One of the most important parts of the membership experience is under attack. In his From the Clubhouse column, Steve Carroll puts up a passionate defence
Everyone was welcome. It didn’t matter who you were – veteran member, just signed the forms, man, woman, or child – if you turned up around 9am on Saturday and Sunday, on non-competition days, you could chuck in a ball and be assured of a game.
Sometimes it barely attracted a three-ball. Once, 24 turned up. But for those three or four tee-times – phoned in week in and week out for years – everyone knew where they were.
It was a lifeline for me. I’d flitted from club to club, not feeling like I fitted in. I’d play with different people in competitions but struggled to form bonds over those brief few hours. Mostly, I played alone and when renewals time came around it was easy to justify moving on. It wasn’t like I was really leaving anyone behind.
But this time it was different. The people I met during that loose roll-up became firm friends. We went on nights out, took in golf trips all over the country, and my love of the game only deepened – particularly as it became my full-time job.
Then computerised tee-time booking arrived. Suddenly it was fastest fingers first and there was plenty of competition for those coveted slots. Having enough of us co-ordinated to get three or four times in a row proved almost impossible.
Many of you will argue that this is only fair. Why should a small group in a much larger membership dominate the same times every week, even if everyone had always been able to join in?
I wouldn’t disagree with your point of view. But what it did was split our group asunder – casting some people who’d hit shots together for years all over the tee sheet.
Gradually, I drifted away from some of those with whom I’d played for so long and, for many varied and other reasons, others left the club entirely.
I’ve recently joined somewhere new and felt familiar feelings of uncertainty. They say the key time for a club trying to keep a new member is that first year. It’s crucial to try and get them embedded, and happy, in their new environment.
This club has a buddy system – the captain rang and invited me for a game. And then he told me all about the hat.
Principally, it happens three times a week: Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and for an hour around lunchtime, there is a reserved block of times where anyone can put their names down and turn up.
That timing is not always ideal for the working person, but I’ve enough flexibility in my role that I’ve now done it twice. I’ve played with different people each time and spent an hour or so afterwards chatting with the whole group.
If you’re fresh at a golf club, and have that opportunity, I can’t think of a better way to meet new people and get the feel for the establishment.
It’s still early days but I now walk into the bar and see familiar faces. It has helped me feel like I belong.
And yet, at some clubs across the UK, the traditional roll-up as we know it is under threat. Whether you used to rock up at your leisure, or play at a fixed time, Covid arrived and dealing with the virus meant a compulsion for everyone to book tees. The relaxation of restrictions then gave clubs a tough choice to make and it split some locker rooms.
There will always be those who resent the very idea that there are any sort of barriers preventing their ability to play – even if they’ve no intention of ever taking it up.
But there are also experts warning that the overall success of golf’s pandemic participation boom may depend on those members who flocked in after lockdown knowing exactly when they are able to play.
Sports Marketing Surveys’ Richard Payne said the new generation of golfers were unequivocal. Among time-poor players, the ability to book a slot at a time that suited would be integral in keeping them retained at clubs.
Golf, of course, has to adapt. Hybrid systems, as I’m now experiencing and which have roll-up times offered alongside fixed tee booking slots, offer the best of both worlds and seem an easy fix to a difficult problem – even if not everyone is always satisfied with the outcome.
But for those who want to rule out roll-ups altogether, it would be sad if what, for me and so many others, has provided such an enjoyable golfing experience is simply allowed to slip away.
What do you think? Are roll-ups a pivotal part of the golf club membership experience or should it be tee-bookings all the way? Let me know in the comments, or tweet me.