Golf participation statistics are a stark reality check for clubs

The Scoop

Golf numbers are dwindling to the tune of about half a million players, and guest NCG columnist Judith Matharu thinks she knows why...

As a keen golfer, listening to ‘In the Rough, Golf’s Uncertain Future’ on Radio 4 proved fascinating. It prompted me to check the golf participation statistics. This confirmed my suspicions.

Considering golf data from Statista, the statistics portal regarding golf participation in England from 2007 to 2016, the conclusion is that, as of September 2016, approximately 1.13 million adults in England play golf on a monthly basis. Since 2007, the number of golf players has thus been decreasing from about 1.54m players. This makes a decrease of about 27 per cent over eight years.

It seems clubs are closing and players are moving into new physical activities.

Sport England’s ‘Active People Survey’ has also been monitoring the number of people playing golf since 2008, when the sport had more than 1.54m monthly participants. There was slightly better news for weekly golf participation in Britain in the last year. Sport England suggested that the number of people playing golf weekly stands at 740,100, a rise of nearly 10,000 in a year, but still nearly 200,000 fewer than seven years ago.

So what is happening to golf and why are fewer players participating in the sport in 2017?

Why are many of them, according to Radio 4, moving into the gym or getting into cycling? The Golf Associations acknowledge there are some underlying issues. There is a dearth of, in particular, female and young players, with most golf clubs acknowledging a predominance of senior male members.

England Golf is running a number of fairly high-profile campaigns to promote the game and challenge the stuffy image of the sport but some fundamental ‘elephants in the room’ still need challenging at club level.

The cost of the sport aside – no-one can deny that golf is expensive in terms of club membership and the cost of the equipment (why don’t clubs invest in sets of clubs to encourage a ‘try before you buy’ approach for all newcomers to the game and not just juniors?) – six additional factors appear true in one degree or another in far too many clubs and are, individually or collectively, contributing to this problem.

1. Newsflash: New members are a good thing

A prevailing atmosphere of sometimes overt, frequently covert snobbery still exists in too many clubs.

The preserve of an elitist culture that does not welcome new faces readily, despite all the rhetoric and the inevitable fancy membership deals for new members, there are usually all sorts of barriers to overcome to actually join most golf clubs, never mind the clubhouse. Sadly, too many existing members are often suspicious of new players.

Some of these, heaven forbid, might actually have promise, be successful and with the potential to challenge the status quo. Despite seeking coaching and practising constantly to improve their game, these ‘newbies’ have the damn nerve to win a few things off their too-high handicaps, are certain to be labelled as bandits in the club bar, feel uncomfortable and begin to wonder if this is the right sport for them or whether to turn their considerable sporting talents elsewhere.

2. The power of quality

How about realising the UK’s equality legislation of 2010? (Yes, guys, it is actually the law of the land.) A culture of sexism remains apparent in many clubs where females can only play at certain times, because male dominance in weekend competitions still prevails in many clubs together with a complete lack of understanding that in 2017 some female golfers do actually work too and might also want to play twice at the weekend in order to get value from their expensive membership fees.

The manner in which some clubs appoint their club captains remains archaic. The private nod and handshake between male members persists. Despite some enlightened clubs moving with the times, the glass ceiling remains pretty low in many clubs.

Know your place, ladies, the best you can expect is to be lady captain in many clubs.

3. The kids are, in fact, alright

Far from encouraging, supporting and embracing junior players and adopting an active, meaningful youth development strategy – “Good God, you mean we should actually play with them?” – you frequently find a youth policy that exists in name only and does absolutely nothing to challenge an atmosphere of, at best, tolerant indifference and, at worst, open hostility towards junior players.

All the beginner coaching courses in the world do not help or support juniors to bridge that huge gap between beginner coaching and actually getting onto the course with other golfers to play a few holes.

So many of them have the generic ‘free’ coaching on offer in the summer holidays (!) so the club can point to its junior development strategy with pride, but never actually transition to the next stage of membership.

4. I’m an adult, let me dress myself

An insistence on various clothing etiquette rules that appear to have changed little for centuries. You must have a collar on your shirt.

(I could never understand this. Does the presence of this collar help one hit the ball better?)

If you are male you must have white socks with your tailored shorts in summer months, but female players can have any colour socks? And females may have their shirts loosely outside their trousers to preserve their female dignity but men must have them tucked in?

The professional game for ladies is changing in terms of dress codes but it seems this does not extend to club level. So, we all continue to collude and look stupid together and perpetuate the myth that to dress in this way represents some sort of gold standard and you actually know how to behave on the course with impeccable etiquette.

Some of the biggest idiots I have ever met on the golf course were in immaculate golfing attire. The dress rules are not confined to the course; they continue inside the clubhouse where the gentlemen swelter in 80 degrees until Mr Captain announces they may remove their jackets.

Again, ladies are not required to comply with this convention, probably because when the tradition was first conceived, no-one imagined ladies could possibly be in the clubhouse anyway.

5. We do have other things to do, you know?

The time taken for your round is a big inhibitor. Various rules and traditional etiquettes of the game slow the game down to snail’s pace and ensure your round lasts for ever, which is completely unreasonable given the pressures on everyone’s time nowadays.

ready golfYou must hit strictly in turn according to the distance of your ball to the pin, regardless of whether you are actually ready to play or the location of your trolley and clubs; you take umpteen practice swings and weigh up your putts from every conceivable angle; you amble around the course, apparently searching for stray balls forever, even pausing at the ponds to see if you might be able to retrieve some that are not actually yours, without ever calling others through who are waiting patiently behind.

An insistence by many clubs, despite the new GolfSixes game being introduced to jazz up the sport at a professional level, that it’s not a ‘proper golf game’ unless it is waged over a full 18 holes, and a separatist attitude and general reluctance against having mixed, family or even general 9-hole ‘fun’ competitions that all might participate in.

Evidently, golf cannot just be ‘fun’ – it is clearly against the rules.

6. This is your final warning

The atmosphere in some club houses is often off-putting to say the least. In some clubs, you may not enter without a collar and tie! Quiet and restrained is the order of the day otherwise you might attract unwelcome attention, while unseemly behaviour is worthy of chastisement from Mr Captain or Mr President (you will know this person as his photo is often found above the bar) or, at worst, a letter from the committee requesting you to display more appropriate behaviour and to please take this as an official warning or next time you may be asked to appear in front of the committee to explain yourself.

And we wonder why people are not staying with golf? Golf club management teams and golf club members, let’s have a serious reality check please and take a long, hard, 360-degree look at all of the issues: the ethos, the atmosphere, the rules, the endless, inexplicable traditions that cannot be tampered with and let’s try much harder to move with the times.

Otherwise we may as well all dig out our cycling gear.

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