We need to be honest with ourselves: Golf favours the older generation

We need to be honest with ourselves: Golf favours the older generation

Kevin Markham assesses the challenges facing golf clubs in 2020

The recent Golf Participation Report for Europe 2019, which was published by KPMG in October, points to a continuing, if slowing, decline in golf participation levels.

It is a broad overview, country by country. The statistics are from 2018 and don’t reflect the potential upsurge that the Open Championship in Royal Portrush will have had.

The overall performance across the UK and Ireland was as follows: Ireland endured a decline in registered golfers of -0.58%, or roughly 1,000 golfers, while in England (-1.63%), Wales (-4.06%), and Scotland (-4%), things were considerably worse. This trend has been ongoing since 2008, and every time it looks like stopping … it doesn’t.

The ‘positive’ side of these statistics is that unregistered (ie nomadic and many society players) golfers are not included.

Using data from 47 European countries, the overall figures showed that golf was growing in 15 countries, stable in 11 and declining in 21.

The good news is outweighed by the bad, even if this is a general overview. We all know that some clubs are weathering the storm extremely well.

Links courses, for instance, are continuing to lure the big-spending American tourist while big hotel courses have added attraction and are overcoming the problems affecting smaller clubs.

We have been losing golf club members continuously for over a decade and facing up to and tackling the challenges is the only way to change the decline in the game we love.

So what are the biggest challenges facing Irish golf clubs today?

1 Value for Money, Green Fees, and Membership

Golf will always be regarded as an expensive sport and giving customers value for money is as important to golfers as it is in every other industry — sports or otherwise. The challenge is to determine at what price both green fees and annual subs are value for money, when compared to the costs of running a club and maintaining a course. If you have a ‘premium’ course, then you will be able to charge more but you still have to be realistic … and flexible.

Flexible green fees are essential. Yes, they change by the season or the time of day or week, but they must also change depending on the condition of the course. You cannot charge full green fees if bunkers are GUR, temporary greens are in play, and especially not if greens have been hollow-tined.

The negative feedback that visiting golfers will spread — especially in the social media age — will hurt your business, I can promise you that.

Clubs need to be smarter when it comes to asking members to renew their annual subs. Fifteen years ago, it never seemed to be an issue … but it’s not 15 years ago.

Consider the hurdles your members face: the cost itself, the timing, the lure of other sports and activities, family commitment; and the overall cost of living. I’m sorry, but asking for a full sub to be paid in the dark cold depths of January is hardly kind … or conducive to renewals for members who may not play a game for another three months. Shift renewals to April (it’s not that complicated) or incentivise your members to pay in January by giving them some form of bonus.

Understand and reward loyalty. My father has been a member at the same club for 50 years and his sub was reduced and frozen some time ago. As golfers hit anniversaries (10, 20, etc) find a way to say thank you or, at the very least, find a way to acknowledge their loyalty.

2 Slow Play

No arguments from anyone, I presume. I have banged on about slow play here before and it remains a crippling problem for the game.

Golf clubs don’t seem to be facing up to the problem effectively. If you want to take all the joy out of the game, then just head out at midday on a summer weekend. You won’t be back in the clubhouse for five hours.

Rangers have to do their jobs, golfers have to be polite but firm with slow groups in front (especially as slow golfers don’t realise or don’t care that the worms are moving faster than they are) and golf clubs have to introduce penalties on repeat offenders (eg they aren’t allowed to put their names on the timesheet before 12pm). People are sick and tired of it and it’s a big reason for leaving the game. If clubs don’t address this disease then things will get worse before they get better.

One other suggestion: don’t have coloured tees. Replace the white, yellow, and red markers with a marker that simply shows the distance of the course. So, instead of playing from the white tees you play from the ‘66’ tees (indicating that the course measures 6,600 yards) or the ‘53’ tees. This is then reflected on the scorecard. Such an approach allows golfers to make more informed decisions based on their home course distances. And don’t forget to have official competitions from the forward tees … and measure the time it takes to get around the course. It will be illuminating, I promise.

3 Etiquette

Not inviting people to play through, not raking bunkers, positioning your trolley/clubs in the wrong place, standing in the wrong place, not being ready to take your shot when a playing partner has hit, ignoring pitch marks, talking during someone’s swing … some of these are small scale offences and not that serious, but they are basic knowledge. Others, such as pitch mark repairs and bunker raking, are more significant as they are ignorant acts. The former can leave long-term damage, the latter will send following golfers into a fury.

It’s a problem because it shows a lack of respect, both for the course and your fellow golfers. I recently played with Joe Maes (founder and president of EGTMA (European Golf & Travel Media Association), and he told me that in Belgium, all junior golfers have to be coached on etiquette and rules before they are allowed on the course. To be blunt, the same should be required of golfers new to the game and a large portion of societies.

4 Marketing

The 2019 Open Champion Shane Lowry with the Claret Jug ahead of the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final match between Kilkenny and Limerick at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
The 2019 Open Champion Shane Lowry with the Claret Jug ahead of the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final match between Kilkenny and Limerick at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

If you’re an old boys members’ club, then you can ignore this as you’re still in the Stone Age. Understanding your audience and knowing the most effective ways to reach them remains a huge challenge for golf clubs. And that’s because you have such a diverse audience covering so many age brackets, interests and requirements.

