Scottish Golf chief Karin Sharp tells NCG about the governing body's next steps to reopening golf

What is the relationship between Scottish Golf and its clubs? How will the sport return in the country after coronavirus? What role will the Venue Management System play in the governing body’s future plans?

We put those questions, and nearly two dozen others, to Scottish Golf chief operating officer Karin Sharp as she spoke to NCG after taking over the reins of the organisation from former chief executive Andrew McKinlay last month.

She also discussed the affiliation fee rebate, the £10 million a month cost clubs are bearing while doors are closed, and the speed of Scottish Golf’s response when the scale of the pandemic first became evident.

So why did Scottish Golf take the decisions they did and how are they planning to move forward? Here are Sharp’s answers…

How do you assess the state of Scottish Golf at the moment during coronavirus?

It’s something we are trying to get a better handle on. We put a survey out to golf clubs about 10 days ago. There were five or six short, sharp, questions we were asking. We’ve had about 160 returns so far and we are encouraging golf clubs to return that data to us.

That’s not just to help us understand the state of the finances but to add weight to conversations we are having with government around other support that might be available.

At the moment, the information is that – on average – a golf club is losing about £20,000 of income per month when courses are closed. If you gross that up with the number of golf clubs we have that’s income of about £10 million a month.

The income loss has been felt across Scotland. 64% of our clubs are telling us they are eligible for grant funding, but that leaves a fairly significant number that are finding themselves caught in a position where grants are not available to them.

We are providing that feedback in our conversations with government to ensure they are aware of those gaps but having current detail that informs the discussion is key for us to present. That’s where the financial health check we requested is something we are hoping to get more golf clubs to complete to ensure that we’ve got that robust information to pass on.

£10 million a month is a huge amount for individual clubs – and the game in Scotland – to bear…

It certainly is. That’s in pure income terms. What has been more challenging to ascertain is what it actually means in net terms. I understand around 75% of employees within the clubs have been furloughed – so their expenditure is ‘netted’ off with some of the additional government support they are getting back through those schemes that are available.

The net impact will be different but, from a pure revenue perspective, £10 million is a significant amount. The challenge, moving forward, includes visitor revenue. That’s a big part for many golf clubs, and not just the ones you would always think.

I had an interesting call with an area last week and they were talking about one of their small golf clubs – out in Argyll & Bute – whose traditional membership revenue is the smaller part of their turnover.

The rest is from holidaymakers. They are not a trophy golf course. The green fee for the club is about £20 but it is a significant part of their revenue and, therefore, we are concerned about the financial future of clubs of a similar vein.

Presumably this would create financial challenges for Scottish Golf, so what is the current situation?

In terms of immediate financial challenges, we’ve got a positive cash position right now but you need to look forward 12-18 months and not just to the here and now. Like any business at the moment, we are looking at the budget plans, the priorities and, most importantly for us, how we can support our golf clubs over that extended timeline.

The financial package that we’ve put together in terms of rebate to golf clubs – and as an organisation we are proud of being the first to have offered a significant rebate back to the golf clubs – was all part of the decision-making process.

What are your immediate priorities for leading Scottish Golf and how could they develop as we move past the pandemic and into the longer term?

The immediate priority and focus is absolutely about supporting the membership and the team here at Scottish Golf to ensure we all come safely through these unprecedented times. We’ve got a number of longer-term projects, in which we were already invested, and they will continue to be a focus for us.

Right now, communication is a priority – engagement with our members, partners and stakeholders to ensure golf collectively can come out of this global pandemic in the best possible place.

Being less than two weeks in I haven’t given a huge amount of thought about further down the line, but the time for that will definitely come. The immediate focus and priority has been on how we can support the golf clubs right now and we can engage and influence the conversations about when golf can safely return.

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Do you acknowledge communications and perception have been an issue? If so, how do you plan to address this?

Undoubtedly in any member organisation, communication is one of the biggest challenges. In part, the fact that the golf clubs are our members, and that’s who our direct line of communication is to, does pose challenges in terms of getting out to the wider golfing public.

It’s something that we are collectively working on, with the areas, counties and golf clubs, as encouraging the sharing of more information is important.

The commitment from me, and the team, is to increase our level of communication and ensure it is open, transparent and provides the detail that the golf clubs have been requesting.

