How Long Will the Golf Boom Last?
CLUB golf has been patting itself on the back for the past 12 months as demand for membership has continued to soar.
But is everything in the garden really as rosy as we would all like to think? We ran a survey in which we asked you for your feedback.
We wanted to know whether you believe the game really is still in rude health at a time when some clubs are now reintroducing waiting lists and, in some cases, bringing back joining fees. Are you playing more golf now than before the pandemic brought everything to standstill? And what sort of condition are your courses in?
It is all a far cry from the pre-pandemic days when course closures and plummeting memberships dominated the headlines. Many courses that appeared to have been doomed are now enjoying a new lease of life.
Generally, golf continues to boom at all levels, and one of the most encouraging things we have seen is that the average age of club golfers is finally starting to fall - if golf is to have a bright future, it goes without saying that this is a trend that needs to continue. And that means we cannot afford to rest on our laurels when it comes to selling this great game of ours to children.
The professional game has survived and continues to thrive despite dire warnings of sponsors pulling out as a global economic downturn forced many to make people redundant.
In Europe and on the PGA Tour they continue to play for vast sums of money, with the likes of Jon Rahm, Collin Morikawa, Hideki Matsuyama, and Phil Mickelson all winning majors in thrilling fashion. South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen has picked up more than $6m in prize money without winning a single tournament.
And we are all wide-eyed in anticipation of the long-awaited Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits in September, which is scheduled to be played in front of thousands of golf fans, with Steve Stricker’s American team desperate to get their hands back on that magnificent and much-prized little golden trophy.
England Golf has recently launched an initiative entitled Give It A Shot, a programme designed to support golf club membership. It aims 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, provide expert support to help clubs in growing and maintaining sustainable membership levels, inspire a diverse range of golfers to give membership a go and highlight the importance of membership retention and support clubs in keeping new members engaged.
Two years ago, The R&A launched Golf Course 2030. It is a similar scheme to that being run by England Golf, with the intention of making golf more accessible, appealing, and inclusive and ensuring that the game is still thriving 50 years from now.
It is one thing to see a surge in membership - it is an entirely different thing to ensure that clubs retain those members. There is a long-held perception that golf is a stuffy game run by “old farts’ who sit in the clubhouse all day reading The Times or Daily Telegraph while drinking gin and tonic. Thankfully, that image is now being dispelled by a host of forward-thinking clubs and governing bodies who have realised that things have to change and know that club golfers have choices. According to England Golf, there are currently 8.2 million golfers in England alone. It is a massive target audience.
It is somewhat ironic that golf is enjoying a boom not as a result of initiatives like those above but because of something that none of us could possibly have foreseen, namely a global pandemic. The key is to keep hold of those new players.
All the more surprising is the fact that less than 25% of UK golf clubs have offered either a price reduction or deferral option for members financially struggling amid the pandemic but who might want to renew their annual subscription this year.
Last year, when there were fears that clubs might go under due to a potential lack of renewals, the figure was 32% but now, with membership having boomed, it is 24%. The percentage of clubs offering no scheme at all, not even, for example the ability to spread paying the renewal amount over a period of time, has also risen from 49 to 55%.
But back to our survey. Of those who responded, 67% were club members, with 71% aged 55 and over. A total of 39% of respondents had handicaps of 15 and below, 30% handicap 15-20 and 28% with handicaps over 20. A total of 98% of respondents were male, with 36% from the south of England, 19% from the north, 16% from the Midlands, 11% from the east of England and 7% from Scotland.
We asked the following questions:
Is your course busier?
- 52% say courses are busier than normal for the time of year
- 38% say the same
- 7% say quieter
- 3% don’t really know
In contrast to the 52% saying courses are busier this is a drop of 21% from 2020, when 66% of golfers surveyed said courses were busier. This is almost certainly because some workers who had been furloughed have returned to full-time employment, while some others who had been working from home have returned to offices.
Do you feel rounds of golf take the right amount of time to play?
- 32% say they take the right amount of time
- 47% say the take the right amount of time but could be quicker
- 21% say they take too long
The results are similar for golfers of all ages. Pace of play has always been an issue that exercises the mind. It is interesting to note that so many of you still feel that a round of golf takes too long to complete. At the end of the first lockdown, when we were forced to play in pairs, most golfers reported that the game had quickened up. But as we return to fourball play this is clearly no longer the case.
Are you playing more than you normally would?
- 50% are playing the same amount of golf as normal
- 27% are playing more than normal, down from 36% in 2020
- 22% playing less than normal
- 1% yet to play
The biggest increase in this category came from the under 55s, with 37% saying they are playing more and only 17% playing less.
- 52% of those playing more are just making more time for golf
- 16% working from home and have more time available
- 7% currently unemployed so have more time
- 3% furloughed and have more time
- 22% combination of being self-employed or recently retired
- 35% of under 55s working from home. Other data similar.
Do you think the visitor green fees you pay are fair?
A total of 53% of our respondents are happy with the green fees they pay, while 45% of you believe they are too expensive, with just 2% saying they are too cheap.
Data similar for under 55 and over 55s. 49% of those in the South of England say they are too expensive compared to 42% in the rest of the UK.
