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Crail Balcomie golf course review

10,000 visitors and £600,000 lost – can clubs like Crail survive the pandemic?

A House of Commons debate revealed Crail Golfing Society lost a huge sum in visitor revenue last year. With overseas visitors likely to be restricted this summer by Covid-19, club manager David Roy told Steve Carroll what it means for the Fife institution
 

Visitors are such an important part of the history of Crail Golfing Society that the club’s earliest tournaments were designed with them in mind.

“We have three competitions that are played over a two-week period,” says club manager David Roy. “At one time, back in the 60s, the town council would sell a fortnightly ticket to visitors.

“And they were deemed to be members for that two weeks. These three quite old competitions were played over the two weeks because visitors would take part in them.

“That shows you how deeply embedded it is.”

Crail Golfing Society was founded in 1786, making it the seventh oldest golf club in the world. With their famous Balcomie course designed by Old Tom Morris and the modern Craighead, which was Gil Hanse’s first layout, they host around 10,000 visitors every year.

A third of those take transatlantic flights from America, while 40 per cent come from Scandinavia and Western Europe.

Except they did. Because coronavirus has blown a massive hole in international travel and the repercussions for the Fife club have been significant.

In a House of Commons debate, North East Fife MP Wendy Chamberlain revealed Crail had lost £600,000 in visitor revenue last year.

As stringent restrictions on travel threaten the plans of overseas tourists, and those of an industry where around 100 facilities bring in £300 million to the Scottish economy, Chamberlain urged the UK Government to commit to supporting golf businesses, arguing those that relied on international visitors faced an “increasingly bleak picture for summer 2021”.

Are things that bad? “Undoubtedly,” adds Roy, speaking to NCG’s From the Clubhouse podcast. “It’s not the businesses that can flex. In a sense, a private members’ club like Crail is quite fortunate because of a members’ subscription model that we can lean on, and fall back on, to make us viable.

“But if you have a fleet of buses and you are geared towards looking after incoming golf tourists, and that is 100 per cent of your business, where else are you going to get that trade?

“And how are you going to manage to keep your liabilities going? How are you going to keep meeting your rates, rates and your tax liabilities if there’s no income at all?

“I can clearly see the situation of a lot of these bus service providers having to sell parts, or maybe all, of the fleet to remain viable in the hope, or expectation, that they can get going again next year.”

Crail had 5,000 rounds already booked, paid in full or on deposit, and a liability of well over a quarter of a million pounds when the pandemic really surged last April.

“We were really drawing up doomsday scenarios, of having half the number of staff and mothballing areas of the club – perhaps even going down to one golf course.

“We didn’t know, at that early stage, how many members were going to stick with the club. If they weren’t getting access to the facilities, would we have a significant amount of resignations?”

Thankfully for Crail, half of those who had booked rescheduled, but the loss of revenue still had an impact – with the club putting on hold plans to replace greenkeeping machines and invest in capital projects.

But Roy remains optimistic about the prospects for 2021, even if so much uncertainty continues to surround their important overseas markets.

“Once travel restrictions are eased, we anticipate it will just be the domestic market,” he says. “Certainly, fully for the first six months, right up until the end of June.

“If there’s a relaxation, or any demand even from the overseas market, we don’t anticipate anything happing until the Autumn.

“So we haven’t budgeted for any significant green fee income until late August/September. Obviously, only time will tell if that pans out.”

He adds: “The only thing I would add – there’s certainly demand. We are still receiving enquiries for this year and there is certainly, from overseas golf tourists, a demand to travel.

“It’s quite interesting. A lot of people are looking at access to the trophy courses, the big Open Championship and tour venue courses, and they’re thinking this is going to be a better chance this year to get a game on the Old, or Muirfield, or Troon.

“They’re anticipating the organisation and the booking of the tee times is going to be easier to do. So that is one of the drivers for people to constantly be making enquiries.

“Also, that is another driver for the domestic market. I’ve spoken to a number of people who are booking a tee time and they’ve said, ‘Normally, we’d be going to the Algarve, or Costa del Sol, or Turkey. However, this year we’re thinking we’re going to do a bucket list. We’re going to play the Old course, Carnoustie’ and so on.

“And so that has been a driver for the domestic market as well. We can help fill in that week if you’re coming to Fife.”

Now listen to the full interview…

Crail Golfing Society general manager David Roy was talking to Steve Carroll about how international travel restrictions could affect the golf industry on the From the Clubhouse podcast from NCG.

Listen to the full episode below, or search ‘The NCG Podcast’ in your preferred podcast platform.

Does your club rely on international visitors? Let me know what the prospects are in the comments, or tweet me.

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Steve Carroll

Steve Carroll

A journalist for 25 years, Steve has been immersed in club golf for almost as long. A former club captain, he has passed the Level 3 Rules of Golf exam with distinction having attended the R&A's prestigious Tournament Administrators and Referees Seminar.

Steve has officiated at a host of high-profile tournaments, including Open Regional Qualifying, PGA Fourball Championship, English Men's Senior Amateur, and the North of England Amateur Championship. In 2023, he made his international debut as part of the team that refereed England vs Switzerland U16 girls.

A part of NCG's Top 100s panel, Steve has a particular love of links golf and is frantically trying to restore his single-figure handicap. He currently floats at around 11.

Steve plays at Close House, in Newcastle, and York GC, where he is a member of the club's matches and competitions committee and referees the annual 36-hole scratch York Rose Bowl.

Having studied history at Newcastle University, he became a journalist having passed his NTCJ exams at Darlington College of Technology.

What's in Steve's bag: TaylorMade Stealth 2 driver, 3-wood, and hybrids; TaylorMade Stealth 2 irons; TaylorMade Hi-Toe, Ping ChipR, Sik Putter.

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