Unless the sport finds a way to get younger people on the books, argues Steve Carroll, golf club membership as we know it is a ticking time bomb
Here’s a statistic for you. Between 2014 and 2018, according to England Golf’s golf club membership questionnaire, the average number of members at your course increased.
The rise was modest, from 466 to 484, but after a decade of decline and stagnation it was interpreted by many as a cause for celebration. Finally a fillip – the slump might actually be over.
But here’s some more numbers from that survey. It revealed the bounce had come in very specific areas. The average number of members in the 55-64 age bracket had risen from 109 to 115 and the over 65 category had soared from 148 to 190.
In every other age group, those member stats had either stayed roughly the same or had even fallen.
In fact there were more members in that oldest bracket than in every other from birth to 44 combined.
These results were a snapshot – the view of 426 clubs, of which 70 per cent were members’ institutions – but a revealing one nonetheless.
Then some figures from HowDidIDo dropped on my desk. They had a little surprise enclosed. There was a detailed breakdown of the number of competition rounds, by age, played during June.
If I were a golf club manager, these would be giving me sleepless nights.
There were just 575 rounds counted, nationally, from women aged 18-24 in that 30-day period.
It was even worse in the 25-29 and 30-34 age groups, with 380 and 351 respectively.
There was little to cheer about, comparatively speaking, for the men either. 25,481 rounds recorded by those aged 25-29 sounds great until you see that the 55-59 group stuck 90,444 scorecards into the box in the same month.
Golf has always had an age gap.
I’m an anomaly. I’m 42 and have been a member of golf clubs all my adult life. I’m a veteran, even though I’m still considered young on the golf club membership scale.
But most of the people I play with did not start as children or even young adults. They took up the game when their bodies told them it was time to stop playing football or rugby.
What’s the problem then? Clubs have never tried harder to get younger age groups to come through the key-carded front door.
Get into Golf schemes are running everywhere and the number of golf club membership options, particularly in the intermediate ranges, looks like a restaurant menu. At many clubs now, you don’t even pay full price until you are 40.
Still they don’t fill in the forms – our figures show us as much. What’s different, though, is that people are playing golf.
Two million are reported to get out at least twice a month. More than 3.7 million played 18 holes in the last year.
A former boss of Topgolf told me he got used to seeing long queues for a precious bay. That wasn’t just weekends. It was every night.
So if they’re playing, why aren’t they joining? It’s easy to trot out clichés about lack of leisure time, university, having kids, and be done with it. Of course they’re all part of the overall issue, but it’s just a piece of the pie.
Price is definitely a factor. I sometimes wonder why I fork out for golf club membership when I can book a round at my course for a tenner on a tee time website.
I could play an awful lot of golf, at a lot of different courses, before I got anywhere near the sums I pay for the privilege of displaying a bag tag.
Then there’s the tie-up. These days I can leave my gym at a moment’s notice. I can cancel my Netflix subscription at the click of a button. No more 12-month contracts.
Getting out of a golf club, though, is an exercise in safe cracking. I play at a fairly liberated course but it would still take three months.
So what to do?
Why not offer weekly or monthly golf club membership passes, giving people flexibility but also encouraging a bond and commitment with the club?
That might sound kooky but, if a long-term deal is the problem, you’ve got to find other ways of accommodating people.
Lots of clubs, though, rely on the fees gained from yearlong membership structures to fund their budgets. They view flexible membership schemes, in particular, as an assault on that.
Members would flock to take on the cheaper deal, they say, regardless of any caveats attached to playing and competition privileges.
Should we really be terrified of that?
All that fear tells me is that the existing ways of extracting revenue aren’t meeting the needs of customers.
Dress codes can also be a factor in putting off the new brigade from taking on more than the occasional foray onto the fairways.
Nothing causes NCG’s social media followers more angst than an article advocating freedom from polos and slacks but it’s a fact that the rigid uniform which envelopes our sport puts off some participants.
The only place I wear a pair of dress shoes these days is when I step through the doors of a private members’ club.
I accept a jacket and tie for dinner can be part of the deal of playing at a grand venue. Others don’t.
It seems to me we’re reaching a crossroads.
The new World Handicap System comes into effect at the end of next year and with it the ability to carry your mark around the globe, playing rounds that count wherever you wish. Will you always need to be a member of a club to hold a handicap?
If that barrier is ever breached, and you’ve no interest in playing club competitions, then another of the tenuous remaining bonds of membership will be broken.
As time takes its toll, and those surging sectors at the top of the age tree start to fall away, if there are fewer people in behind to replace them then what happens to membership as we know it? It becomes a ticking time bomb.
Surely it’s now time to accept golf’s place as part of the leisure industry and not a cossetted haven away from it.
Give the customer what they want, as the likes of Topgolf have done, and they will queue to get through the doors.
Ignore what they’re telling you, though, and it might be your own you’re shutting in the not too distant future.