MARTIN DEMPSTER: Age-old problem but seniors deserve their golf discounts

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CHANCES are they probably don’t even know it, but the army of senior golfers in Scotland should be heading for the first tee this morning with an extra spring in their step.

That’s because the threat of them being forced, by law, to pay full memberships at their local golf club has been lifted, just a matter of weeks before it was due to happen.

The gender part of the Equality Act 2010 is already in effect at clubs and next on the agenda was due to be the provisions relating to age. As from April, it was expected that clubs would no longer be allowed to offer discounted memberships, a step that would have had ramifications for a large percentage of the people who play the game in this country.

As things stand, a lot of golf clubs offer a reduced annual subscription rate to seniors, based not only on age but also the length of time they’ve been a member. In most cases, it is worked out on a sliding scale but, no matter what the figure, it normally represents outstanding value for money in a country where, in relative terms, the game is already very affordable.

Just head along to your golf club today or any other weekday and see how many of those out on the course are of retirement age. Chances are they’ll also play two or three times per week, which, for some clubs at least, has proved a headache in troubled times.

The people using the course the most are those coughing up the least for the privilege, which is why the expected introduction of the age provisions in the new Equality Act were set to have such a significant impact on future balance sheets at golf clubs.

Take Ladybank, for example. The Open Championship qualifying course, in the heart of Fife, offers senior discounts on a sliding scale based on age and length of membership, the overall ‘cost’ of which, to the club, is £27,000 per year. That figure represents the difference between what the seniors actually pay and the full membership fee. According to Fraser McCluskey, the Ladybank secretary, a lot of clubs in Scotland will be in the “same ball park”. I, for one, believe seniors, especially those who have been long-serving members, should get a discount, even if they do play a lot more than most of us. If they’ve got the time on their hands, then why not? What has become a problem, though, is that the ranks of that army have swelled over the past decade or so and, what’s more, its members are now living longer.

Hilton Park, home of two courses to the north of Glasgow, was probably the first club in the country to take steps to cut down the amount of money it was ‘losing’ through senior discounts. “When I arrived here it was open-ended but we capped the numbers in each category – life and senior members – to stop everything getting out of control,” said club manager Gordon Simpson. “There’s now a waiting-list system similar to what’s in place for ordinary memberships, so it’s at a level we are comfortable with.”

According to Simpson, no-one has thrown their bus pass away in disgust. However, he can see why clubs were keen for the next phase of the equality legislation to come into force as he reckons that is the only way some seniors would give up their discounts, even at a time when a lot of clubs are battling to balance the books. “Seniors are voting for what is good for them and maybe not what is good for the overall well-being of the club,” he said.

McCluskey, who likened that situation to “turkeys voting for Christmas”, reckons there are plenty of golf club committees that will be disappointed with the news, delivered by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, that the bid to “prevent different treatment of members on the grounds of age will not be brought into force for the foreseeable future”.

“A lot of clubs went through a period of senior discounting in a big way,” he observed. “In doing so, they got themselves in a hole and I think they saw this as potential for digging themselves out of that hole as it would allow them to pull back on senior discounting based on age alone. It’s the threshold of eligibility that needs to be reviewed. People are living longer now and are probably getting another 20 years of discounted golf.”

Hamish Grey, the SGU’s chief executive, admitted a lack of clarity on the age issue has been a cause for concern for some of the organisation’s affiliated clubs. He said the SGU “welcome” the latest decision, albeit acknowledging it was not definitive, but also pointed out that it doesn’t necessarily mean clubs still can’t review their policy on discounted memberships. “Clubs should always consider the demographic profile of their membership and establish a pricing structure that is not only equitable and fair, but that makes sound business sense,” he said.

Yes, of course, golf clubs are businesses and many are being hamstrung by constitutions. But it’s not just young blood that we need in the game. Courses would be deserted at certain times of the year if the seniors weren’t out there, meaning clubhouses would be empty, too.

For those who’ve paid their dues, so to speak, they surely deserve their discounted golf.