The decline in golf club membership in Scotland over the past ten years paints a bleak picture, but it is certainly not all doom and gloom for the sport in its birthplace. When you add in the so-called nomads – non-members who get a game on a pay-and-play basis – the actual number playing the sport hasn’t changed too dramatically from a decade ago, so that is definitely a positive at a time when the game seems to be shrouded in negativity.
There are also numerous instances around the country of clubs bucking that membership trend. Take Mortonhall in Edinburgh, for example. Over the past two years, it has attracted 100 new junior members and now has a waiting list for that category after hitting the 130 mark. So, how has that been achieved at a time when many clubs are struggling on the junior front?
“After we spoke to Mandy Martin (Scottish Golf Regional Club Development Officer for Central) and I went on a junior convenor course, I realised that success depends on the club, the culture at the club and the support you receive,” said Mortonhall’s junior convenor, Steve Hobson.
“I noticed that a lot of clubs were putting a lot of their efforts into really young children, but they were struggling to convert them into membership. I spoke to Mandy about that and felt we needed to cover the whole breadth, a junior section covering every age group, which is ongoing. We have a clubgolf section and we offer them membership, with a path then all the way through the juniors and the various age groups.
“We have now ended up with a waiting list, which is incredible as it is way above what we actually targeted. We have a full 130 junior members and that’s thanks to the combined efforts of many within the club. It’s been like a snowball effect, with the junior section at Mortonhall seen as a place to go and enjoy the game. The kids have been going to school and talking about it, bringing their pals along. What it has proved to me is that if you can get kids along to the club they love it.”
What has undoubtedly helped in that respect is the fact the club has a five-hole junior course, which is effectively a pitch-and-putt layout and therefore not too intimidating for young kids just taking up the game. “Members take players out on the course, sometimes for three holes,” added Hobson in continuing to tell the capital club’s success story. “There is no one formula for me to it all – it’s trying the things that work for you.”
Prestonfield, where 2014 RBS Clubgolf Volunteer of the Year Liz Taylor has been a driving force, and Broomieknowe, where junior membership has increased by 50 per cent, are other clubs in and around Edinburgh that have shown the game can still be attractive to youngsters.
On the other side of the Firth of Forth, Leven Thistle has managed to pull off a remarkable turnaround in its fortunes by bringing in new members across the age spectrum.
“Like many clubs, we went through some difficult times and committees worked hard to keep the club on an even keel and start a recovery from what was a low as recently as 2013 where we had just a hardcore of 280 members – down from 500 and a waiting list in the 1990s,” said club captain Alan Lee. “Although we were a good club on a historic links, Leven, enjoying quality all-year round golf, we just did not let the outside golfing world into our secret. A change of committee structure – new younger blood mixed with experience – focused on changing that by marketing the club, particularly on social media and local radio.
“We also encouraged members to introduce friends and workmates to come sample ‘The Thistle’ and play on our links. This has proven to be successful with year on year increases in membership by ten per cent to our current 537 and rising. It is in the recruitment of younger golfers where we’ve excelled. We achieved a milestone recently by recruiting our 100th 29-year-old and under member compared to 46 seniors, which is a clear indication we are bucking the trend. Satisfaction is also a priority and is being achieved as our retention rates are extremely high year on year.
“Our new members are our best ambassadors as they sing our praises, being a welcoming and friendly club. The Leven Links pro, Eric Walker, tells us a recent visitor to the Leven Thistle clubhouse likened it to Cheers, the bar in Boston where everybody knows your name.The club does not have any of the stuffiness you often hear about in golf clubs or restrictive rules and everyone is made to feel welcome.”
Elsewhere, investment in new facilities is helping to make membership a more attractive prospect. Peebles, for example, enhanced its reputation as one of the country’s most progressive clubs by opening a new driving range and swing studio last year while Ryder Cup legend Sam Torrance was hugely impressed by Gourock, close to his family home in Largs, recently adding an indoor practice facility that cost £189,000.
“It is just absolutely magnificent, honest to God,” he said after being among the first to test it out. “It’s done in its own entity and it’s somewhere you could go and hit balls for five hours and not even blink.”
It was mainly funded by grants of £80,000 from the European Union “Leader” fund and £10,000 from the National Lottery’s Awards for All Scotland scheme while contributions were also made by generous benefactors and sponsors. “They are trying to introduce juniors into the game and it’s a great idea as it’s a wonderful set up,” added Torrance. “They have really pushed the boat out. It’s a fantastic facility for anyone, old or young. It has everything you need.”
Cowglen, a club in Glasgow, has been able to attract 150 new members simply by removing a joining fee; participation levels in girls’ golf is rising around the country – as much as 30 per cent above the national trend in Shetland and clubs in Moray – and Carnoustie, venue for this year’s Open Championship, is seeing its junior scene re-invigorated by an enthusiastic team led by award-winning PGA professional Keir McNicoll.
Just a few more examples of good things in Scottish golf and, though his assessment of the club scene when addressing the country’s first national conference in Edinburgh late last year was pretty damning, Stewart Darling believes the future can be bright for the sport in this country if committees and members are willing to embrace change.
“If I could make one observation about golf, it would be that, as a community and as clubs, we are really slow to change,” said the Scottish Golf non-executive director responsible for participation. “We do not adapt well to what is happening in the outside world. Society has become more informal but look how long it took for us to adapt to jeans in the clubhouse.
“The digital age, too. Look how long it took us to adapt to that. We have to adapt to that world because someone else will. The people who thought about playing golf will go somewhere else.
“Our taste, our preferences, our choices, our needs have all evolved materially and we need to recognise that. It is really important for the game.
“We need to make golf and our golf clubs a great experience and that is how we will get more people into the game. We have to be more responsive.”