Launched today by Scottish Golf, OpenPlay is aimed at an estimated 500,000 independent golfers in the home of golf who are not currently golf club members despite that figure having increased to just over 190,000 last year on the back of the sport enjoying a boost during the Covid-19 pandemic.
In what is being described by Scottish Golf as “one of the biggest changes to the sport in a generation”, what were once termed as “nomadic golfers” are being offered the chance to obtain an OpenPlay handicap through the new World Handicap System at a cost of £5.99 per month.
In addition to Matthew and Lawrie, the scheme has also been endorsed by R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers, who sees it providing a “pathway into club membership” as opposed to an inevitable fear that it could have a detrimental knock-on effect for golf club membership in Scotland
Karin Sharp, Scottish Golf’s chief operating officer, said the roll out of OpenPlay, which, having been developed over the last three years, is accessed via the Scottish Golf App, was an “incredibly exciting development” for the governing body.
“The way people consume golf has changed a great deal in recent years as golfers look for a more flexible approach to the sport that suits their lifestyle and fits around their other commitments,” she added.
“For many modern golfers, the traditional club membership offering doesn’t suit their lifestyle or simply doesn’t represent value for money. OpenPlay provides a modern, flexible approach for golfers that will make the sport more accessible and inclusive.”
Referring to Scottish clubs having enjoyed a 6.1 per cent rise in the total playing membership in 2020, Sharp said: “Whilst we’ve seen a really encouraging increase in golfer numbers across the last year, the longer term trend before the pandemic saw a consistent reduction of around 5,000 members a year over the previous 10 years.
“In order to reverse this trend, it is vital that we explore alternative approaches to make sure the game remains relevant and accessible to the modern golfer and more people try the sport for the first time.
"It is estimated that there are half a million golfers in Scotland who are not members of a club. OpenPlay will provide clubs with the opportunity to market directly to those that sign up for the App, providing a channel of communication that does not currently exist."
In New Zealand, where a similar initiative was launched in 2018, 20 per cent of those who joined the independent golfer scheme went on to become members of a club. Significantly, the average age of those new members was much younger - 43 - than the average golf club member.
“I think this concept of OpenPlay will hopefully encourage a whole new generation of golfers to take up the game and hopefully it will encourage more diversity and inclusivity in the game. I think that’s why Open Pay is going to be so important for the game in Scotland,” said new Scottish Golf chairman Martin Gilbert in a video promoting the scheme.
“We are very lucky in Scotland that golf has historically been a game of the people, but to have that ability to play the top public courses you do need an official handicap, so it allows the OpenPlay golfer, the independent golfer, to have access they wouldn’t have otherwise.”
Any golfer who has given up a club membership will not be eligible to sign up for OpenPlay for a year of that ending, which represents six months more than is being proposed under a similar scheme currently being worked on by England Golf at a cost of £40 annually.
“I am very proud to be involved with OpenPlay,” said Matthew, the 2009 Women’s Open champion and current European Solheim Cup captain. “Just to keep more people in the game, get more people playing.
“That 20 to maybe 35 age group, having maybe played as a junior then left home and moving around with different jobs and got a young family, you’ve just not got time to perhaps justify a membership at a golf club.
“So to have this, where you can go round and keep you in the game basically, and when you are more settled and got more time, you maybe want to join a golf club again.”
Lawrie, the 1999 Open champion, who owns a golf centre on the outskirts of Aberdeen that includes a driving range and a nine-hole course, as well as running one of the most successful junior foundations in the UK, also believes the scheme can be a good thing for the sport.
“Too many people have been lost to the game because they don’t have the time to pay for a membership and get the use of it so, if there is a scheme out there that makes it more flexible for people to come and go and play six to 15 rounds or whatever it is a year and receive an official handicap, I’m all for it,” he said.
Having highlighted last year how the game was missing out on a potential 5 million customers and said they were key in “breathing new life into the game”, Slumbers is delighted to see Scottish Golf leading the way in Great Britain and Ireland in trying to make independent golfers feel welcome.
“We shouldn’t underestimate how important independent golfers are,” he said. “But, stepping back a little bit from that, our game is a club game - it’s club members who pay for the golf courses, it’s club members who pay for the clubhouses, and we mustn't lose sight of that.
“So, whilst I think independent golfers are critical for the future, it is critical for two reasons. One is that it enables golf clubs to start to connect with those people who are playing their courses on a more frequent basis.
“Just from a business point of view, it stuns me how little information a golf club generally has on people who are playing the course who aren’t members. Today, sport is all about data and it’s all about connectivity and it’s all about linkage.
“But the bigger play to me is if we can embrace independent golfers in this broader ecosystem in golf and we can talk to them about the value of being a member of a club.
“Remember, most independent golfers are independent golfers because they are either time poor or they can’t afford to play on one place regularly or they just like playing other courses - the latter you are never going to change.
“But the two former ones you can absolutely embrace and if we can get that right, you create a pathway into club membership that makes club membership way more sustainable in the future.
“The real trick and what governing bodies need to focus on now, is how we keep these people as part of our club membership playing golf when they have a choice to go and watch football or go and play football or other sports and this independent programme has to be a key piece of that ability to attract and keep these people in the game.”