One of the first things I did since taking over was to spend time on Zoom talking to our Area and County Associations individually and the early feedback from the last fortnight on that has been very encouraging.

How do you assess the relationship at present between Scottish Golf and the clubs? What is your message to them?

It’s something that’s a massive opportunity for us moving forwards. We’re probably in that situation, at the moment, where the health and well-being messages that are underpinning a number of public health advice that’s being issued is putting sport and golf in a very strong position moving forwards.

We’ve got an opportunity to collaborate and recognise the changes there have been in society and the opportunity for sport to play a much bigger part moving forwards and how we can all come together to try and encourage more people into the sport.

Why do you think Scottish Golf has had such a high turnover of key staff in recent years?

There are always a number of factors – personal factors – that come into play for individuals. When I started my career, those were the days when you went into a certain sector or activity and you still had that career for life-type approach or mentality from people. That’s absolutely not the case anymore.

For a number of people, the timing and opportunity – in terms of where they were looking to take their careers – just happened to be there at the time.

As an organisation, we have made a number of strategic decisions over the last few years to change the direction of the business. With that comes the need to review the capability of the workforce.

That’s not representative of any individual, in terms of what they were offering to the organisation. But taking things in a slightly different direction, there is sometimes the need for new skills to be brought in and some of that played a part in some of the turnover we have seen as well.

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As we speak, speculation abounds as to when the sport returns. How will that decision to resume be taken in Scotland? Will it be done looking at announcements made by Westminster, and other governing bodies, or through the Scottish Government?

Sport is a devolved decision so it very much will be Scottish government led. We are in regular dialogue with the other home nations, the R&A, and other industry partners.

We are collaborating as an industry to try and ensure that if there’s the opportunity for consistency or guidelines we can deliver that across Great Britain & Ireland but recognise that the ultimate decision will come from the Scottish government.

We will have to adhere to that Scottish government advice. Now the restrictions, and the phasing that might come with it, might need to be slightly different but we are having as much active and collaborative discussion as we can to ensure that we can keep things as consistent as possible.

You have offered clubs a partial rebate on affiliation fees. How have they reacted to that?

It’s early days, if I’m being honest, but through the engagement we’ve had it has been positively received. We committed to putting a process forward to the golf clubs within 14 days to enable them to complete and that has been communicated to them in around 10 days.

The decisions that were taken alongside that, from an events and performance perspective, to have facility for some of those funds to be made available – golf clubs have welcomed putting them at the heart of our decisions.

You mentioned in your recent newsletter that around 40% of affiliation fees had yet to be paid by clubs. Are any refusing to pay?

We haven’t had any notification of refusal to pay from any of the clubs at this time. We are offering payment plans to spread the cost for clubs and, as in any financial year, we work with those clubs whose financial position is challenged to ensure that we find an appropriate plan to suit.

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The rebate was combined with an interest-free payment plan. Will that be enough to get struggling clubs through coronavirus? If not, how else will you help clubs who need it over the next year to 18 months?

The payment plan will hopefully help spread the cost for clubs. Every club is going to be different. The feedback we are getting does vary significantly. One of the key drivers, from a club perspective, is the timing of their own membership renewal date and their own cash flow position.

Moving forward, we are hoping to pull together an additional club support fund. We haven’t been able to quantify the value of that at this time. We are hopeful there might be an opportunity to generate additional funding from external sources.

Equally, any club who is in a financial position where they don’t want to avail of the 25% rebate, we’ve committed that amount will go back into the pot. We’re also reviewing our ongoing operations and ensuring that many savings we are making across the business will go into that support fund.

So hopefully from a means tested perspective, we will potentially have a fund that will be available to support golf clubs.

We’re also looking across a range of other support mechanisms and services that we provide. We have recently started doing weekly webinars, which have been a mix of practical support and advice for clubs mixed in with items that will engage an individual golfer.

These have been very well received and we plan to continue with them longer term. We are also about to launch a new education platform to provide opportunities for a wider cross section of golf volunteers and officials to tap into resources.

That hopefully will support and provide them with a framework to review and potentially reposition their operations coming out of coronavirus.

Could Scottish Golf survive a year without gathering affiliation fees?

More than 60% of our revenue comes from the affiliation fees. To take that away, we’d have to significantly reduce the services and support we can provide across the organisation. It would be difficult to try and absorb a full year’s loss of affiliation fee income and still offer the services to the member clubs that are currently available.

