I pay more than £1,000 for golf club membership. That might seem like small beer to some of you living down south, but it’s apparently grim up north – it really isn’t – and it remains a chunk of my salary.
For that not insignificant outlay, I get a seven-day membership and the ability to largely play when I want. I can probably tee it up every day if I wish.
That’s what we shell out for. The freedom of choice. But could times be changing? If we revisit this discussion in a decade, will we still have the option to play whenever we choose?
The issue of fair use is a debate dimly echoing around some golf clubs and there are those predicting it will only get louder in the months and years to come. While the pandemic brought a spectacular intake of new players to clubs, for many it also brought a problem they’d never seen before.
These new members all wanted to play – frequently in fact – and alongside the demands exhibited by existing players they squeezed the tee sheet.
Such was the unprecedented demand in the immediate period after lockdown that many clubs rationed the number of rounds players could book.
Some, like Royal Norwich, have kept those provisions in place. Inspired by a move to a new course and a pandemic push to the fairways, the club have more than 1,200 members and a significant proportion of those take advantage of a points option.
A free-for-all on their tee sheet wouldn’t keep a fraction of everyone happy. So members can only have four priority bookings on the system in any 13-day period at the Weston Park club. That doesn’t stop them playing more, but they can only book extras on the day of play and if tee times are free.
“There are some members that will say it’s a terrible thing,” said Royal Norwich chief executive James Stanley when explaining the policy. “But it’s only because they can’t play millionaire’s golf.
“This will only make it a better golf club, because they have more opportunity to engage with it over the time that they are a member.”
If players are unhappy with fair use at Royal Norwich, they don’t seem to be voting with their feet. Membership is still buoyant.
But easing the pressure on a crammed tee sheet is just one part the equation. Another question is whether membership as it stands represents value for all members.
In an opinion piece for the Golf Club Managers’ Association, their former national captain, David O’Sullivan, asked whether current membership structures offered all golfers the same opportunities.
He branded golf club membership “a good deal for some”, making the obvious point – but one largely unconsidered – that while retired golfers and working players are paying the same fees one is probably playing far fewer rounds than the other.
“Perhaps it is time to ask exactly what we are offering for the cost of annual membership,” he wrote.
O’Sullivan suggested a fee that covered up to a certain number of rounds per year, with any additional charged on top. Having established that base, it would be far simpler, he argued, to be fairer in introducing other memberships that would be attractive to different groups.
He concluded: “Membership fees of a golf club set at a price regardless of the number of rounds played only suits the retired.
“It’s time to remind ourselves that private members’ golf clubs are custodians of sporting venues that enjoy generous tax advantages. We should therefore set membership fees that are fair to all and not favouring a certain age group.”
There will be golf clubs who might have some issues with that idea, given how the working player can prop up their yields. There would also be a debate about the premium of peak weekend use but, even so, the debate seems to be getting louder.
Those points memberships, once considered part of the race to the bottom, anecdotally seem to be proving ever popular. If more members begin to migrate to those options, because they fit in easier with their lives and represent better value, clubs will have to focus more upon them.
Perhaps the participation boom is at its peak and the overall demand for golf, which has shown no signs of dipping yet if Sports Marketing Surveys’ latest review of rounds played in Great Britain and Ireland is any judge, will begin to fall back towards pre-2020 levels.
But if they do not, and demand for tee times remains busy, clubs will be well aware there’s not much that sends a golfer to the exit door quicker than frustration at not being able to play at the times they want.
Are we about to see a shift in the dynamics of membership? Like many things with golf post-Covid, the future looks very interesting indeed.
What do you think? Is all-you-can-eat-membership here to stay or should we get used to seeing our fees pay for a certain number of rounds? Let me know in the comments, or tweet me.
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