How One Golf Club Has Flourished During The Pandemic
LIKE the rest of us, Keith Mollan and Sean Bailey can barely contain their excitement. Keith is chairman of Wirral Golf Club, Sean is the professional. And they cannot wait for March 29, the day when our beloved sport opens for business again in England. The course has been closed since December and it is in pristine condition, just waiting for the first shots to be hit.
Before we get to the challenges the club has faced over the past 12 months and what lies ahead, a little information about the course.
It was originally nine holes and was designed by Open champion Harold Hilton, winner at Muirfield in 1892 and Royal Liverpool five years later. It was increased to 18 holes in 1907 and further extended after the Second World War. It only measures 5,200 yards but the club’s own website describes it as a subtle test that is about far more than your ability to hit the ball 300 yards. It rewards thoughtful play, with small greens and well-placed bunkers, plenty of trees and gorse. The signature hole is the par-four 15th, a dogleg with the green set among woodland. It is a classic risk and reward hole.
It is a par 70 for women and a par 68 for men and it features short walks between greens and the next tee. It began life as a women’s course, set up by the wives of members at Royal Liverpool who grew fed up of waiting at home while their husbands enjoyed themselves. Men were not allowed to join until the 1970s and it is now a fully inclusive club.
And Mollan is desperate to see his members back out there enjoying it.
Like many clubs around the UK, Wirral GC has seen an increase in membership and it is clear that Mollan cares deeply about each and every one of them. “We have reduced our subscription this year by 5%,” he said. “We are also giving all our members a free fourball voucher and 30 minutes on the indoor golf school that Sean runs.
"Our members have been brilliant throughout the lockdown and this is just one small way of thanking them for their amazing loyalty. We didn’t give out any rebates last year and find ourselves in a strong position to meet the challenges that lie ahead. A lot of golf courses have suffered but although we were only open for just over seven months last year, our income from societies and visitors was up by 5%. So we had 12 months takings plus 5% in that period, and we are hoping for a similar situation this year.”
When golf resumed in May 2020 the weather was glorious - that is unlikely to be repeated in March. The north-west of England has endured a wet winter and Bailey revealed that the course would probably have been closed for most of January anyway.
“One of the real benefits of the lockdown is that when the members and visitors return they will find that the course is in fabulous condition,” he said. “The greenkeepers have been able to work on the course without having to work around golfers. And when they come back there will be no winter tees or temporary greens.”
When the club closed in March last year as a result of Government restrictions it employed 17 people. That number has fallen to 12 but Mollan is at pains to point out that there have been no job losses. “This has all been down to what I would describe as natural wastage. For instance, one member of staff left to become a full-time carer for a member of their family,” he said.
“We are now waiting to pour our first pint of beer, but we have handed over the running of the clubhouse to a local concession who will provide food and drink and have many exciting plans for the future, and they will be retaining the existing bar staff and catering staff. They have spent £100,000 refurbishing the club and it all looks fantastic. We now have a pizza oven and believe our clubhouse will be more attractive to younger golfers. Our golf club will no longer be beige! It will be vibrant and welcoming.”
The club employs four greenkeepers who were furloughed on a rolling two-week basis throughout the lockdown, and all bar and catering staff were also furloughed. At the end of last year’s first lockdown Wirral GC gave priority to their own members for the first two weeks. Like every other club in the country, they were inundated with people looking for tee times. And they expect a repeat performance.
“Last year, if we had any spare tee times on the day during that initial two-week period then we made them available to visitors,” said Bailey. “And that worked really well for us. We have an online booking system and our members can book two weeks in advance."
Since Boris Johnson announced that golf could return on March 29 the response has been phenomenal.
“It’s like everybody has hit the fast forward button,” said Mollan. “They are all just desperate to get out there and play golf again. We are all like children on Christmas Eve. We will be opening our online booking on March 22 for members.” Initially, the club will be reserving tee times for members for a week and will then decide whether to extend that for a further week. Much is likely to depend on the weather.
Bailey knows that he is going to be rushed off his feet with members queuing up for lessons as they seek to fine-tune their swings before getting back out there. “The minute that it was announced that we could reopen on March 29 I started getting phone calls, emails, WhatsApp messages from people who cannot wait to start hitting golf balls again,” he said.
Overall, the picture is a bright one. When the first lockdown came into force they had 279 members - that has since increased to 300, around 100 of whom are women. Mollan is proud to have so many women members but says that it is a number that is declining and in a bid to address this they have signed up to England Golf’s Women in Golf Charter and are also involved in an initiative with PlayMoreGolf designed to encourage more women to get involved with the game and have reserved 15 memberships exclusively for women.