The last affiliation fee rise came with a commitment not to increase until at least 2022 and Andrew McKinlay said he was hoping to delay that even further. Is coronavirus going to change that?

Not at all. Our commitment is that the fee is frozen at £14.50 and we will do what is necessary to ensure that our budget and our deliverables come in within that number.

Could Scottish Golf have moved quicker to help clubs when the pandemic first became evident?

There were so many contributing parts to the decision-making process. Whether that was looking within the team, looking at the furlough scheme and how that would impact on the services and support we could give to clubs, as well as the critical aspect from any business approach – the financial impact and the modelling that needed to be done.

Thorough analysis, and the time that we took to do that to ensure we made an informed decision versus an emotive or knee jerk reaction, was the responsible approach.

What we have put out there, in terms of the best part of £600,000 of support back to the golf clubs, can hopefully be recognised that taking that informed and measured approach got us to a situation where there was a meaningful output on the table.

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What role will the Venue Management System play under your leadership?

It is going to continue to be a key focus for the organisation. We’ve got a strong pipeline of around 240 clubs and well over 100 that are actively in the migration stage.

We are getting really good feedback from those clubs and particularly the engagement during lockdown with those that are running webinars and virtual competitions for membership.

Some of the feedback suggests those sessions are including up to 200 golfers within a club membership at a time. I think there are lots of golf clubs using the opportunity to take a look at the platform and embrace it during this time.

It remains a choice for the golf clubs. It’s a key part of where we’ve committed to supporting golf clubs and that’s not going to change.

Can you explain why it is so central to what Scottish Golf is doing at the moment?

It’s providing our membership with another choice of provider that is inclusive for clubs and golfers and one which we will continue to develop to ensure it’s at the forefront of what club officials and golfers are looking for.

Given the current crisis, the functionality of the competition and scoring aspects of the platform provide a fully digital process from competition entry to digital signing of scorecard to fully comply with competition rules.

Do you understand why it has proved controversial for some?

I think when you are challenging the status quo then that can raise some eyebrows. However, we believe VMS brings clear operational and commercial benefits for our members and for golf in Scotland and, with nearly half of the courses expressing an interest in the first year, we clearly have a lot of support for that view.

We believe VMS can be the foundation that clubs can build on to return golfers to membership in whatever form that takes in the future.

One of the criticisms is the idea that VMS is essentially a tool to get hold of club and golfer data? What can you say to reassure clubs about that?

For clarity, Scottish Golf doesn’t have the data of any of the clubs that are currently in VMS. It’s held by OCS – the same as it would be by any other software supplier.

The only information, or data, that we will hold is that which sits within the Central Database of Handicaps.

Anything else would be for the golfer to give permission to us as a third party to potentially market to them – the same as it would be in terms of adhering to all GDPR regulations. Categorically, we don’t have access to data other than that of handicaps.

Assuming that we come out of lockdown sooner rather than later, and move into next year, what will be the top three priorities for Scottish Golf?

Central to everything we’ll do is the support to golf clubs. Having a strong network can support and underpin all the rest of it in terms of junior engagement, new participants into the sport, the talent pathways, the championships: none of those are possible if we don’t have a strong network of golf clubs.

Everything that we will do in the weeks, months and years ahead will be underpinned by how we support the golf clubs to ensure that vibrant sporting network.

Is the sport speaking with one voice during coronavirus and, if not, why not?

Generally we are trying to speak with one voice. The reality of the political landscape right now does mean that there might need to be some slight differences when devolved governments outline their plans or approach.

We are regularly speaking to the Scottish government and we have all the best interests of the industry at heart and trying to have some consistency there would just make it so much easier.

Will golf be the same sport when it reopens or has this pandemic changed it forever?

There’s probably two parts to that. As I referenced earlier, the public health messages, the health and well-being opportunities that are being embraced by a much wider part of the general public, provide an opportunity for sports such as golf to position themselves as using those benefits of regular exercise and the mental health benefits of golf and those could provide an opportunity after this period of lockdown.

But I think, in the short term, as golf returns, it might well have to be in a slightly different format to what we all consider normal.

Hopefully we will all get back to normal before too long. I do think there is an opportunity, even in that time, to make golf a welcoming and new activity for the wider community to enjoy.

Thanks for stopping by.

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