A scheme to offer ‘independent golfers’ an official handicap has drawn ire from clubs and unions and, says Steve Carroll, suggests that the very concept of traditional membership is under threat
Why am I a member of a golf club?
Is it for competitions? Once upon a time, maybe, but my ever-rising scores over the years mean I am increasingly unlikely to get near the honours board.
Is it for the craic? Perhaps, but the large group I once congregated among has dwindled as life has got in the way.
Is it habit? To an extent – I’ve spent more than 13 years at my main club and a weekend without a visit feels oddly unsettling.
But when it comes down to it, the most compelling reason for me to be a member is access to an official handicap.
So when I first looked at England Golf’s discussion paper on the Independent Golfer, the scheme jumped right off the pages. It just sounded like something that would suit me.
And that’s the exact opposite of what is supposed to happen.
It’s obvious why England Golf are so keen to engage with the nomad golfer, who is happy to pay and play but doesn’t necessarily want to be a 7-day member.
There are around 630,000 players holding membership but there are a further two million in England who play up to twice a month.
That’s a lot of untapped resource and England Golf would love to be able to prove to Sport England, whose funding they are so dependent on, that these golfers really exist.
The scheme is designed to be a gateway for the casual golfer towards club membership. But it seems to me that the unintended consequence could be thousands people like me considering a move in the opposite direction.
For those of us currently paying out a lump sum every year to attach ourselves to a club, the temptation of being able to hold and use our handicap while enjoying an ever-widening selection of courses could be extremely appealing.
Take away the requirement effectively forcing golfers to be club members in order to hold a bona fide handicap and I reckon there are plenty who would consider their options.
It’s why the Yorkshire and Lancashire county unions have come out so strongly against the proposals, which would see the governing body acting as a virtual golf club, with the ability to give that handicap seal of approval.
Many clubs are desperate to keep players in a 12-month contract and it’s not difficult to see why. From a budgetary position alone, it’s beneficial to know what your core revenue is and how you’re going to use it.
What if that model no longer fits the needs of lots of those who want to consume your product?
And for those who doubt that, just consider the numbers again. Two million is greater than 630,000.
For decades, clubs have had their own way. Even the emergence of cheap tee time websites, significantly impacting membership numbers, hasn’t changed that attitude.
Rather than rail at the injustice of handicapping being made more equitable, the clubs, counties and national governing body need to work together to maintain the values of membership while widening opportunities for people to play the game – in whatever way they choose.
It’s not over-stating the case to say the very future of the system of golf club membership in this country is at stake – and that’s an issue that goes a long way beyond England’s Golf’s proposed scheme.