Clubs can't compete in this dog-eat-dog world if they are still run on the same principles they were 100 years ago, argues Steve Carroll

If you drop into a supermarket to buy a loaf of bread, do you hold a meeting with the family before you pop out?

Of course you don’t. But if you can stretch out this, admittedly, simple analogy, this basic principle is how many of our private members’ golf clubs are still run.

Let’s say a manager has identified a membership drain.

They’re losing younger people, who are time pressured, starting families, and don’t see the value of staying on as a traditional five- or seven-day member.

The manager wants to introduce flexible membership options to try and cater for the needs of this group – because keeping them in the club helps the bottom line.

This is a relatively straightforward idea, but it’s far from easy to implement. That’s because it might have to jump through a series of hoops.

A membership sub-committee might get the first chance to discuss it. Then an overall committee meeting, and perhaps a captain or chairperson, can weigh in on the matter.

If the idea is controversial enough, a full meeting of the membership may be needed to decide whether it’s acceptable.

At any stage in this process, dissenting voices could torpedo this scheme. And they may not always have the club’s best interest at heart.

Maybe those on the membership committee don’t like the idea of people at the golf club who are paying less than them.

Maybe the chairperson believes tailoring packages around the needs of customers is symbolic of the latest buzz phrase in golf – the ‘race to the bottom’.

There’s a list of obstacles to avoid and what can happen when it finally gets through these bewildering layers?

It might have taken so long to agree that the group the manager was trying to cater for in the first place has either lost interest or found a new club.

Then everyone tears their hair out wondering why they are not making a profit (or surplus), why they are struggling for members and why they can’t engage younger people and those who have drifted out of the game.

I talk to club managers all the time and many are united in their sense of frustration as their hands are tied by a committee structure that was basically designed a century ago.

The involvement and control of that committee, and their various sub-groups, can veer from the beneficial to the ridiculous.

golf club committees

Secretaries and managers speak of committee members who only open their envelopes of meeting papers as they walk inside the room.

There are those who are there not for the benefit of the club, but for the kudos they think it gives them. So they can walk into the bar and tell their mates how they’re in charge.

I’ve heard too many horror stories from club employees – inside the clubhouse and out on the course – who have suddenly found themselves under fire as a new regime comes in with axes to grind and scores to settle.

Because these groups are never constant. It’s a revolving door of faces as people serve their terms and are replaced by others who come in out of the cold and have to learn what it’s all about on the fly.

A manager at a very well known club once told me that successful businessmen, who’ve made millions in their day jobs, come on to a committee and leave their brains at the door.

Think about it. This whole structure is a mad way to run a business.

I’d never walk into a bank and start handing out financial advice so why does a greens chairperson, whose extent of agronomic knowledge may go no further than tending to their lawn, feel the need to tell a head greenkeeper how to go about their job?

What are their qualifications? When a club employs an expert to do a job, doesn’t it seem sensible to let them do that?

Committees are, of course, generally well meaning. They are volunteers who are passionate about their club. But passion and pragmatism are two different things.

In a modern business, emotion needs to be left at the door. There must be clarity of purpose and a long-term, well-structured plan to drive that entity forward.

Not schemes that change on a whim because the new captain isn’t a fan, or wants to fill in a bunker on the basis that their ball finds it week after week.

There are private members’ clubs have moved forward. They’ve recognised this potential weakness and some have converted into limited companies.

Controlled by a board, with experts from inside and outside the club responsible for defined departments, they can react quickly and more decisively.

Their meetings are staffed with people who know what they are talking about. They bring business acumen, as well as a love of golf, to the role.

Royal Norwich

Many clubs that have changed their approach are now thriving. The likes of Royal Norwich, Parkstone and Worplesdon – all with long histories and traditions – are feeling the benefits of having shorn themselves of a cumbersome governance structure.

That doesn’t mean that members shouldn’t have a say. What sets a private members’ club apart is the shared sense of ownership a collective have in willing their organisation to do well.

But clubs also need to strip away the reams of bureaucracy that hold sensible decisions up.

They need to adopt a structure that’s fit for the modern age – one that’s far removed from the old view of drinking clubs, fancy dinners and jackets and ties.

Then golf can start to make inroads and perhaps we can stem the tide of clubs that are struggling.

Steve Carroll

A journalist for 23 years, Steve has been immersed in club golf for almost as long. A former captain and committee member, he has passed the Level 3 Rules of Golf exam with distinction having attended the national Tournament Administrators and Referee's Seminar. He has officiated at a host of high-profile tournaments, including Open Regional Qualifying and the PGA Fourball Championship. A member of NCG's Top 100s panel, Steve has a particular love of links golf and is frantically trying to restore his single-figure handicap.

Handicap: 10.9

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