Handicap schemes are NOT the biggest threat to membership numbers – green fees are

Governing bodies giving independent golfers a handicap has drawn predictable outrage. But the problem lies at club level, writes Steve Carroll

It’s the 280-character equivalent of the person wearing a sandwich board declaring ‘the end is nigh’. Golfers who aren’t members can now get their hands on a handicap and, ever since OpenPlay went live last week, sections of golf twitter have been collectively screeching ‘Won’t somebody think of the clubs?’

They’re all going to empty, didn’t you know? Now you’re about to get a WHS index for £40 in England, or £5.99 a month in Scotland, the fairways are going to look like those deserted streets at the height of lockdown.

Firstly, get a hold of yourselves. I don’t know if you’ve noticed this but there’s a pretty large section of members in each club that actually have no interest in handicaps or competitions.

Amazing, I know, but true.  

Even for me, a committed tournament player, my WHS mark ranks somewhere between the on draft San Miguel and the lunch options in terms of why I choose to be a member at my club.

The idea that lockers are suddenly going to be flung open en masse, and we’re all going to give up our largely exclusive rights to playing, our priority on the course, and the social scene that goes with it, merely because we can get an inexpensive handicap and might have access to the odd Open comp is bonkers.

I’ll bet for most of us, being a member is about far more than the digits and decimal points that sit after our name on the notice board. Independent golfer schemes aren’t going to change this.

But let’s play devil’s advocate for a moment. Let’s consider the worst fears of those up in arms about these schemes – namely that the attraction of a handicap combined with easy availability of inexpensive golf will push people out of membership.

I don’t want to be blasé. But isn’t there an easy solution to that? Put the green fees up.

People who believe members are going to disappear to become handicap-wielding nomads don’t have a problem with independent golfers, if they think about it logically. They have a problem with green fee pricing.

This issue is not new, by the way. Complaints about the race to the bottom, and discounted rates, have been around for quite a while.

I can’t watch my local football team, who don’t play that far above jumpers for goalposts level, for much less than £20 and yet I can take my pick of golf in my region for under a score.

One green fee – admittedly for only a couple of fixed tee times – can be found at the princely sum of £9.

Now, I’m sorry but you can’t buy much more than a pint for that in quite a few parts of this country, so arguing these kinds of sums can in any meaningful way help fund the maintenance of a course, the running of a bar and the paying of staff is ludicrous.

Wouldn’t a restructure of pricing, the setting of green fees at sustainable levels, be a good thing?

That doesn’t mean jacking the price up like some black marketeer. I’m not suggesting that £20 should suddenly become £50.

Walk-ups wouldn’t pay it and clubs, who also depend on visitor revenue as well as subscriptions, would be left with a budget hole.

But put yourselves in the mind of the couple of times a month playing non-club member. If you have to pay, say, £850 for a membership in your locality, but you can rock up and hand over £20 a time instead, it doesn’t take a maths genius to realise you can get an awful lot of golf in before you’re even approaching the amount of play required to fund a 12-month commitment.

Where’s the incentive to join?

What if that green fee was just a little bit more? Then that decision point – the moment you wonder whether it’s more economical to put a tag on the bag instead – comes closer. And it’s also less of an incentive for those members who might be thinking about taking the nuclear option.

Clubs can take more control of their green fee structures, charge the rate that’s more often or not on their websites anyway, and resist the urge to give it away.

Because no one can tell me a round of golf is only worth £9, or £13 or £11.99, or any of the prices I can so easily grasp today. Our sport has to value itself more highly than that.

So let’s see clubs and courses price themselves competitively. Let’s see them work collectively with their neighbours, and not exclusively as rivals, to get green fees at a point that benefits everyone.

By doing this, they’ve got nothing to fear from independent golfers and everything to gain. Welcome these players into the club, get them immersed in the fabric, and then, who knows, maybe some of them will make that big commitment.

Do green fees need to go a little higher? Let me know in the comments, or you can also tweet me.

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Steve Carroll

Steve Carroll

A journalist for 25 years, Steve has been immersed in club golf for almost as long. A former club captain, he has passed the Level 3 Rules of Golf exam with distinction having attended the R&A's prestigious Tournament Administrators and Referees Seminar.

Steve has officiated at a host of high-profile tournaments, including Open Regional Qualifying, PGA Fourball Championship, English Men's Senior Amateur, and the North of England Amateur Championship. In 2023, he made his international debut as part of the team that refereed England vs Switzerland U16 girls.

A part of NCG's Top 100s panel, Steve has a particular love of links golf and is frantically trying to restore his single-figure handicap. He currently floats at around 11.

Steve plays at Close House, in Newcastle, and York GC, where he is a member of the club's matches and competitions committee and referees the annual 36-hole scratch York Rose Bowl.

Having studied history at Newcastle University, he became a journalist having passed his NTCJ exams at Darlington College of Technology.

What's in Steve's bag: TaylorMade Stealth 2 driver, 3-wood, and hybrids; TaylorMade Stealth 2 irons; TaylorMade Hi-Toe, Ping ChipR, Sik Putter.

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