With the return of waiting lists and joining fees, and club membership levels up to figures not seen since the early 1980s, all the signs point to golf enjoying something of a boom over the last two years. But is it here to stay and how long can the momentum be maintained? Golf News Editor Nick Bayly looks at some of the wider issues driving golf’s upward curve and finds out what golf clubs and the game’s governing bodies are doing to maintain the positive vibes currently flowing through the game
Pull into the car park at your typical UK golf club on a Wednesday morning or a Friday afternoon over the last few years and you’ll have been hard pushed to find an empty space to pull into anywhere near the clubhouse. In fact, you may have had to venture as far as the overflow car park or to a space normally only open for high days and holidays or the captain’s annual charity event.
In short, golf clubs have been busy places to be in 2022 – the number of rounds played was up 40% in the summer compared to the same period in 2019 – and have been for most of the time since mid-2020, when normal golf club operations resumed following the hiatus caused by the pandemic. I say ‘hiatus’ because although golf clubs were one of the few places that were able to reopen soon after the first Covid-enforced lockdown, the closure of clubhouse operations and the absence of any income from social events and hospitality meant that although courses were busy throughout the pandemic, income streams were still heavily restricted.
There’s no doubt that the demand for golf during the spring and summer of 2020, and the following year, were driven by a short-term demand to do something outdoors during those lockdown periods, but golf’s continued growth during the last year seems to point to a surge in popularity that the golf industry is making every attempt to maintain.
There’s also no doubt that membership levels have increased over the last two years as a direct consequence of many clubs not accepting visitors during the pandemic, but also due to changing work patterns – also caused, in part, by the virus – which no longer require the workforce to be chained to their desks from 9am-5pm, Monday-Friday.
Golfers of a working age being able to get out onto the golf course on weekdays has been transformational for many golf clubs which have traditionally had to rely on their senior members to fill those early morning weekday tee times. Now, you’re just as likely to find a group of 40-somethings teeing it up on a Tuesday morning as you are a group of retirees.
One 35-year-old golfer I spoke to, who had joined a club for the first time during the pandemic told me: “I only got into golf during lockdown and wanted to continue playing regularly, so it was more cost-effective to get a membership. It was becoming increasingly difficult and more expensive to book visitor tee times and a nearby club had a very good membership offer. I did wonder whether I’d get fed up playing the same course most of the time, but far from it. There’s always something different: weather, wind, pin placements, ground conditions, and on top of that, I’ve met lots of new people and am really enjoying the social side of things.”
Another I spoke to had come back to golf after a period away from the game. “I was a member and it lapsed as I couldn’t find time to play when I was working up in London, but now that I’m working from home I have been able to find time to play more golf, so I decided to renew my membership and I fully expect to keep it going.”
The pandemic has also resulted in a significant number of older workers – those aged 55-65 taking early retirement, while the percentage of people who class themselves as self-employed has also gone up significantly in the last few years, all leading to more people being able to work their own – often longer – hours – but at times which suit them, leading to the ability to pursue hobbies and other leisure activities during traditional ‘office hours’.
Despite numerous national pushes to increase female participation, all the evidence is that it is the arrival of men in their 30s, 40s and 50s that has caused the uplift in membership numbers and participation rates across the country. According to the latest data, over 24% of those new club members that have joined since the pandemic are under the age of 55. It goes without saying that this is a trend that needs to continue, and to reach down to those below 30, if golf is to keep the number up over the next 20-30 years. And that means the golf industry cannot afford to rest on its laurels when it comes to selling this great game to the next generation and beyond.
It is all a far cry from the pre-pandemic days when course closures and plummeting memberships dominated the headlines. Many courses that once appeared to have been doomed are now enjoying a new lease of life, while those that have managed to resist the economic pressures to be converted into private housing developments are also finding that running a golf club can also be a profitable business if managed effectively.
And while mums and dads encouraging their kids to look up from their mobiles for a second and consider engaging with the great outdoors has its part to play, much of the responsibility for the continued growth of the game is being laid at the door or golf clubs and golf’s governing bodies to build on the momentum that the pandemic has unwittingly created.
Earlier this year saw England Golf launch an initiative entitled ‘Give It A Shot’, a programme designed to support golf club membership. Its aim is to improve the image of clubs and club membership, celebrate the joy that club membership can add to people’s lives, break down perceived barriers and misconceptions about club membership, and provide expert support to help clubs in growing and maintaining sustainable membership levels.
If all that sounds like a lot to take on, it is, but golf clubs know that is much more cost effective to retain an existing member than it is to win over a new one.