“The demographic we have for women members is ageing and that is something we are very keen to address,” said Mollan. “We have a thriving junior section that Sean looks after but we want to get more girls into the game and attract women who maybe have never played before. With PlayMore Golf we are looking to attract women who have played the game before but have had to give up to raise families. So we are trying to attract members across all age ranges.”
Bailey says that because the course is relatively short it is an ideal learning ground for young juniors. “But we do see that when the testosterone kicks in they want to go and play on courses that are longer,” he said. “We tend to see a lot of young juniors start with us and we have a vibrant Saturday academy for 6-10 year olds. We then lose them to other clubs but we are seeing them coming back to us."
Even while we were speaking Bailey revealed that another potential new member was waiting to see him. “We have picked up 16 more new members since closing in December and they are all under the age of 55. That is a huge step forward, with the average age of club golfers having been around 63,” said Bailey. “People are now seeing the benefits of becoming club members.”
So where are all these new members coming from? Bailey describes most of them as individuals who have decided to “upgrade” from municipal courses, many of which leave much to be desired as councils make cutbacks or prioritise other areas. “We have also seen quite a few nomadic golfers coming to us, people who want a ‘home’,” said Mollan. “These were the guys who would sit outside in the car park at 5am to book a tee time and now see the benefits of club membership."
Many golf clubs are struggling financially. Not Wirral though. The clubhouse concession will bring in welcome new finance. “As a golf club we can survive quite happily on our annual subscriptions but when you have to run a bar and catering and have staff standing around doing nothing when it is pouring with rain outside it clearly creates a drain on your finances,” said Mollan. “We did a lot of research before deciding to sell our bar and catering facilities and now we have a guaranteed monthly income from the concession. Every golf club in Britain will tell you that they are experts in food and catering, but they are not. We have brought in the experts and they have big plans.
“The club had been in decline since 2008 but we have definitely turned a corner. In 2019 we turned a hefty loss into a profit and in 2020 we turned that into a very healthy profit. We have just put together a five-year plan and anticipate being in profit throughout that period, even allowing for the fact that we have just ordered a new John Deere tractor. When your finances suffer so does the course because your greenkeepers have to work with old equipment.”
While the greenkeepers have been able to prepare the course, there have been some issues with members of the public who have used the course for exercise during lockdown. In common with many other clubs across the country, Mollan has seen an increase in dog fouling on the fairways and Bailey was even sent a picture of a five-a-side football match taking place on one of the club’s fairways. As hard as it may be to believe, an adult was with a group of children and had set up cones for a proper training session - breaking just about every rule in the lockdown book. Fortunately there has been no damage caused to greens and bunkers.
“I walk the course once a week with the captain,” said Mollan, “and I have noticed week on week that there has been an increase in dog fouling, which is horrendous. It is horrible for the green staff, who have to pick it up. Thankfully, most people have been respectful and have kept to the footpaths."
This is a progressive golf club. Mollan and his team have used lockdown as an opportunity to change the way they communicate with members. “Our captain now sends members a weekly newsletter to keep them up to date on everything that is happening,” said Mollan. “That is all now done via email and we have also established a thriving WhatsApp group which has been very popular. Everything is about digital communication now. Even our invoices go out digitally. The tone of how we communicate has also changed and is far softer. As people get more used to email the way you speak to them changes. Getting the tone right is important, and we have learnt that.
Bailey said: “We also have a great relationship with societies. Obviously there were bookings for February and March but we have worked with them to change dates and have not had a single cancellation. Again, it has been important to engage with them properly. I am 100% more confident coming out of this lockdown than I was when we came out of the last one. I didn’t bring my staff out of furlough last time but this is different."
They have also embraced the opportunities provided by PlayMoreGolf members.
“Last year we decided to cap the number of PlayMoreGolf members - we went from about 100 to 145 and they are a vital lifeblood for us,” said Mollan. “When PlayMoreGolf was first launched it was seen by some as the devil’s tool. I don’t think that initially people understood the marketplace it was opening up for clubs and many saw it as people getting cheap membership, taking their tee-times - all the old attitudes that have held the game back.
"We have just signed a new contract with PlayMoreGolf and we wouldn’t have done that if we hadn’t genuinely believed it was good for the wellbeing our club. Companies such as PlayMoreGolf have a huge role to play because their marketing is so much better and so much stronger than most golf clubs can provide. They have the resources and the knowhow.
"Advertising for new members in a local paper that nobody reads is going to achieve nothing in terms of increasing your membership. It is all about digital platforms now. PlayMoreGolf is a great tool for us to attract new members - it is almost like they are doing our marketing for us. And then it is our job when we have our PlayMoreGolf members here to convert them into full club members, and we have been very successful with that. I don’t believe that enough golf clubs have actually worked out just what the likes of PlayMoreGolf can do for them. For us, it is a no-brainer."
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