Have you struggled to book a tee time in 2021?
Accessibility has been an issue. When the first lockdown came to an end many golf clubs initially restricted tee-times to their own members. One year on, 30% of you still struggle to book a tee time, with 38% of non-club golfers experiencing problems in 2021. In the South of England 33% of you struggle to book tee times compared to just 28% of those living elsewhere in the UK.
And you report that there are many reasons for this:
"Some local clubs only allow us to book five days in advance with online booking. Yet when booking clubs further afield we have no problem booking over telephone way in advance. Quite poor from the Bristol clubs."
“My club has times allocated for members only."
"Some courses are looking after members first."
“We only had problems immediately after lockdown at my home club. At other clubs it continues to be more difficult to find tee times."
"Some only take payments in advance and are non-refundable if you can't make it for whatever reason."
“I had to join a second club at the beginning of Covid to get tee-times."
“I use GolfNow to book tee times but since the start of the summer it has become harder to get a good tee time even on there."
"The popular 4:30-6pm times are hard to get as people leave work."
“It has been difficult to book a tee time for our competitions, as more active members have joined the club."
“It has been nearly impossible to book visitor tee times at other clubs unless it's to play later in the afternoon. Lots of courses have increased their prices, making it not worth going."
"Some courses are difficult to book when tee times open for members, but if you wait for about 15-20 minutes, then some times are freed up. It seems that three or four golfers go on and book a time then cancel when they join up."
“Some clubs have changed their approach. Twilight deals have disappeared, and many clubs now seem to be focussing more on members rather than encouraging guests. It is slowly improving - getting tee times on non-members courses - and guests are always welcome but must pay more. Prices have gone up - this is understandable as clubs have obviously suffered financially over the past 18 months."
“The influx of members is not necessarily a bad thing but getting into competitions on Saturdays has become more of a challenge."
"Weekend prices have rocketed for non-members."
"Clubs have put prices up following the Covid boom of last year, but rounds take longer, courses are usually not in very good condition.”
It is clear that the increase in club membership has had an impact on the availability of tee-times and many of you have joined clubs to give you improved access.
There is a perception, particularly among those who don’t play the game, that golf is an expensive sport. We asked if you would spend more or less in 2021 than you typically would during an average year. Golf club manufacturers have seen an increase in spending and our results would appear to support that.
- Will/Did spend more in 2020 21% compared to 27% for 2021
- Will/Did spend less in 2020 35% compared to 16% in 2021
- Will/did spend the same in 2020 44% compared to 57% in 2021
Have you joined a golf club in the past 12 months?
Unsurprisingly, 16% of you had joined a club in the past 12 months. That is encouraging enough but even better is the news that 24% of those new club members are under the age of 55.
Your reasons for joining are wide and varied. For some it was as simple as wanting greater access to courses, for others it came down to value for money - you are playing more golf and believe it makes sense to join clubs rather than paying green fees every time you play.
Here is some of your feedback:
“I am playing more golf so it is more cost effective to be a member."
“I only got into the sport during lockdown and wanted to continue playing regularly so it was more cost-effective to get a membership."
“I was offered a good price for membership. It includes par-three access. My course also has indoor and outdoor driving ranges."
“I joined to be able to play golf more regularly and to get to know other golfers."
"I wanted to play more than society golf, I wanted to get a WHS handicap, I wanted to experience the social side of a golf club. "
"I wanted regular golf and to get to know new people locally."
“I have been a nomadic golfer for a few years so a group of us wanted to get more structured play in."
“I wanted to get an official handicap alongside my Golfshake one and to improve chances to book a round."
“I had difficulty finding casual tee times at sensible prices. Joining Kilworth Springs Golf Club in Leicestershire is the best thing I have done for a while. It is a brilliant club with an interesting and well-kept course that has interacted well with members over this difficult time. It's cracking value for money too! "
“I wanted value for money and to be able to play more golf and have an officially recognised handicap."
“For me it was about enjoying my golf, getting a handicap and making new friends
"To enjoy competition golf. Initially on a roaming PlayMoreGolf membership but moved to a full membership mainly due to hospitality and warm welcome at the club (Carden Park, Cheshire)."
"I am a member of a society, and my local club offered a great package for practice and 50% off green fees."
“I am playing more regularly, so joining a club made sense financially. It also gives me access to competitions and inter-club matches."
“I joined primarily to get an official handicap and county card so I can get onto top golf courses as a visitor. Also, as a base to practice."
"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."
"I was a member and it lapsed as I couldn't find time to play following the first lockdown and working from home, I have been able to find time to play more golf so decided to renew my membership."
It is obvious that golf currently has a golden opportunity that it cannot afford to waste. It is striking to note just how many of you joined clubs for the opportunity to make new friends, and the good news is that most golf clubs are going out of their way to make their new members feel welcome. With so many of us continuing to work from home there is no reason to believe that this membership boost is going to be a short-term gain.
With all restrictions finally having been lifted, many new members are being given the chance to enjoy unrestricted use of clubhouse facilities for the first time. Overall, the results from our survey are encouraging but golf clubs cannot afford to rest on their laurels.
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