An idea to give nomad golfers the chance to gain a handicap would not be carried through if it “significantly” threatened membership, stressed England Golf chief executive Nick Pink.
The outgoing leader of the nation’s governing body said the controversial ‘Independent Golfer’ discussion paper would be shelved if it was believed it would impact negatively on the core offering of clubs.
But he said the majority of counties had asked England Golf to find ways of engaging with the estimated two million people who play regularly but aren’t members of a club.
NCG reported last week how the paper was debated at the body’s General Meeting earlier this month.
It outlined a principle that could see England Golf run a virtual scheme and provide an ‘official’ handicap and other benefits in exchange for a fee.
Some county unions argued it would erode trust in official handicapping, while worrying whether golfers would retain their memberships if they had an alternative route to a handicap.
Pink said the question of how to engage the nomadic golfer had been debated over the past 18 months and the leaked paper had been intended, at this stage, merely as a discussion tool with county bodies and stakeholders.
“We’ve come back regularly to handicapping and insurance,” he explained. “We’ve looked at all of the other national bodies that exist all around the world. Scottish Golf announced at their national conference two Decembers ago that they would be offering a handicap to independent nomadic golfers. We know of other countries that are looking at this as well.
“The World Handicap System (introduced in November 2020) seems the right seminal moment for people to be looking at this.
“If you look at the objectives of the handicap system, it’s about an open, inclusive, more advanced system that encourages people to operate under the same global scheme. It feels that at some point, in the next two to three years, we need to be looking at something if it is right.
“It is a big ‘if’ at this moment in time – because all of our conversations have only been had with county bodies, because they are our shareholders in this and they represent clubs.”
Asked why some counties felt threatened by the embryonic plans, Pink added: “I don’t know if it’s threatened, or frightened, or scared, or it’s part of the change process. We could probably use different adjectives to describe it.
“I think it is fundamentally different. I get that and I understand why there’s nervousness – because it is different, because it goes against that grain of member, club, county, national body and, wherever you sit in that structure, I understand that disarming element to it.
“But you can’t ignore the consumer, the customer, the golfer, who is playing the game in a completely different way to the way we were playing 10, 15, 20, 30 years ago.
“It’s change. It’s different. I think there is a real worry about people leaving club membership to go into something different. That’s not new. That’s been happening for the last 15 to 20 years.”
Although the proposals, if ever implemented, might help England Golf access new funding streams – through any fee golfers paid to join the virtual club and the potential to unlock Sport England cash – Pink categorically ruled out finance as a motive saying: “That’s not the ambition at all. That’s absolutely been made clear.”
He pledged that income generated from any future scheme would be reinvested back into the game.
Pink also questioned ideas that existing club members would flock to become independent golfers, and stressed the possibilities of being able to link more nomadic golfers with clubs.
“We don’t want that membership number to go down,” he said of the 630,000 golfers that currently hold ties with a club.
“If there was a threat we felt that would significantly change that we would stop it. There’s absolutely no way we would do it.
“I just don’t believe that, at this stage, with the insight and research we have got, that people are going to jump out of club membership to join this scheme.”