“I’m only hoping there’s no plague of locusts coming to finish us off,” said Mark Bierton, half jokingly. Knebworth Golf Club, where he is general manager, is empty. Shut like every other in the country as the world fights the coronavirus outbreak.
But the pandemic that’s forcing so many to consider their very survival is only the latest in a string of misfortunes to have struck this Hertfordshire club over the past few months.
Their struggles read like something out of the Old Testament. Last August, a fire ripped through their clubhouse causing such extensive damage that parts of it remain inaccessible.
Then one of the wettest winters on record forced repeated closures and blocked off two holes through much of the season.
Now there is no golf at all – and who knows when it will be safe to play again? – as the globe has come to a halt in the face of a microscopic enemy.
This trio of fire, flood and pestilence might have finished off those of perhaps lesser will and determination.
In the face of such adversity, though, magical things have been happening at Knebworth that have stirred the spirits of everyone connected with the 112-year-old outfit.
It started with a membership offer – a discount on fees chiefs hoped would get some cash into the club with renewals coming next month and act as an initial gesture of goodwill.
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“It’s worked in a way I didn’t expect it to,” Bierton revealed. “A lot of members came back, the traditional club members, and said, ‘I don’t want a discount. I want to pay my fees, support the club and look forward to it reopening.’
“Others are very grateful for the discount and have re-engaged with the club because it has been offered.
“It’s heartening and we are very lucky with the membership we have got. They are a very strong and committed bunch and, within the communications we sent out, it was about more than just the golf.
“We were asking people to perhaps think about what the golf club has done for them in their lives and what it has added to their lives.
“A lot of the members have started to reflect and say ‘I’d be lost without it’. It’s a lot of their social scene.
“A lot of their friends – now lifelong friends – came from the golf club. They’ve used it as an opportunity to put back.”
The builders had just begun work to repair the clubhouse before the scale of the virus became evident. And Knebworth had only just fully reopened their course following the winter’s destructive impact.
— Knebworth Golf Club (@knebworthgolf) November 14, 2019
“Winter was pretty tough,” admitted Bierton. “The rainfall stats suggest we had a year’s worth of rain in six months.
“Something is going to have to give somewhere and dropping down to 16 holes hinders your ability to sell green fees.
“We’d just got back to 18 holes, the course was starting to really shine, maintenance was done and went down very well and the greens were coming back into spring play.
“The comments and feedback were positive. We were turning the corner into the season and then we were closed.”
Now the club is faced with a scenario that that will be familiar to countless others up and down the UK.
Fifteen staff members have been furloughed, including all on clubhouse, catering, and food and beverage.
Three greenkeepers remain to carry out essential course maintenance and Bierton and his membership team are also at the club as they looks to navigate the renewals period.
In the midst of such uncertainty, though, the response of the members to their latest plight has cheered him and his team and leaves them hopeful about the future.
Bierton explained: “This is a test of the strength of a golf club and it just shows that a club is only as strong as its members.
“Our captain for the year, for example, has volunteered to pay full fees. Now captaincy is a lifelong dream for a lot of people and something that should be remembered so they get their year free and it costs them a lot of money on top of that.
“As a show of solidarity, he wants to come forward and pay his fees. That is the general feeling among the club – that they want to do as much as they possibly can to make sure they have got the best club they can possibly have following this pandemic.”
What do you think about Knebworth Golf Club’s response? How is your club dealing with coronavirus? Let me know in the comments or tweet me.
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