An Essay On Declining Golf Club Membership (Part 1… probably)
It’s hard to read a golf magazine these days without some lament about declining golf club membership. It’s been on a downward spiral for years and although there has been some recent stabilisation, there are a lot of worried people at England Golf and the R&A. Reasons for it and ideas to halt it abound, but the general consensus is that things just aren’t what they used to be.
Frankly I couldn’t care less. Less golfers means more free tee times, right? Except I was recently in California and came across a whole host of now defunct golf courses and nothing is more depressing that an overgrown green. Okay, so if I really thought about it I could probably find a few things more depressing than an overgrown green, but to a golfer it’s a shame. It focused my attention on what declining membership actually means.
Except that I’m not sure I completely agree with the analysis. You see, most of the time the golfing fraternity in this country equate golfers to golf club membership. In the good old days you couldn’t play golf unless you belonged to a club, and that basic impulse still pervades. To most industry professionals, club membership is the basic determining factor that someone is a ‘golfer’. If you don’t belong to a club, you’re merely a journeyman. A chancer. A gentleperson of indeterminate breeding.
Yet I have been playing golf for about 30 years, having been taught to play by my grandfather as a boy, and only took the plunge with membership a couple of years ago. Admittedly I was an infrequent player for most of the time but in the last 5 or 6 years I started to play a lot, too much if you ask my wife! In general I play once a week and have been doing so for a while. In the summer and on holidays I’d play maybe twice and sometimes 3 times. I take golfing holidays every year and try to take my clubs with me wherever I go on business, which means I have played all over the world. By most definitions of any sport I would have been considered a certified participant long ago, yet in the golfing world I was only legitimized in March 2015 when I joined Essendon Country Club and paid my subs to England Golf.
All of which makes me wonder whether the methodology is somewhat off. Is it indeed the case that golf, as a sport, is in decline? Or is it more simply that the way we measure golf is outdated and outmoded? Is it simply that a new, younger generation of golfers have found a better way to enjoy the sport than the classic club membership paradigm?
I am certainly enjoying my club membership. It has, however, been interesting to note the differences between being a club golfer and a journeyman with no fixed abode. In many cases they are different. In many cases they are not. In some senses it is better but in others I miss my old way of playing.
The competitions and medals are fun and bring a new dynamic to my participation, but none of my friends have joined the club with me, so now I’m trying to line up matches with strangers instead of my usual chums. The banter level has definitely suffered as a consequence, which to me was a big part of the enjoyment. It’s also definitely more competitive, and while I do enjoy that, I’m not, as a general rule, a hugely competitive person outside of work. I play golf to relax and I have found that my frustration levels have been much higher now that I care about failing, especially in front of new people. I recently swiped a ball into the trees after a bad hole out of pure anger. That is not something I have ever done before (and incidentally hope to not repeat).
I am learning to play one course and to play it well. I’m figuring out its quirks. I’m deciding the best way to approach specific holes and my course management is improving as I don’t instinctively grab for the driver at every tee. This is fun. But I do miss the variety of playing different courses every week. In my old life I played with friends from various parts of London and we played in courses around Surrey, Berkshire and Hertfordshire, where I now live. I also played a lot with some other friends in and around Bedford. Now I just play the one course (well two, actually, as my club has two 18 hole courses). I’m not entirely sure which I prefer and I’m lucky that doing NotTheGolfShow affords me invites to places others aren’t so lucky to play.
There’s the social side of a golf club but, and I know I’m not supposed to say this, I’m not really that fussed. When all is said and done I can be a bit shy and I find it difficult making new friends. Chatting to random people as we play around a course is fine. I enjoy that. But going to the bar afterward and arranging other rounds and becoming friends? I’d rather eat my own feet. I was always the guy who scurried off to the carpark as soon as we were finished but now I feel there is some unwritten rule that says I’m expected to participate in drinks in the clubhouse. And the truth is I’d love to if my friends were there. But this is a new age and my friends live all over the place, so they are not likely to join. And, we keep in contact regularly through various channels so I don’t feel the need to find new ones. I don’t share history and stories and pain with new people. It’s just an effort.
As for the members at most clubs. Well, a lot of them aren’t my cup of tea. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with them, but I’m 38 and my generation did not grow up feeling I had to wear a sports jacket if I went outside to buy a pint of milk. When looking to join somewhere I had trials at a number of clubs near to me and in the end I chose Essendon simply because it doesn’t see that old school approach to club membership as the way forward. They are much more progressive, inclusive and … young. They even make an effort to encourage women and girls! Many of the clubs that I saw were desperate to get new members in. They even said they were desperate for ‘young blood’. But saying it and meaning it are two different things. Don’t tell me you want young members and then make me feel uncomfortable in the clubhouse for not wearing a jacket. Wanting young members means accepting the change that brings. It doesn’t mean wishing that you’ll find young people who are just like you. I’m not my grandfather.
The biggest issue however, is financial. And when I say that, what I mean is how cheaply you can play good golf without being a member. Long gone are the days when the keys to a half decent golf course were only given to club members and their visitors. Private courses are not so private any more and as clubs look to gain income from visitor green fees the exclusivity of such places is hugely reduced. London and the home counties are surrounded by good, solid courses that run a pay and play system. Even private clubs that are largely member based allow visitors these days and the costs are not prohibitive. Most rounds are about £35 – 50 and if you are playing in the afternoons or weekdays this can be reduced to about £25. In many places twilight golf can be had for £15 – 20 and in Trent Park in North London (which is only 150 yards from Oakwood tube station on the Piccadilly Line) a twilight round is just £10! It’s not the best course in England, but it’s certainly not a scruffy municipal either.
So, let’s assume that an average price across all of that is £25 and let’s assume I play one round a week between March and October. That’s £800 in total for regular golf on a half decent course, which is significantly less than the cost of club membership in the same area. And, it will be less if, say for example, I have to work away from home for 3 months and don’t play during that break, unlike at a club where my annual subs are due no matter how much I play. I can also take the £200 I save from not playing for a while and splurge on a really great day out at a first class track when I fancy it. In other words, I can play at the same level of course for a lot less money than joining a club. Only an idiot would commit to joining a club on that basis alone.
Of course, I am an idiot and I have joined a club and while we still live in an era of membership we need to join a club to get things like handicap certificates (not that I’ve ever been asked to submit one to play on even the most exclusive courses that I’ve played). It’s been a new experience for me but if anything I currently feel like I am missing something rather than gaining anything. My footloose and fancy free days are over.
My point is that I suspect there are many more people like me out there. Of my friends one of them has been a member at a club for a long time and one other has recently joined a club. That leaves about 7 or 8 people who I know play regularly but who do not have club membership and who won’t be joining any time soon. If just 20 – 30% of my friends play but aren’t members then how many people out there are regular golfers and are not considered to be so because they don’t fit the classic paradigm?
Maybe the game is in fine health and we just don’t know it! At least in regard to number of players. I know the other worrying statistic is the reduction in overall rounds played per year, but maybe we could increase the rounds played by casual golfers if we stop treating them assecond class citizens. Maybe it’s time to figure out a way to include all those people instead of ignoring them. Maybe it’s time to find a way of seeing golf as a multifaceted sport that people participate in via different methods. Is that the way to develop the game? Is that going to be more successful than panicking about 12 hole courses and the like? I for one would be interested what plans anyone has for developing the non-club member side of the game, or at the very least an acceptance that joining a club isn’t actually the end game for all beginners and causal players.