Is Golf a Sport For Just 9 Months a Year?
In the face of short hours of daylight and often unpleasant weather conditions, the window for playing golf at this time of year becomes narrower, and often motivation to get out there is reduced. That said, many thousands of golfers across the UK don't make the decision to lock away the clubs for a few months and want keep their game ticking over, whether it be at the range or course. Despite perception to the contrary, there are many venues that remain open and in fine fettle throughout the depths of December, January and February, providing a rewarding experience.
However, others are less convinced. Studying responses to the 2019 Golfshake Survey, there has been enough feedback from everyday golfers to raise the question of whether the game should really be a 12-month continuing pastime, or should a somewhat more truncated schedule be adopted, shutting the season down throughout the worst of winter?
Looking at other sports, the idea of a full year season does appear somewhat unusual. Cricket diverts indoors during winter, with many fields becoming rugby or football pitches in winter. Lawn balls also move indoors - or sometimes artificial - as does croquet, with winter devoted to lawn maintenance, but again indoor play is common to maintain the social contact and exercise benefits of those games.
Golf is quite unique in that respect, but looking further afield where winters can be more extreme, accommodations are made. In Canada, for example, the Golf Canada Handicap System divides the year into active and inactive seasons, while in nations such as Sweden, courses are closed for several months due to the wintry climate.
Fortunately, and though it doesn't always seem like it, the British Isles have a comparatively mild winter, helping to ensure that golf can remain a part of your life. Winter Leagues are a common part of the culture and embraced by many.
There are difficulties with maintaining courses during winter - something that we can all help with - and a period of respite could be viewed as being a benefit to the overall condition of the layout, but the realities of running the business of a golf club cannot be ignored. Year-round revenues are key. Closing a venue during winter would transform the market into a seasonal model, reflecting that of the tourist and hospitality industries.
Looking at survey responses from 1,000 avid non-golf golfers, who have a mid-range handicap, 60% of which play more than 20 rounds a year, the biggest factor for not playing more is time, but 95% would play more if they could. Despite the increasingly common view that the game needs shortened, only 5% of responders to the survey believed that 18-holes is too long.
The affordability and value of club memberships is another issue, with pace of play and course conditions also being cited.
Many simply prefer being a casual, unattached golfer, but what of the 20% who would be keen to join? There is an argument that memberships should reflect the amount of golf played to be more affordable, multiple course options and reciprocal deals have been mentioned by golfers, but the issue of time, even more of a problem in the shortened daylight of winter, is a hurdle to overcome. Should golfers feel like they can't play in winter, the value of an annual membership is further reduced, making it even less attractive.
Here are some of the most notable comments we have received.
"If a club could offer me a six month April - September membership, I would be happy to pay them slightly more than 50% of a full membership. I think golf clubs are missing out on a huge business opportunity - my friends and I aren't the only golfers who don't play in bad weather and winter months. It's a sunshine game!"
"Paying all year round for a course that isn't playable all year round is a big sore spot."
"Some clubs are unplayable for up to four months of the year. Maybe they should reimburse fees in a sort of golf members voucher scheme for the unplayable weeks to enable golfers to spend on green fees at other clubs. This is the main reason I don't join anywhere as I like to be sure I'm not paying twice for my "weekly" round (if only I had the time!)."
"It is hard to justify membership if you can only play at weekends - especially if you are not fussed about competitions and just want to play socially. Why pay £1000 for a membership when when you can get a cheap tee time at the same course by using apps like GolfNow?"
"I only really get to play at off peak times in summer with a 5pm tee off and on a Sunday afternoon during winter months during which I only play 9 holes. No memberships really accommodate this."
"With latest technology, phone apps etc - it should be possible to be charged for the number of holes actually played, allowing people to play 6, 9 12, or any number, and cut corners to play various holes if slow groups etc - maximum flexibility."
These golfers would likely argue for a shortened golf season, or memberships that reflect that, but there is much to enjoy about golf in winter, it's a great activity for exercise and social interaction, maintaining your game, and supporting your club throughout the quieter months of the year.
Being an outdoor sport, weather is clearly an issue, but club members are more likely to play despite the conditions, whether it be cold, heavy rain, sodden underfoot, or strong winds. Reflecting the keenness of some, 6% of golfers would still play in the snow, and that crucial mid-demographic of golfers aged 35-54 are also more likely to play regardless of the weather.
Rather than curtailing the season, the concept of adopting more flexibility with regards to memberships has weight to it, including points based systems to reflect the golf played. Shortened courses in winter may also help with the time factor.
Ultimately, winter golf isn't for everybody, but for those who do continue to play at this time of year, the benefits of a full, year-long season, are clear. The question for the game as a whole to answer is whether both of those perspectives can be more effectively represented, rewarding the golfers who play for 12 months, but also making memberships attractive to those who would rather just make use of their club in the warmer months.
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