NCG talked to England Golf chief executive Jeremy Tomlinson about the governing body's response to coronavirus and when the sport may be able to resume
Why did England Golf instruct clubs and courses to close? How will the decision to resume play be taken? And can the governing body help clubs who are financially struggling because of the coronavirus pandemic?
That trio of questions were among the better part of two dozen we put to chief executive Jeremy Tomlinson on a range of topics – from his thoughts on playing with social distancing to the issue of affiliation fees and the World Handicap System.
Tomlinson took the reins at Woodhall Spa from predecessor Nick Pink in January and almost immediately found himself pitched into leading the sport in England during a pandemic.
After the Government declared a lockdown on March 23, the governing body told their affiliated clubs they must close their doors. This week, they issued a ‘Keep the Faith’ message and their ‘Play Safe, Stay Safe’ guides to clubs to prepare for the eventual resumption of the game.
So why did England Golf take the decisions they did and what are the plans for the future? Here are Tomlinson’s answers…
Can you outline how the decision to close golf courses was taken? Was there any pressure from government to act as you did?
It was evident following the Prime Minister’s statement of March 23 that the UK had entered a new and critical phase in the fight against coronavirus and we had to support the actions to protect the NHS.
We had planned ahead for that moment and there was unanimity within England Golf that the instruction to stay home, with further restrictions on travel and social gathering, meant that courses and facilities had to close as part of the huge national effort to protect public health.
This was a decision endorsed by the other home nations, The R&A, and, of course, other countries across Europe. As a golf club member of 45 years standing, closing courses was a difficult decision to make.
The clear and decisive action my team necessarily took that Monday night was not something I envisaged when I took over this role.
However, as the CEO of England Golf with a wider responsibility, it was the reasonable and proportionate response to a national crisis and is a decision validated by government in conversations with me and other staff members.
Would you do the same thing again, for example, in the event of a second wave of Covid-19 at a later date?
Closing courses was done on the back of government guidance and their expert medical advice. Again, this was not a decision we took without considering the consequences.
But at the same time, if the same situation arose again in the future then, yes – the responsible and appropriate course of action would be to respond to government, acting in the right way to protect public health.
How will be the decision to resume be taken? Will that be dictated by government or will England Golf have the autonomy to make it?
Let me be clear on this – throughout the shutdown we have been in continual communication with the home nations, The R&A, PGA, BIGGA, GCMA and others in the industry.
There has been a spirit of collaboration like never before and it is important that the golf business speaks as one on key matters to do with the game at this time.
Having held many individual conversations with the Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport and, on occasion, presented to the Sports Minister there has also been a collective approach when appropriate.
We wholeheartedly support the spirit of guidance and acting in the national interest. We also unwaveringly champion the safe return of playing golf as soon as it is possible.
Our ‘Play Safe, Stay Safe’ guidelines issued this week to clubs ahead of a future return for golf provide a solid foundation for the re-start whenever that may be.
Ultimately, though, it is a matter for government to allow a return to playing the game.
To what extent is it crucial to get golf courses open again as soon as possible (in some form)?
I understand the big question right now is ‘when will golf return?’ For us it’s just as important to ask, ‘how will golf return?’.
I would urge everyone who loves the game to keep the faith right now and make sure this great game of ours not only does the right thing but is widely acknowledged for doing the right thing.
We must continue to act responsibly. Now is not a time to break ranks and think golf can somehow ‘get round’ the current guidelines and hasten a return.
This is for the long-term good of a game we all love. The crucial thing is to make sure it is safe for golf to return.
We can’t do things that unnecessarily increase the pressure on our NHS and other vital services or risk undoing all the sacrifices the country has made over the past five weeks.
That must be everyone’s primary concern. We were strong in our original thought process to close courses, have remained consistent ever since 23 March and the response from the huge majority of golfers and golf clubs since that date has been exemplary.
It has only been a little over a month since golf closed down, but it already feels like a lifetime.
Lockdown is tough on everyone and it has been frustrating, but with a little more patience, golf can return.
Golf is important in all our lives, but right now it has to be secondary to matters of public health.
There’s a rising sentiment among some golfers, and clubs, that England Golf didn’t have ’the right’ to instruct clubs to close. Does England Golf fear, as sectors of society start to be released from lockdown, that some clubs may go rogue and damage the collective stance?
As before I urge everybody who loves the game to keep the faith and as a sport see this lockdown through.
Do you believe it is practically possible to play golf while observing social distancing?
Yes! Golf is a game where social distancing naturally takes place. However, golfers will still have to adapt when the game initially resumes.
Playing the way we have always done will not be possible as there are still health risks from the moment you arrive at the club and step out your car until you return to the car after play.
England Golf is part of a working group which has collaborated on strict guidance on how to play the game when the time is right. Golfers cannot be cavalier or complacent when the game returns.
Everyone is champing at the bit for golf to return, but golfers will need to be educated on the ‘Play Safe, Stay Safe’ guidelines circulated this week and adhere to them.
