Why Tee Time Access is Golf's Biggest Challenge This Autumn
Following years of declining participation levels, golf has enjoyed a staggering boom during these extraordinary times, a dramatic turnaround that now presents another kind of challenge, namely how to address the impact of supply and demand, finding ways to effectively satisfy this unprecedented popularity.
Through analysis of the Golfshake Score & Handicap Service, and delving into our most recently completed survey from August 2020, the significant influx of new and lapsed golfers into the game has been apparent throughout this summer. These statistics make for pleasant reading in the industry, but how does the increased number of golfers playing more frequently affect access to courses?
The August Golf Survey highlighted that tee times were already difficult to secure, something that contributed massively to the surge in golfers choosing to join a club for this season. England Golf had reported over 20,000 new members joining since the spring lockdown, but that figure is arguably extremely conservative, with a notable percentage of venues averaging 50 new members, a ratio that potentially places the number of new members closer to 100,000.
Further analysis of our survey would also point towards the total being nearer to 100,000 considering that 13.1% of the club members who had responded stated that they had only joined a club since lockdown.
The following comment was a common theme within the survey.
"Was already considering joining and once we missed all of April playing, I wanted to ensure tee time availability and have time to play twice a week to get value."
When the game resumed in England during May, online tee time booking services crashed with overwhelming demand making access difficult, particularly at the most desirable periods of the week.
Golf club members, who pay an annual or monthly fee, in most circumstances had first access, and rightly so, but it wasn't even straightforward for them. The hundreds of comments we received at the time illustrated just how many golfers (both members and non-members) found securing a round to be difficult.
"Golf seems to be more popular than ever. I can’t get a tee time at my club this weekend before 4pm, you do need to book almost two weeks ahead now to get a decent weekend tee time. The club had reported more new members this year than for a long time."
That's the issue for members, but what of the growing number of golfers who choose not to be members of clubs, how does tee time access affect them?
"Before lockdown you could just turn up and play. Now you have to book a tee time. No more waiting on the 1st or the 10th."
"It has been noticeable how much more difficult it has been to book tee times. My perception is that more people are playing."
"My friend always says it’s a dying sport. But during lockdown, and with restrictions. he now moans he can’t get a tee time. I say it was maybe the kick up the backside the nomadic golfer (me until April 2020) needed to commit to a club membership."
Luckily, during the height of summer, long days ensured that most golfers could be accommodated, but now as we progress into autumn and winter, typically the low/off peak season for golf, the difficulty becomes alleviating tee time unattainability in the face of reduced daylight hours, making already scarce tee time access even more limited.
"Nice to see golf booming, but as the evenings draw in it will become increasingly difficult to get decent tee times at sensible times of the day. The risk here is that members will become disenchanted when visitors take up prime slots."
Although most golfers who responded to our survey played often this summer, there are some that actually played less, 25% of them, summed up by this comment:
"TEE TIME BOOKING IS MORE DIFFICULT. So played a few less rounds."
There are other questions that need answered. Although golf clubs have seen an influx in new members, visitors, society and green fee business is still vital, but with tee times harder to come by, how can that be resolved into the longer term?
"It's a nightmare finding a reasonably priced green fee. Can't wait for all these "working from home" types to go back to the office, so we can return to reasonably priced £12 rounds instead of the stupid £30 green fees most clubs are trying to impose."
Clearly there is a balance to be found if the game is to continue flourishing during these bizarre times. Solving the issue of supply and demand is a welcome problem, but it's a problem nonetheless. If too much priority is given to club members, then those choosing not to be members will struggle for access, which could simply lead to them packing up and not returning, setting golf two steps back.
However, on the flip side, if club members, the main guaranteed revenue source, feel they are being pushed out by an influx of visitors then they may also decide to vent their frustrations and walk away from the game.
Venues that tackle and look to solve the problem will prosper, but those who decide to ride it out and take the unforeseen boom for granted may become unstuck. A view encapsulated by this comment.
"Yes, it's great that more people are playing, many likely encouraged by discount deals and short term membership schemes, especially amongst the young, but let's wait and see how many are still in situ this time next year. Given another shockingly wet winter and the possibility of still not being allowed at usual times in the clubhouse, we may well start to see the numbers slide in 2021. Societies, the lifeblood of many clubs have barely been out this year. And don't forget golf clubs are still closing down even amidst this supposed boom time and many golfers currently playing may well find that they are out of work unless the economy picks up. So, let's not get too far ahead of ourselves, it's a case of so far so good."
Should the weather remain temperate into the autumn and restrictions allow the game to continue freely, squaring the demands of both members and visitors will be a quandary to solve, with the immediate battleground being tee time access. Finding a way to keep everyone happy, delivering value for money, and ensuring opportunities to play in the face of narrowing hours of daylight, is the major test for the game during the coming months.
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