Rock up at your leisure or play at a fixed time? It's golf's post-Covid civil war. And, warns one expert, it needs dealing with delicately

Golfers love one or the other and embrace their choice with a passionate fervour. Now Covid’s come along and split the locker room. How do you sort out the thorny issue of tee time bookings vs roll-ups?

For many, a roll-up is what being a member is all about. A chance to come down at leisure, without appointment, pop a ball in the hat or throw it up in the air and see what fate brings.

It’s gloriously unpredictable, a great way of integrating players, and the foundation on which some of our most prestigious clubs were built.

Coronavirus, though, forced even the most traditional into a rethink. With clubs subject to strict control measures, plenty brought in tee booking software for the first time.

More than a year later, using a phone or computer to arrange a round of golf has become second nature.

New golfers, attracted to the sport because they could play it safely during the pandemic, know nothing else.

But restrictions have eased and clubs have had to make choices: keep tee booking in place, reintroduce the roll-up, or put together a hybrid and look to get the best of both worlds. It has not been an easy decision, and it’s been almost impossible to please everyone.

“When we switched over to using a tee booking system, I think it was clear that some people loved it and some people didn’t,” one club manager at a renowned private members’ establishment said.

“Some were very keen to get rid of it at the first possible opportunity, while others would have preferred us to keep it. We’ve gone back to how it used to be.

“It’s really divided opinion. I think it’s probably 50/50 – maybe slightly more in favour of not having it than having it. It’s difficult to say.”

What’s making the decision more complicated is data which shows newer members are clearly in favour of keeping fixed booking – and it’s these players that clubs are so desperate to keep as we start to move into a post-pandemic golf era.

Outlining the results of a huge participation survey in a webinar hosted by the Golf Club Managers’ Association, Richard Payne, director of Sports Marketing Surveys, revealed the impact it could have on the coronavirus boom.

“Unequivocally from new golfers, and particularly among time poor golfers, being able to know they could book a slot was something which has brought golfers and individuals back to the game and will be integral in keeping them retained as well,” he said.

He added: “From that new golfer perspective, it’s absolutely imperative that you can book tee times and you know you can play when you said you’re going to play.

“If time commitments and flexibility are the buzzwords to take out from this, not knowing when you roll up to a golf club whether or not you’re going to get on the course is going to only damage those new golfers getting into the sport.”

And yet, looking from the other side, the experience of some clubs has been that fixed tee booking hasn’t always been utopian.

The manager said: “One of the problems with it was some people were almost panic booking and were booking tee times because, if they didn’t, they might not have been able to play.

“Then they weren’t always turning up. It gives the impression the course is full. Well, actually, it’s not.”

Is there a solution? Payne advised clubs against taking too much heed of those shouting the loudest. He urged them to ask their memberships what they wanted.

“Let’s not be dictated by a handful of people who are saying they want to return to the old without asking the rest of the membership.

“You might find that, actually, if 60 to 70 per cent of the rest of the membership still want to keep that tee booking system then that’s going to outweigh what those few vocal people are saying. Now, it might be the other way round.”

He added: “If you’re a private members’ golf club, you’ve asked your members what they want, and they don’t want it, then you’ve got your answer.”

What if they can’t decide?

“Some members had asked, ‘Could we have not put it out to a vote?’ I’m not sure that would have resolved the problem, because I think it would have come back as a fairly split decision,” the private members’ club manager explained.  

“At the end of the day, the board are elected to make these decisions on behalf of the membership. It’s not practical to go to a vote every time you need to make a decision. We’ll see how it gets on.”

But as golf looks at how to maintain its participation boom, ahead of a subscription renewals period where the sport will once again go up against traditional leisure rivals, Payne said the message SMS was receiving was clear.

“Definitely, if you are a golf club trying to get new people into the sport, and you’re trying to get those new golfers and new members coming to you, they are all telling us that tee time booking systems are an important part of that jigsaw.”

Tee time bookings or roll-ups?

What do you prefer in the tee time bookings vs roll-ups debate and how does your golf club manage it? Let me know in the comments below, or tweet me.

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