Scottish golf clubs need to tackle ‘brutal facts’

Scottish Golf non-executive director Stewart Darling
Scottish Golf non-executive director Stewart Darling
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Scotland may be the “home of golf”, yet that’s not stopping the sport from losing golf club members at an alarming rate. Around 50,000 golfers have given up memberships in the last ten years, with one annual report on the state of the game across Europe revealing that Scotland shed more registered golfers than any other country from 2015 to 2016.

In Scotland, there are 587 clubs affiliated to Scottish Golf, the governing body. In recent years, a number have been forced into closure, including Lothianburn and Torphin Hill on the outskirts of Edinburgh, Whitekirk in East Lothian and Mouse Valley in Lanarkshire. Several others, including Beith in Ayrshire and Grangemouth, have come under threat and only appear to be surviving by the skin of their teeth.

The time it can now take for a round of golf compared to ten or 20 years ago is believed to be partly responsible for the membership exodus. Golf clubs being stuck in the past and appearing to be unwilling to adapt to modern times is another reason often quoted by people either giving up a membership or contemplating taking one out.

Only a small number of the leading clubs now have waiting lists; junior sections that were once flourishing are now barely managing to survive and clubhouses are no longer bursting at the seams on competition days due to a large number of those currently playing the game having become “car park members”.

Even in its birthplace, the sport is facing challenging times and, while the harsh reality is that more clubs seem certain to go to the wall, committees and councils around the country are being encouraged to embrace change to give themselves the best possible chance to survive.

“You have to confront the brutal facts if you want to change your performance,” said Stewart Darling, the Scottish Golf non-executive director who delivered a damning look at the current state of golf club membership at the country’s first national conference in Edinburgh late last year. “If you don’t and try to pretend it is something else, ultimately you will fail because you are tackling the wrong thing.

“The golf landscape is challenging. For the last ten years, membership has been declining. We have been losing roughly 5,000 full members every year. I’ve listened to people talking about the strategy that was in place for the last ten years but, if that worked so well, how did we end up here with 50,000 members less in that period?

“If that is front nine, what does the back nine look like? You don’t need a particularly expensive crystal ball to work out where the game is going. I kid you not, those membership statistics will not level out and there are some very good reasons for that. Our back nine is going to be very much like our front nine unless we choose to do things very 
differently.”

The Golf Participation Report for Europe 2017 showed that there were 192,533 registered golfers in Scotland in 2016, a fall of 6,711 from the 199,244 recorded 12 months earlier. That drop, which constituted 3.37 per cent, resulted in Scotland joining the Czech Republic as being the only two countries to lose more than 2,000 golfers, the figure for the latter being 2,034.

The same report claimed that the “home of golf” suffered the highest number of course closures – 19 – during that period. While acknowledging that participation remains strong, the report, which examined current demand and supply trends in the golf industry across Europe, made for disturbing reading from a Scottish perspective at a time when there was overall growth.

That, according to the statistics, left Scotland with a total of 578 courses, equating to an average of 333 registered golfers per course. Across Europe, the number of golfers over the period covered by the report increased by 2 per cent to 82,584, with England seeing its numbers go up from 665,103 to 694,623 – a rise of 1.27 per cent.

According to Darling, the average number of members at a Scottish club in 2017 was 302 and they paid an average fee of £478. In five years’ time, he is predicting a 15 per cent decline in membership and, as a consequence, that annual fee will have to go up, accounting for inflation at 2.5 per cent, 34 per cent. Fast forward ten years and it could be 84 per cent higher. “The rock and the hard place is that will be just to maintain the income wing in clubs and cover costs,” he said. “It will vary club by club, but that is a fairly challenging prognosis in any walk of life.”

The decline in membership is multi-faceted. An ageing demographic is part of the problem, as is golf’s current struggle to either recruit or retain younger members. The emergence of what is termed as a “squeezed middle” questioning value for money is another contributing factor, as is the market having become saturated with courses combined with greater accessibility through online booking systems and low-cost rounds making membership unnecessary for a lot of people.

In ten years’ time, it is predicted that only 4500 of Scottish golf club members will be aged under 17 while 44,500 will be between 55-64 and more than 57,000 will be over 65.

“When you look at the profile of golf, it is not the most attractive profile in terms of attracting sponsors,” observed Darling, a keen golfer himself at Broomieknowe on the outskirts of Edinburgh.

“What we see at a lot of clubs is a situation where 65s and over are getting discount and also up to 25 and 30. From 30 to 65, people are paying the full fee and those include the squeezed middle. They are ones with families and can’t play during the week. They are maybe only getting to play ten times and paying £750. That’s where you get questions about value for money.”

Whereas the gender split in the 
workplace is now 50-50, that particular landscape still paints a different picture at golf clubs. In fairness, a number of clubs have shown a willingness to come out of the dark ages by either opening up memberships to women or appointing women as club captains, yet women provide only 13.5 per cent of the total golf club members in Scotland.

“We have golf clubs that are run by older white men and rules around access to the tee at the weekend,” said Darling, pictured. “But the harsh reality is that, if you want to get more women into the game, there is going to have to be a fundamental re-think about how we structure and run our clubs.

“If you are a working woman and want access at the weekend and suddenly you can’t get it for a whole load of historical rules, you are not going to join a golf club. I’m calling this out on behalf of the women. We need 
to really think very clearly about the future 
of this game and how we get more women 
in because there is a massive 
opportunity.”

It wasn’t exactly helpful for golf, of course, when it was given a massive thumbs down recently by the British public after 
70 per cent of those taking part in a poll by YouGov declared it as the country’s “dullest sport”.

That claim was strongly refuted by the likes of Olympic champion Justin Rose, but Darling is adamant that his take on clubs needing to do things differently going forward needs to be taken on board.

“I don’t come into this with any baggage,” insisted Darling, the CEO of Vianet Group plc, a strategic insight and cloud-based technology business. I come at it with a hard, analytical business perspective. It is a hard look at where we are. Change is happening all the time. We have a bit of catching up to do. We have work to get golf up to date and make it a sport people want to play and, at 
the same time, join golf clubs.”