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Will the Golf Boom Be Replicated in 2021

By: | Fri 12 Feb 2021 | Comments


LAST year was an extraordinary one for club golf. With courses closed for months it would be fair to assume that the picture was a bleak one but precisely the opposite happened. 

We all know by now about the boost in club membership that occurred when the first lockdown came to an end but figures recently released by Sports Marketing Surveys (SMS) reveal the full extent. According to SMS there was a scarcely-credible 41% increase in golf participation during the final three months of 2020. This is all the more surprising when you consider that most golf courses in the UK were actually closed for about a third of that time.

You will not need us to remind you that all golf courses in England were shut down in November, so it would be logical to assume that playing numbers would also have plummeted during that final quarter. Not so according to SMS, which tracks rounds played at a number of venues. Despite the restrictions that were in place, the number of rounds played in the UK from October to December was up by 41 percent compared with 2019. This followed a staggering 59% increase in the period from July through to September.

Across the country, total number of rounds of golf played rose by 12% compared to 2019. Remember that courses were closed for 12 weeks from March to May.

The north of England saw the biggest rise in the fourth quarter, growing 66% to end the year, 13% up on 2019. The Midlands and Scotland both grew by more than 40% between October and December, while the south region saw a 30% rise and was the most successful region for the year overall, up by more than 20%. 

Yet again, this would seem to confirm that any concerns that the surge in participation seen in May and June would be short-lived and over by the end of the summer, were wide of the mark.

Summer Golf Boom

Richard Payne, director of SMS, said: “I know from speaking to them just how hard so many of the golf courses and governing bodies have worked to generate these results, but we still shouldn’t take them for granted. Golf has been one of the massive success stories of the past year in sport, with the UK success emulated in America. None of that has happened by accident. It’s also important to recognise that there will still be many individual facilities who are struggling. Those courses and resorts dependent on tourism, hotel guests, and large societies will need support in the months to come.

“Overall, we know how important the weather will be in determining the scale of the recovery and growth this year, but, for a number of reasons, including ongoing widespread working from home, which will give people more time to play, we are optimistic and expect to see a further boost in 2021 when golf courses can reopen.”

And there was more good news, with data from PlayMoreGolf showing that 62% of golfers spent at least £10 on food and drink after a round, with 47% of them spending at least £5 before teeing off. PlayMoreGolf says that its members have spent more than £2m at the 250 courses it is partnered with across the UK. The data was taken from PlayMoreGolf’s 3,500 members.

Alastair Sinclair, the chief executive of PlayMoreGolf, said: “It was brilliant to see so many people picking up clubs for the first time, or rediscovering their passion for golf. 2020 was a year full of challenges. Alongside a reduction in capacity, golf clubs were unable to serve food and drink in the ways they would have done in pre-Covid times. Our data will come as a relief to clubs who are desperate for Government restrictions to be lifted and courses to reopen. Our findings show that in times when restrictions were not in place, our members contributed more than £2m of food and beverage revenue at our clubs. We also found that 82% of our members take a guest to play, which could be a much-needed financial boost to golf clubs ahead of the new season.”

The Challenges of This Season

So, what of the new season, whenever that may finally begin? Obviously, golf clubs across the length and breadth of the land find themselves facing some unique challenges and the first of those revolves around subscription demands, many of which are traditionally sent out for payment on January 1, while the bulk of the rest ask for payment to be made by April 1. But with courses still closed, and uncertainty surrounding when they might be allowed to reopen concerned has been expressed about a perceived lack of flexibility.

Gareth Jones, of Golf Club Solutions, says he is surprised that so many clubs have failed to adapt. Quoted in National Club Golfer, he commented: “It alarms me that some golf clubs have their renewal date in January, even April to a point. The reason I say that is because the winter months are our quietest time. I think you would have an awful lot more success with a June or July renewal date.”

He believes that a combination of warm, sunny weather and TV coverage of The Open Championship would increase demand. And he makes a valid point. If this were a normal year (and, of course, it is anything but) most of us would be unable to get anywhere near a golf course because of the weather. And this happens every year. It stands to reason that if a subscription demand arrives on your door-mat when there is snow on the ground then you may well think twice about whether you actually want to renew - especially if your club has increased the fee.

And with no definite date for a return, it is likely that many members may well decide to sit tight for now.

Jones continues: “In the summer, people are more familiar with the value they get from golf membership, certainly more so than a simple case of saying, ‘Yes, we are just about to pay £1,000 but I haven’t played golf for the past four months’, which is sometimes the case. This is a good opportunity, depending on how your golf club has arranged or agreed Covid restrictions. There are a lot of clubs doing different incentives for their members but this could be a great opportunity to push back that renewal date and utilise it as a really good retention tool.”

He wants to see clubs introducing appreciation days for members, family days and complimentary birthday meals. Jones says that the average golf club has 535 members, of which around 42 will leave each year. He believes that 66% of those people leave for what he calls “preventable causes” and has urged clubs to set up a retention strategy, which would include analysis, surveys and accountability.

The scale of the problem is highlighted by Harwood Golf Club, as reported in The Golf Business, a Lancashire club which has attempted to give members a discount to compensate them for the closures over the past year but also faces the challenge of balancing its books. It may come as a surprise to learn that fewer than 25% of clubs are offering a price reduction or deferral for members who are facing their own financial struggles during the pandemic.

Like most golf clubs in England, Harwood has been closed for more than a third of the time since the start of the first lockdown in March 2020, with at least severe restrictions placed on its clubhouse for that entire period. Its secretary, Mark Schofield, said: “Members will have had around four months of golf where they’ve not been able to play, but they’ve been extremely supportive of the club. 

“We usually do very well with external functions but the bar’s been shut so we’ve lost nearly 12 months of income there. There’s a really good, strong management team, we’ve had to manage it extremely carefully and keep spending to a minimum to get through.” 

He said that the club, which has more than 400 members, has not seen a single member ask for a refund on their subscription – even though it remains uncertain when the golf club can reopen. 

“We are trying to find a way to give members a discount, whilst also balancing the books to make up for lost income,” he said. “We’ve done very well for new members, it’s just trying to retain them now. Usually we’d give them something more than just golf, but with the clubhouse being closed we don’t have those social aspects.

“The after-golf experience is very important to a lot of people, and you can understand people thinking it’s a lot of money for just playing golf when they can’t experience anything that goes along with it. We’re a members’ club and it’s a lot different to a gym membership. People get attached to the club and they’re very supportive and loyal and want it to succeed.

“Most people will stay with the club they started at, we hope we can convince some of our new members to do the same.” 

This is a time when some innovative thinking is required and as golf clubs struggle with their finances all members have some difficult decisions to make in the weeks and months that lie ahead.


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