For the R&A's new chief development officer Phil Anderton, the fact we're talking about dress codes is a step in the right direction. He tells Steve Carroll about his plans
You join The R&A at a very interesting time. We seem to be in a boom for golf. It’s an odd situation that, in a worldwide pandemic, golf is benefiting in terms of participation and increasing membership. How do we seize the moment now? What is the next step to keeping these new players in the game?
There are a number of points. Firstly, although the pandemic is affecting people in terrible ways, and so it almost feels uncomfortable to talk about the upside of it, it is an opportunity for golf and we shouldn’t be complacent in any shape or form and think that we’ve found a solution.
There are clearly reasons why so many people are coming out to play golf – a lot of it due to restrictions on the usual activities they would be taking part in – but I think there is also an awakening to sport being a healthy, outdoor, activity that helps you get out of the home into the fresh air and the camaraderie that it brings as well when people are isolated.
But at no point can we be complacent. So what do we need to do? Well, we have got a real, living, test case at the moment of lapsed golfers and new golfers coming into the sport.
So we need to ask them the question ‘what was your experience? What did you enjoy out of playing golf?’ And more importantly, ‘what are the areas where you had a disappointing experience?’ If we are going to retain these people, the product experience needs to match up to the expectation.
We, at The R&A, are doing research in that area at the moment with those exact people to find out how they felt about the experience and we will be sharing that with the governing bodies.
Secondly, when you are doing well it can sometimes be easy to sit back and go ‘well, it’s all done’.
For example, if we find from the research – and we already know this – that a lot of people don’t have the time to play the 18-hole golf provision. If we know that, and we know that things are probably going to return more back to normal, what are the programmes we can help facilitate that will enable more people to play golf but perhaps in a shorter timescale?
Does that include the existing clubs, whereby they can look at 9-hole facilities? Does that mean we have more of the types of facilities where people can go along not just to play golf but to have some food and beverage and the use of technology and so on?
That’s one of the reasons why we are looking at the facility in Glasgow – to provide that type of facility – because we think that, in combination with the excellent product that a lot of clubs in the UK and around the world put on, that will be the winning combination: of having more, full, on course golf year round but also complementing that with products that meet the needs of specific groups better than the more traditional style of golf.
There are a number of areas there that I think we have to get right, irrespective of what has gone on with the pandemic.
Some of those ideas you’ve outlined may require a culture change from the sport. From the traditionalists who might say ‘golf is 18 holes’ to others who will argue ‘why not six?’ How do you get those two views balanced?
There will always be, and rightly in quite a few cases, clubs that are complete believers in 18 hole golf and that is it and they don’t want to change. Why should they change? Their members are very happy and that delivers exactly against their needs and good luck to them. There are many clubs that do a great job in that area.
But at the other clubs, where the forces of competition were perhaps knocking on their door before, they need to be looking at the best practices that are taking place not just in the UK but all around the world.
That’s where I think The R&A can come in and support. I can talk to you about great examples of work that clubs have been doing to bring in technology on their driving ranges, creating driving ranges they never had and introducing 6-hole courses.
There is the work Golf Foundation is doing around Golf Sixes. There’s a whole host of things people can do, they just need to have the knowledge of how to do it.
There is also the financial side as well. Again that’s where The R&A can play a role.
Not on our own, but by putting a pound in that can then be matched by local authorities, for example, or by an affiliation, or matched by a number of clubs, we can then get behind a significant project to prove this is the way we can take the sport forward.
That’s where I think The R&A can make that change. It is not a case of ’18 holes only = bad and we need to change all that’.
Clearly, 18-hole golf is the bedrock of golf and we want to see that continuing and thriving. But what we have to recognise as a sport is that for the consumer, the golfer, or the prospective golfer, needs are changing.
A lot of their needs are changing – because of work, because of time, because of culture. For a lot of golf clubs, you either adapt and come up to par and deliver products that meet the needs of those people or you decline.
It is a choice, frankly, for many of the clubs. We at The R&A will do our best to support that by providing a blueprint, by doing it ourselves as we are up in Glasgow, by providing financial support to help get these things off the ground and then by showcasing the best examples out there.
Sustainability is also a key part of your role. The world is changing rapidly and golf’s going to have to change too – whether that’s around declining use of chemicals or future availability of water. How do we get the sport to become more sustainable?
I think a lot of people think of sustainability as just a ‘do gooding’ activity when, actually, it’s fundamental to the prosperity of golf in the future.
It’s restrictions of types of products like pesticides, use of water, climate change, coastal erosion, you name it, and that’s why I think it’s vital that The R&A play that leading role to really understand what the priority issues are for golf in the future in this area and work up practical solutions that we can then cascade down to federations who can cascade it down to clubs.
Building that understanding and solution base for the infrastructure is the first thing that absolutely needs to happen.
The second part is how to make golfers understand the importance of this and why certain things will be changing. I see that as part of our promotional campaign and we could do more to talk about the positive stories that already exist and the impact they are having.
I certainly didn’t know that a body like the RSPB is a partner of The R&A and our work in sustainability, because they see the benefit that golf provides to nature.
It is taking those great stories and communicating them through the media, through clubhouses, so we can say ‘here’s what’s happening, here are the dangers ahead, here are the benefits, here are the changes we need to make to enable golf to continue to thrive’ and so we can buy into that as opposed to railing against your club because the fairways may be a bit harder or drier than they were in the past.
For me, it’s fixing the core problems that are coming our way and then promoting it as widely as we can.
If that means Suzann Pettersen, and other people, publicly talking about these things, and all the tools we have got through our platform and others, at the clubs and federations, and doing it in such a way that it is communicated in simple, easily understood language, that’s the way we begin to change perceptions and attitudes towards this really important topic.
What do you think of the R&A’s plans? Let me know in the comments, or tweet me.
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