The pandemic has brought lots of new members and clubs are naturally concentrating on keeping them. But, writes Steve Carroll, they must not forget their loyal servants
I don’t need to stretch the memory back that far to remember when a round felt like millionaire’s golf. Within reason, I just turned up. I could set my competition tee times almost by clockwork – 9am, 9.08am or 9.16am. It was pretty much the same for years.
The introduction of an online booking system changed to that an extent. Then the pandemic blew it out of the water entirely.
Who among us wasn’t surprised by the massive participation boost golf received last summer? Clubs that had feared for their existence were suddenly flooded with applications. Waiting lists, unheard of except at the bigger venues, were once again being wheeled out – such was the demand.
A recent BRS Golf survey revealed 80 per cent of club respondents reported their membership revenues were up, with 35 per cent of those saying they had “increased dramatically”.
Against that backdrop, golf clubs are now focused on keeping their new arrivals for the long term. The same survey revealed the majority of clubs cited ‘new membership retention as the number one priority’.
Some clubs are looking to do that partly through altering the balance between member and visitor play. The theory goes that you prioritise membership, reduce the number of visitor times and charge more for those slots, thereby ensuring income remains constant.
So we’re talking about new members and we’re talking about visitors. Where I’m not seeing a lot of chat – at least in the channels where I roam – is about balancing the expectations of members who’ve been at the club for a length of time.
For it would be dangerous to take those players for granted simply because they’ve shown considerable loyalty in the past. They’re facing playing pressures unseen for decades.
The days of a proportion of members renewing their subscriptions for the status it brings, and occasionally popping down the club to hold court and have a cup of tea, are over.
Golf club membership now feels like any other leisure expense. People pay their fees and expect to utilise them.
The new, and very welcome, influx of players into the game over the last 12 months are definitely of this mind and they are putting new pressure on competition tee times that could soon be causing managers headaches.
Let me give you the example of my home club. In a recent midweek medal, 159 turned out to play. Grabbing a tee time has become an exercise in fastest finger first. Make the mistake of loading up the booking portal five minutes after launch and you’re hunting for scraps.
I’ve heard of clubs catering for well over 200 in a busy event and, as we all know, there are a finite number of tee times in any one day.
Why should this matter? I’ve been all over the place in the short time this season has been up and running. I’ve played at the day’s break and the early-afternoon. I’m flexible, happy to get a time, and it causes me no problems. That is not the same for everyone.
But for golfers like myself, playing in competitions is a vital part of why we are at a club. I’d estimate that, during the period between April and October, around 80 per cent of my rounds involve some kind of event.
I love my club, I’ve been a captain there and currently serve on the committee, but that loyalty is not unquestioning. If I ever found the demand on tee times became such where I couldn’t secure a competition spot, I’d consider my future.
What can clubs do? Demand is demand. Perhaps stalwarts like myself simply have to accept that exclusive use is over for the time being. If so, that’s a delicate job of communication to a group that have largely been used to playing when they want – and how they want – for some considerable time.
There are clubs that have taken the decision to stage competitions over two days to give everyone the best chance of getting out there.
It sounds like an easy solution but for those that like to cram their competition schedules – and I for one love a Saturday board comp/Sunday stableford combo – that’s going to require wielding an axe into traditional calendars.
And does that have an effect on committee funds? You’re getting more players for one event but perhaps fewer than if there two and, therefore, less revenue?
There are no easy answers and it’s a good problem to have, right? One we could only dreamed of just a year ago. As one respondent to the BRS survey said: “Golf in England has been handed a get out of jail free card – it is up to us to use it wisely.”
But while the focus will naturally fall on ensuring those who’ve made the trek across from cricket and rugby, or whatever they previously played, remain avid players and fee payers it would be folly to do that at the expense of those who have kept clubs ticking over for the previous decade.
What are your club doing to reward or retain loyal members? Let us know in the comments below, or you can tweet me.