There’s been nothing like the KPMG Golf Participation Report for Europe in recent years to create a mood of negativity about the state of the game in its birthplace – and the latest one is no different.
Published last week, it revealed that another 7,500 registered golfers – club members, in other words - had been lost in Scotland from 2017-18, taking the total drop off to just under 30,000 since 2014.
With the figure having fallen to 180,281, Scotland now lags behind England, Germany, Sweden and France, as well as the Netherlands, Spain and Ireland in this regard, according to the report.
Only England – with 10,688 – lost more registered in the equivalent period than Scotland, though that represented only a 1.63 drop on its 2017 figure whereas the drop in this country was 4 per cent.
The game is growing in countries such as the Netherlands, Austria, Norway and Italy, yet it continues to be in decline here, though not, apparently, across the board, as revealed by John Kelly, North Lanarkshire Leisure’s golf manager, in providing some positivity amid a chorus of negativity in the wake of that latest KPMG report.
“It doesn’t have to be as negative as a lot of people are painting it to be as it is the complete opposite as far as we are concerned,” he said of North Lanarkshire Leisure, which operates two venues – Palacerigg Golf Club in Cumbernauld and Lochview Family Golf Centre in Coatbridge – seeing business grow by more than 50 per cent in the current financial year and showing no signs of stopping.
“I don’t like rubbing clubs’ noses in it, but golf is changing. From people playing nine holes instead of 18 and looking at different ways to play the game. At Lochview Family Golf Centre, we have a driving range and a junior academy, and we are bucking the trend by having a hundred kids at that most weeks for lessons.”
Palacerigg, the club put on the map by Graham Rankin during a glittering amateur career that culminated in a winning Walker Cup appearance at Nairn in 1999, has enjoyed a growth in membership, as has the Lochview facility.
“I think what we offer is the future for a lot of people,” added Kelly, a PGA professional who has been in his current role for five years. “Palacerigg used to maintain the clubhouse and they had to put that charge on their members. That was, say, £200 and we were then charging £300 for a season ticket. meaning it was around the same price as some of the private clubs.
“We’ve taken over the ownership of the clubhouse and Palacerigg have dropped their fees to £50-£60. That has opened the floodgates. People are leaving Dullatur, Westerwood and Airdrie because they are getting golf at a very affordable price.
“When Mount Ellen shut recently, we took in 48 members. We have the same expenditure as any private golf club. We just keep investing year in year out and we are seeing the benefit of that.
“I personally don’t see all this negativity. Everything for us is quite exciting and, when I go to the CEO of North Lanarkshire Leisure with a new idea, she will generally say, ‘great, let’s give it a go’. For instance, we have what is called a ‘bolt-on’ membership. If you are a member of our gyms, you can play golf for £17 per month at both courses. It is like a lifestyle membership. You are rolling your health and leisure into one payment.”
Most golf clubs, of course, are not really in a position to provide a similar offering, but Kelly reckons the so-called traditional clubs can still shape brighter futures and stop themselves from joining the likes of the aforementioned Mount Ellen, as well as Eastwood, Brunston Castle, Carrick Knowe, Lothianburn and Torphin Hill in being forced into closure over the past few years.
“You need to think out of the box and my message to clubs would be have a look around,” he said. “It’s not just about the money. People can’t justify the time now. People are looking for options. I’m not encouraging people not to join golf clubs. That’s 100 per cent not what I am doing. But, if you can’t justify that, we can still keep them playing golf in some way.”
Food for thought, surely, and some positivity certainly has to be welcomed amid all that negativity about the game in its cradle.