“Visitors’ locker room”. Words that would offend the Trade Descriptions Act.
It’s not actually a room at all, more a shoebox. At one end are collections of pictures that were once hung somewhere proudly but are now collecting cobwebs.
Beside them is a stacked row of pallets. There is barely room to pull a shirt on in here but it’s being used as a second loft.
At another well-heeled club, a glorious day on the course with excellent company is soured when I offer to buy my host and playing partners a drink.
I approach the bar and before I’ve even got the order out of my mouth, the steward has cut me off.
“Who are you?”
It’s not so much a question as an accusation.
At a third club, I am being chased up the fairway by a foursome aggressively demanding to see my papers. They are only sated when, after some anxious fumbling, I finally produce the necessary bag tag.
Trooping into a Durham pub once on a winter Wednesday evening, the room goes full tumbleweed. Everyone in the bar stops, turn their heads and frown at me in unison.
I back a hasty retreat but that uncomfortable tension is all too familiar when stepping through the doors of some golf clubs down the years.
Now, before everyone starts furiously typing, it’s important not to generalise. For the many times I’ve felt eyeballs bearing into my skull I’ve also been greeted warmly and with great welcome at many others and where the facilities were first class.
Bad manners have nothing to do with traditions, either, as many try to claim when recounting an unpleasant experience.
Some of my fondest moments playing this game were at courses like Royal Birkdale, Swinley Forest and Hillside – very traditional clubs with long-standing rules and practices but who could not have been friendlier, from the professional through to the members.
So when I hear the grumbling of dues-paying golfers complaining about guests taking up tee times, and I walk into a visitor’s locker room that looks like a cell block, I do wonder what clubs are trying to achieve.
The last set of figures I saw estimated there were some 600,000 people holding golf club membership in England, while participation rates vary across the rest of the UK.
England Golf’s most recent club membership questionnaire, though, revealed that around two million played the sport at least twice a month.
So the vast majority of golfers are not members of a club. That means there’s a huge wad of cash around that could help save some of our more struggling outfits – if they could only bring themselves to grasp it.
We’re in an era where supply outstrips demand. There are too many golf clubs and some of those have taken a January sales attitude to their green fees.
What that saturated market does is make the experience of visitors all the more important. Because it’s not like you’re the only game in town. If I haven’t had a good day, there are plenty of other places I can and will go.
Each cough and spit is now regurgitated on social media and the internet – with a review site at every corner for a disgruntled payee to vent their frustrations.
Perception matters and if the rumour gets around that the members at this or that club give visitors a hard time, or that they’ll get the third degree if they walk into the shop, they will stay away. Perhaps that’s great for those who want millionaire’s golf. Perhaps it’s not so great for the club coffers.
It’s obviously a balancing act.
If I’m turning up with a fourball on a Saturday morning when your club has got a medal on then you’ve got every right to be piqued.
But neither should the audacity of wanting to play a course where I don’t have a subscription also lead to me being treated like a second-class citizen.
For at clubs where I’ve been a member, mere mention of the word ‘visitor’ has been accompanied by a general groan.
The point, though, is this: As the market gets tougher, as our leisure time continues to contract, the experience we receive is becoming as important as the act of playing itself.
And if isn’t right, then we won’t be back. If you’re going to accept visitors, why not treat us properly? Because your club may soon be dependent on us.
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