Speaking in his first interview since taking over the reins from Eleanor Cannon, Gilbert said it had been good to see both participation and membership numbers around the country rise last year as golf was one of the sports people could continue playing as Covid-19 restrictions were in place.
However, the former Aberdeen Standard Investments chairman also sounded a note of caution about that growth being “taken for granted”, with the sport having experienced decline at an alarming rate before the welcome turnaround in numbers.
As part of its bid to help the game keep riding the wave, Scottish Golf has just launched a new OpenPlay scheme to offer handicaps for non-club members, with 400 people having signed up for that in less than a week.
“We had a really good year last year with growth,” said Gilbert of Scottish golf clubs enjoying a 6.1 per cent rise in the total playing membership last year while across Great Britain and Ireland the participation numbers increased by a staggering 2.3 million on-course golfers.
“But what we don’t want to do is take that growth for granted and think it is going to continue. I think we’ve just got to be careful not to think the problem has gone away in the long term. We really need to try and build on last year’s success this year.
“We’ve got to grow the game again in Scotland and that would be my strong ambition. We’ve got to encourage participation at a younger age and, to do that, we’ve got to encourage clubs to take away the fear that you need to be a good golfer to join a club.
“A lot of people fear how they are going to enter golf and get started and that’s what we are trying to overcome.
“What I am keen to see along with Karin Sharp (Scottish Golf’s chief operating officer) and Iain Forsyth (the governing body’s chief commercial officer) is to improve the diversity of golf, make it more inclusive, and really grow it from the bottom.
“The rules of golf clubs can vary enormously and I remember speaking to a guy who runs 4,000 golf clubs in the US and hearing him say that one rule is one rule too many in a golf club.
“You look at a lot of our golf clubs and you are not allowed to wear shorts or whatever it might be. I’d really like to see this fear of how you start in golf taken away from people, encourage participation and make it a more inclusive and diverse sport.”
Ryder Cup duo Paul Lawrie and Stephen Gallacher have done their bit to attract new blood into the game through their respective junior foundations, with Scottish Golf hoping a new junior framework can also help shape a bright future.
“Definitely,” said Gilbert of the positive impact made by both Lawrie and Gallacher in giving back to the game in their local areas in particular but also Scottish golf as a whole. “They are getting them at a young age and what we have to make sure is that we don’t see the drop out from that young age.”
Launched last Thursday, 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.
“I think we’ve got to arrest the decline of golf as a participation sport and that’s why OpenPlay, which so far has gone pretty well with 400 new golfers and 50 have even played their three rounds in a week, is so important,” insisted Gilbert.
“I think it can lead to more members of golf clubs. Some clubs fear they will lose members, but I don’t think they actually will.
“Sometimes there’s a bit of resistance to the elite golf programme as well, but a large part of that is covered by Johann Rupert of Dunhill and Aberdeen Standard Investments as well. I think the bulk of elite golf can be covered by outside sponsors rather than be seen to be taking money away from the clubs.”
While keen to see more Scottish players inside the world’s top 100, Gilbert is excited about the impact Bob MacIntyre can have on the game in his home country after not only making his presence felt on the golf course but also getting himself an army of admirers for the way he conducts himself off it.
“It’s fantastic,” he said of 24-year-old MacIntyre having broken into the world’s top 50 and now made the cut in his first five majors, including a top-15 finish on his debut in The Masters in April. “I think he can be the real deal for us at Scottish Golf to improve that diversity and make it more inclusive, definitely.
“The way he plays the game is fantastic and what a player he is. If I get to the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship this year, I’m hoping to play with him. I was hoping to do that two years ago, but he’d already been taken by someone else.
“I’ve already played with Martin Laird and it’s also been great to see him enjoy a real revitalisation of his career over the last couple of years. He’s been fantastic.”