Perhaps it’s time to dip your toe into the social media world. At the very least, have a smart, easy-to-navigate website that shows off your course’s charms. And if you set up a Twitter or Instagram account, make it part of the junior captain’s role (boy or girl) to manage it. They’ll certainly know a lot more about it than you do.

Ads in magazines and papers play their part but you’ll need clever targeting with smart offers to set yourself apart.

5 Audiences

Following on from above, identifying the key demographics in golf is vital. Juniors, 18 to 30-year-old, parents, over 55s … they’re all attractive to golf clubs. Personally, I think too much emphasis is placed on attracting juniors into the game. Of course they’re important but hear me out: young boys and girls have a vast range of sport (and computer games) to choose from and golf is hardly seen as the sexy option; most juniors get into golf because of family; and as kids, they are time-poor. On the other hand, over 55s are the biggest golfing audience with only a handful of competing sports to choose from. They have the time and they most likely have the resources to take up the game.

I think we need to be honest with ourselves as golfers and recognise that golf favours the older generations. It is a sport for all, no question, but when a demographic has such a small pool of options to choose from, then efforts should really be made to bring them into the game. The younger generations will dip in and out of the game while the over 55s could remain members for 30 years.

6 Only the Young

Notwithstanding what I said above, getting young people into the game is obviously important … but it is increasingly problematic. The etiquette of the game is off-putting — as are the rules — as are dress codes that are way out of date. But that’s not all: what about the remarkable growth of Xbox and PlayStation that seems to have lured our younger generations (and some older ones) away from the outdoors and onto the couch?

According to a PWC report in 2018, video gaming, already worth €400m in this country, is expected to grow by 27% over the next five years.

This is no longer an issue of what juniors should wear, how they are treated, how much they should be charged or how to coach them. It’s not even about enticing them away from other sports. Now we have to factor in sitting in front of a screen for 10 hours a day lost in virtual reality.

Here’s a thought: would golf clubs be prepared to invest in an indoor simulator where golfers can play famous courses/holes from around the world? Expensive, I’m sure, but it has the added bonus of bringing in your regular golfers when the weather is lousy. You could set up competitions, too. If you have enthusiastic kids watching the Masters or the Open Championship why not then take them down to the club where they can hit balls on those same courses and be introduced to the joys of this game.

7 Society Golf

There are good things and bad things about societies. The challenge for 2020 remains very much the same, with clubs vying to attract societies, on and off the course. They provide a significant boost to green fee income and the majority of clubs already provide specific society packages.

Just as for Marketing (point 4 above), try to create new and interesting offers.

At the same time, clubs have to recognise that societies can interrupt member tee times, slow down the pace of play and not show the golf course the respect it deserves. It’s a balancing act and knowing how to deal with societies is crucial to maintaining harmony among the membership.

8 Catering

A golfer rakes a bunker during a practice round prior to the 2019 PGA Championship at the Bethpage Black course on May 15, 2019 in Farmingdale, New York. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)
A golfer rakes a bunker during a practice round prior to the 2019 PGA Championship at the Bethpage Black course on May 15, 2019 in Farmingdale, New York. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

Good food makes all the difference. Golfers do understand, however, that there are times of day when preparing hot food for a select few is not a viable option. On the other hand, more and more clubs are opening their restaurant doors to the local community in an attempt to attract business.

Quality is what will entice visitors and club members back for more, which will knock on to bar receipts as well. So ask yourself: is your catering good enough?

9 Golf Club Supply

The KPMG report suggests we lost 11 courses between 2017 and 2018. I don’t agree with that number.

Curra West, Glenmalure, Knockanally, and Seafield are the only 18 hole courses that closed in 2017/2018, and these are countered by Hog’s Head and Adare re-opening. I don’t know how many 9-hole courses closed (I doubt it was 9) but Ireland still has too many courses for the reduced number of golfers. That, right there, is the biggest challenge facing Irish golf clubs: how do you survive when your audience has been slashed by 25% but the number of golf clubs has been reduced by little more than 6%?

Dunmurry Springs in Co Kildare closed last week and West Waterford has been on the market for little more than a month. It is depressing to see golf courses close … but it is more depressing to see golfers leaving clubs in droves.

10 Time for a Round

In addition to the problem of slow play, taking the time for a round of golf is a big commitment in the modern age. Family structure has changed and we are working longer hours. How does a golfer find the time for 18 holes?

New formats, shortened courses, different routings, 6-hole, 9-hole, 12-hole competitions … all should be considered and tested. And why not ask the members themselves. With a large membership, you will have people from many walks of life who will have a wide range of opinions and ideas. You never know what might work.

The challenges facing golf clubs are not insignificant. Something has to be done because doing nothing helps nobody.

These challenges will vary by club (some, for example, will have a very strong junior programme or effective marketing or smart green fee structures) so identifying the key ones facing your club is essential. It is time to face up to these challenges and find solutions that can make a difference.

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