This a great opportunity for golfers to set an example, to take pride in our game and show compassion in difficult circumstances.
There has been a campaign to allow public access to golf course land. England Golf expressed their view to DCMS about this. Can you reveal what was said?
Our stance on this was clear from the start and relayed to government – we felt strongly that it would not be right for a blanket decision to be made that turned over golf course land for public access.
This is a decision for the individual club. They are better placed to make that judgement based on localised issues of safety, security, suitability and access.
Many clubs have been unable to access grants because of the rateable value of their land. What’s England Golf’s view on this loophole that seems to be causing a lot of damage to clubs that are financially stretched?
This is a subject that we have been proactive on from the start in lobbying government. Many of our golf clubs were caught out as their rateable value increased because of the acreage of their site rather than the size and turnover of the business.
We will continue to highlight our huge concerns regarding the financial wellbeing of many of our golf clubs and lobby for the fairest and most appropriate of decision-making in consideration of grant applications.
What can England Golf do from a financial point of view to support clubs who may be struggling?
England Golf does not carry huge reserves, we are a not-for-profit national governing body supporting the amateur game and as such are not in a position to offer cash support on a nationwide scale.
Mindful of the impact on golf clubs both financially and operationally from the start of lockdown we moved swiftly to offer support, advice and guidance.
We have also continued to work expediently signposting government support measures as well as emergency funding from Sport England through the extensive coronavirus (COVID-19) update pages on our website.
Could England Golf sustain itself with a year without affiliation fees?
The simple and honest answer is no. We receive 70 per cent of our income via affiliation fees. In the same way as many clubs rely on membership subscriptions for the bulk of their income, we require affiliation fees in order to carry out our work on behalf of golfers, clubs and counties.
Have any clubs/counties failed or been unable to deliver collected fees?
We have always been prepared to help clubs in dire straits or in emergency circumstances.
Our affiliation fee collection process is already pretty flexible with golf clubs only paying members’ affiliation fees once they have collected their own subscriptions. This is normally two to three months prior to our collection and allows clubs payment dates to match their own peak cashflow months.
England Golf and county affiliation fees should always be shown as separate items on members’ subscriptions ensuring that clubs do not count them as part of their own income.
Will the recession/depression coming our way see the end of the casual golfer, or it is more likely embracing the independent player will be the way for clubs to achieve income (assuming membership falls in the same way it did following the financial crisis of 2008)?
Golf was already undergoing a process of change and modernisation prior to this outbreak and that will continue. Golf is a game for everyone – it can be social, competitive, friendly, healthy or a combination of all these attributes.
Joining a golf club and being a part of that community has always been my choice, but there are many independent golfers who elect to enjoy the game in a different way.
The bottom line is we all love the game, we all enjoy holing that birdie putt, or smacking a drive down the middle.
There has to be a way to make sure everyone who shares a passion for the game is made to feel welcome and encouraged to develop along a path that ultimately can lead to golf club membership.
On Championships, England Golf will look to resume in late July. Given other bodies have taken a different view (Scottish Golf cancelled their entire season), could you outline the reasons for continuing with a revised schedule?
We felt it was our duty and responsibility to revise our schedule and plan for a positive second half of the season allowing our championships to start up again week commencing 27 July.
We strongly believe in presenting a light at the end of the tunnel for golfers of all standards incorporating elite and handicap competitions. This has been warmly received.
Our championship director James Crampton and his team have worked tirelessly to re-arrange 24 of our events covering juniors, seniors, men and women inclusive of our popular members’ and captains’ programmes.
If the circumstances allow, we aim to start back with a history-making week that would showcase the best of English men’s and women’s golf at the same time at the same location – Woodhall Spa Golf Club. This would be a true celebration of all that’s good about the amateur game.
Our clubs and counties have been tremendous in supporting our attempts to carry on with a programme for the latter half of the season.
Our prestigious County Finals remain on the roster with new formats in place to ensure these flagship events have a chance to be staged and potentially bring down the curtain on what would be a uniquely challenging season for England Golf.
Couldn’t the amateur calendar simply be pushed back a year, in the same way the Open has been?
Yes it could – but with information and advice to hand we still feel it is appropriate to plan a provisional and abbreviated schedule primarily designed to celebrate our great game.
The World Handicap System is due to come into effect in England in November. Could this pandemic mean a delay?
The World Handicap System will be a positive step for the game of golf in this country and it remains on track for the November 2 launch date.
The technology to run WHS has been developed and a large number of educational club workshops took place before the shutdown all across England.
A campaign to educate golfers will be rolled out from May. People worry about change, but once golfers understand the new system, I’m convinced they will adapt very quickly. It doesn’t change how the game is played – just how handicaps are calculated.
Will golf fundamentally be the same again whenever it does re-open or will this change the sport forever?
In the short-term when golf returns it is likely that social distancing will change the way we play the game.
But the fundamentals of our great game will remain. I have been struck by how much golf means to the people of this country and that fills me with optimism.
It’s true – you don’t know how much you care about something until it’s taken away from you.
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