kpedekpo hinted it might. “This is the start of a process and, if we think £24 is the right price when we look at the strategy, then it would be wrong not to put it forward.”

Cannon, who was delighted with the success of an event that brought the most club administrators, club committee members and professionals under the same roof in Scotland, said she hoped a new chief executive to replace Blane Dodds will be in place early in the New Year. “We had a tremendous response to the advert and will be holding interviews in December but, as part of the consultation process, we thought it was maybe wise to slow things down a bit to get feedback from today,” she said.