England Golf also launched iGolf in July 2021, a scheme which costs £40 to join and enables golfers who are not members of clubs to maintain a recognised handicap and enter open competitions. Initially seen in some quarters as potentially providing a reason not to join a club, England Golf has found that iGolf has created a clearer pathway for people to give golf a go before committing to a specific club. Taken up by over 25,000 golfers since it was set up, iGolf has reported over 1,200 golfers having gone on to join clubs after starting out with iGolf, while a recent survey conducted with iGolfers reported that 57% have played more golf since subscribing, with 60% said they were considering joining a club in the future.
Jeremy Tomlinson, England Golf’s CEO, is delighted with the impact iGolf has had in its short life. “This first year has been a fantastic success for the iGolf platform. Hitting our ambitious target of 25,000 subscribers in 12 months confirms our belief in engaging with the independent golfer community. We’re really pleased to be providing an excellent service that is clearly in demand. The data we have gathered shows that iGolfers have been encouraged to play more golf since subscribing, which is the primary aim of the initiative, and something that we feel will have a positive impact on the entire golf community. Couple this with the fact that we have already seen subscribers move into club membership, it’s clear that iGolf has had a very successful inaugural year.”
Operating at the chalk face, golf clubs are the best placed to help keep the golf boom going and many are succeeding not by slashing prices and cutting deals, but by creating an experience that golfers don’t want to give up. That is the ‘secret sauce’ that buys loyalty over membership discounts and free lessons with the pro – although that all helps – the thing that keeps golfers coming back is the golf, the camaraderie, the banter and the bits that don’t tend to show up on a profit and loss account.
The positive effect on your mental health that a regular dose of Vitamin D and a bit of outdoor exercise and social interaction has on the grey matter. That has no price, of it it does, it’s a price, as things stand, that many golfers feel is well worth paying.
A friend who started working from home during the pandemic told me he joined his local club as much for the social side as he did for the golf. “I joined to be able to play golf more regularly and to get to know other local golfers. I have been a nomadic golfer for a few years, so a group of us wanted to get more structured play in. For me it was about enjoying my golf, getting a handicap and making new friends.”
While all looks rosy in golf’s garden right now, the sport’s mid-to-long-term future is less certain. The cost-of-living crisis is still in its infancy for most of us, and the impact of interest rate hikes and winter fuel bills have yet to be factored into many family finances, so golf club managers will be nervously awaiting to find out the renewal rates come spring next year when the recession truly begins to bite.
Offering monthly payments options, as opposed to demanding a 12-month lump sum upfront, is one way to soften the blow, and will play a major role in keeping many new golfers on side, but only 63% of clubs are now offering this option, down from a whopping 90% pre-pandemic. Having to stump up for an annual membership in one lump sum could be a deal-breaker for many households struggling with increased mortgage costs and spiralling inflation. Survey evidence this year has revealed that just over half of golf club members feel like they are happy with the amount their have to fork out for their memberships, although there is a big chunk – 45% in one survey that I saw – that believe they are too expensive, and it is this sizeable percentage that will need the most convincing when it comes around to renewals time.
The switch towards putting the needs of members ahead of visitors has been long overdue at many golf clubs and this is certainly helping to provide a feeling that of being a valued customer. But just how valued they feel, and how much value they feel they are getting, is something that remains to be seen over the coming months.
What is inevitable in the face of rising food, fuel and staff bills is that golf is going to get more expensive in the very near future, with membership fees set to rise by 5-10% at many clubs next year as they inevitably and unavoidably have to pass on their increased costs. It is then, and only then, that we will truly find out whether the golf boom is sustainable in the longer term. Fortunately, many clubs are in a much stronger position to weather the financial storm than they were in 2019, and for that we, somewhat perversely, have a global pandemic to thank.
CRUNCHING THE UK GOLF BOOM NUMBERS
Golf club membership numbers rose by 90,000 (14%) from 2020 to 2021, taking the total number of members at affiliated clubs in the UK to 737,021
79% of members clubs and 88% of proprietary clubs reported membership growth in 2021
Total number of people ‘playing golf ’ rose by 61% from 2019 to 2022 to 2.1m.
46% more rounds played in 2021 than in 2019, up by 8.7m 10% more rounds played in 2022 than in 2021 (first 9 months)
40% more rounds played in July-Sept 2022 than in the same period in 2019
53% of clubs report waiting lists for members in 2022 compared to 22% in 2019
80% of clubs are planning to increase membership fees and green fee prices for 2023
63% of clubs offer monthly membership fee payment plans (down from 90% in 2019)
Green fee rates have risen by 17% in the last 12 months, with an average visitor fee now set at £50 per round