Martin Dempster: Fears that floodgates are about to open as another golf club shuts its doors

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A nother month, another golf club closure in the sport’s cradle. Add Mount Ellen in Lanarkshire to other relatively recent shutdowns of Eastwood in Renfrewshire, Brunston Castle in Ayrshire and Carrick Knowe in the Lothians. Camperdown in Angus is closing, too, it emerged last week.

What started as a trickle is now getting close to a situation in which you feel the floodgates are about to open. It is no longer about pride. Reality is kicking in big time due to dwindling memberships. “Who’s next?” is the question after officials at Mount Ellen in Gartcosh decided it was time to bring down the shutters on Sunday at a club that had been in existence since 1904.

Once a vibrant club, the membership was down to 300, with only 196 paying full fees. The steel works that was once the main employer in the village has long gone. The Scottish Crime Campus is now located there while lots of new houses continue to be built in the area, but joining the local golf club has not been on the agenda for people moving there.

“We’ve tried so many different things,” said a club spokesman. “We’ve worked our socks off here for the last three or four years. We had a forward planning group and that brought in some members and doubled the junior membership. We’ve put out something like 3,500 flyers into the new houses to encourage people to join the golf club. We’ve done everything we can, but we have no more options. It really is frustrating and heartbreaking.”

News of the club’s closure has been met with widespread sadness within the golfing community. Sandy Jones joined Mount Ellen as a junior as he grew up in the village, cut his administrative teeth on the club committee before going on to work for the PGA, first as Scottish secretary then as the organisation’s chief executive at The Belfry.

“I felt really sad when I heard the news and I keep thinking about Peter Lloyd [another Mount Ellen man who served as PGA in Scotland secretary] as he was obsessed by the club,” said Jones. “Mount Ellen is always going to be special in my mind for what it was. It was very much a community golf course.

“It was the steel works that provided the golf course and, when I was growing up, everywhere was vibrant. The guys would come down to the club from the steel works and change out of their overalls into their golf gear. The bank manager would also arrive, get changed and they’d play golf together. You knew everybody.

“Nowadays, though, people seem to know everybody on Facebook and, therefore, the golf club isn’t the centre of the community any more, which is a real shame. And loyalty is not a word that is used any more. The whole culture of playing golf has changed. People don’t need membership now because you can look on your phone, see where a tee time is available and book it.”

The Mount Ellen spokesman said the club had written to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in a bid to highlight the plight of golf clubs and bowling clubs. Eventually passed on to Scottish Golf, they were unimpressed by the help offered by the governing body. “Scottish Golf was as much help as a chocolate candle. It is doing nothing for clubs like us,” claimed the spokesperson. “They offered us a grant for something like £600. You think, ‘honest to God’.”

According to Scottish Golf, it was aware of the “issues faced by Mount Ellen” and met with the club in June to discuss the “variety of services and support” it could provide to help the club. Available to all affiliated clubs in Scotland, these apparently include a free Venue Management System, which allows golf clubs to take control of their business through one centralised system as well as “saving considerable outgoing costs” on software.

Whether supported or not, more clubs are set to fall by the wayside because, quite frankly, there are too many. Supply outweighs demand. “There was that big boom time when every farmer thought ‘let’s set aside land for a golf course that will make money’ and, of course, that overstuffed the market with courses,” said Jones. “I can’t say that’s the whole fault, but it’s where it began. Two-for-one deals offered by golf magazines also caused a lot of damage and still is, I think.”

Having opened a new clubhouse at Mount Ellen in 2009, Paul Lawrie shares Jones’ sadness about the closure but, at the same time, offered a realistic summing up of the current situation regarding clubs in Scotland.

“I’m sorry for all the clubs that are going, we all are, but does it pose the question ‘do we have too many?’” he said. “You don’t want to see clubs going, but we have a pile of courses that people don’t need any more as people are not playing enough golf.

“They are a member at one club as opposed to two like they used to be. All the public courses are under threat, too. You don’t want that as those are the ones people can afford to play.”