Two-thirds of golf clubs are concerned about their future

Survey by leading consultant reveals genuine fear among venues about prospect of surviving coronavirus crisis

The Glen Golf Club in North Berwick during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Picture: Mark Scates/SNS Group

A poll conducted by one of the leading figures in golf club management in Europe is set to reveal a high level of “concern” in clubs about their hopes of surviving the coronavirus crisis.

The survey, which has been carried out by former Scottish Golf club development expert Kevin Fish, will also lift the lid on smaller clubs facing a “mass exodus” of members due to the current closure of courses in the UK because of the pandemic.

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Fish, who picked up the UK Club Manager of the Year Award during a spell at the Glen in North Berwick, now runs his own consultancy and recruitment company called Contemporary Club Leadership and has been canvassing clubs he works with to provide a snapshot of the effect of the sport being in lockdown.

The results of his second poll have yet to be published in full, but he has told The Scotsman that there is genuine fear among clubs about the prospect of being able to survive, either in the short term or the next three years.

Referring to a survey that has taken into account data provided by more than 130 clubs, North Berwick-based Fish said: “In one of the questions, I gave clubs four options, asking in the short term – 2020 only – where they are on the following scale: very concerned, somewhat concerned, somewhat confident, very confident.

“Very concerned is running at 20 per cent, somewhat concerned is 44 per cent. So, we are looking at nearly two thirds of clubs that are very concerned or somewhat concerned.

“Take that beyond a year and ask the same question about the three-year outlook, those figures only drop marginally to 18 per cent and 32 per cent. We are still saying half the clubs in the country are worried about their overall future in a three-year outlook. Even if we take that beyond three years, 16 per cent are still very concerned about their future.”

Fish has more than 20 years of experience in the club industry, including a seven-year spell with Scottish Golf, during which time he led a team providing the first real support offered to clubs in this country.

“The survey reveals that it is the smaller clubs that are suffering,” he added of the current situation. “Nobody ever tells me they are a member of a small club, but the price a club charges for its midweek green fee tells me what a club believes it is worth, not at the weekend when it doubles.

“The smaller clubs, the ones that charge visitors less than £2 per hole ie £36 per round, are the ones reporting a 
potential mass exodus of members.”

The latest poll, which involves more than double the number of clubs in the first one that was published at the start of this month, also reveals some clubs are struggling if they rely heavily on green fees from visitors.

“Visitor revenue is nice to have, but that little craving has become a nasty habit for some clubs,” said Fish, who was in the first group of managers to secure the CCM (Certified Club Managers) designation in Europe.

“If clubs have been using visitor revenue purely to offer their local members subsidised golf, rather than put it away for a rainy day, they are in the biggest trouble right now because they are not getting that visitor revenue anytime soon.

“Among the clubs who have responded to this second survey, 36.8 per cent say they will lose a third of their green fee revenue for the year if this lockdown is extended through to the end of May.

“The one glimmer of hope, and I think this speaks volumes for golfers, is that clubs are recording that 78 per cent of the deposits they’ve already taken from visitors, they 
have been told they can hold on to.

“Only 22 per cent of visitors have asked for a refund. That means people believe they will come back and play these courses. They don’t know when, but they are saying: you keep the money. Golfers are a loyal lot and visitors are saying, ‘we trust you, we are giving you the money, just hold on to it and we will be back in better times’.”

Fish continued: “Outwith our familiar trophy courses, typically, a club will rely on membership subscriptions for 80 per cent of its gross profit and its those members, the strength of a club’s membership engine, that will dictate those clubs that come through this crisis. This lockdown isn’t the reason we will lose clubs, but for those clubs where the brushwood was already dry, the lockdown could be the final straw.

“Club members must embrace their responsibility as the owners, shareholders and custodians of their club, to do whatever it takes to make sure that their club is viable for future generations. If they don’t, they may live to regret that.”

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