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Golf’s challenge in a cold climate

Four or five of us, having stayed at our club overnight, were sitting around the next morning putting the world to rights, the remains of our breakfast strewn over the table. The belly putter had been discussed, so had McIlroy’s poor start to the season and his lucrative switch to Nike. Conversation ricocheted from Monday night’s football, to the previous Saturday’s rugby, to the forthcoming Budget, to golf.

Someone mentioned a club in Ireland that had put its greenkeeping staff on a three-day week and how the green fees at many Irish clubs had been slashed, as they had in Spain. That was the cue for someone else to talk about the days when coach loads of Americans would sweep up to the gates of one famous Irish golf course and be waved in for a day’s golf during which they would each spend an average, perhaps, of 150 euro. In those days it was the Americans who were welcomed with open arms, less so the locals. Now that the Americans do not travel in anything like the numbers they used to, you can bet that club is regretting the way it put the Americans ahead of the locals.

Another of our group reported that a club he knew in Surrey had endured a drop in green fee income from £100,000 to £80,000 and we all nodded, thinking that most golf clubs would have suffered reduced green fees last year. If that was the total of their economic worries they probably thought that was not bad. They could have lost a couple of dozen members, had a few others unable to pay their subscriptions, been forced to lay off staff.

A few days later, The Sunday Times carried a story about Lee Westwood’s house near Worksop being up for sale for £2.5m. Westwood had bought it for £1m in 2000. Good luck to the Englishman for having the nerve to move lock, stock and barrel to Florida to further his golf career and good luck to him if he felt he could buck the property recession in Britain.

But elsewhere the economy was creating one worrying story after another. One of those sitting around the table remembered how soon after the start of 2011 a local private school had received applications for 30 new pupils. This year, it had received none.

Has there ever been a time like this in golf? I don’t think so, at least not since before the Second World War. It is not just the economy that is creating huge problems for clubs. It is the weather, which seems to have been as vile as the economy.

This past spring has been the wettest on record...not to mention the snow that has closed courses across the country. And this followed one of the wettest years on record. My golf club, Royal Porthcawl in South Wales, received 2.1 metres of rain between 1 March 2012 and the same date in 2013. The normal figure is less than half, 980 mm. In 24 hours last November 79 mm of rain fell on the club and course. Imagine this sort of weather happening all over the British Isles. Actually, you don't need to imagine. It has been happening and the result is that fewer rounds of golf were played last year than the previous year. And this at a time when most golf club treasurers were praying for more rounds to be played to get members at the club, to bring in more green fee income, more bar takings, more money.

John Bushell of Sports Marketing Surveys says that in terms of rounds of golf played, 2012 was 13% down on 2011. What’s more, in nine months of last year the rounds played were the lowest for the last seven years. There is still a strong core of golfers, though there were 500,000 fewer in 2012 than in 2011, Bushell said, pointing out that this inevitably has a knock-on effect on things like apparel and equipment. “If golfers don’t play, they don’t go into their professional’s shop to buy stuff. So the pro suffers, too. It’s a vicious cycle. The problem the game is facing is how to get golfers to play more frequently. That means more rounds of golf, more money in the bar, more for the pro’s shop.”

This is why I believe the ‘Tee It Forward’ initiative that started in the US is so important and should be adopted here. Encourage golfers to move up to a tee nearer the green and their enjoyment is likely to increase, the time they take to get round will diminish, the number of balls they lose could be reduced and after returning to the clubhouse in a happier frame of mind they might buy another round of drinks, or pause and have another look at that 3-wood on sale in the pro’s shop.

But remember this. Anecdotally, I know of hundreds of clubs that are having difficult times and as many treasurers that have worried looks on their faces. Their membership might be static or declining. These clubs are offering to waive their joining fee if they have one, are reducing greenkeeping staff, paring costs to the bone, fighting harder than ever to survive. Yet I know of only a handful that have actually closed.

Spring is just around the corner. So, too, is relief from these troubles. It is just that the corner seems rather a long one.

May 2013

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine


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