They are golfers, but not as you might know them. “They’re playing about five to 15 times a year,” says Scottish Golf’s Head of Digital Martin Hopley.
“The vast majority – up to about 80 per cent – don’t particularly want to play in competitions.
“They are people who like the flexibility of not being tied down to one particular course and like playing different places.”
So as the governing body launches OpenPlay – its scheme for independent golfers – the question that’s often posed is ‘why do they need an official handicap?’
For Hopley, speaking on NCG’s From the Clubhouse podcast, perhaps the bigger query is ‘why not?’
“The reason they really want a handicap is to benchmark their own games – to turn up for social and society games and be able to give and receive strokes as anybody else would in a normal game of golf.”
Independent golfers, or non-members, make up the substantial majority of players in the UK. While club membership in Scotland hovers around the 190,000 mark, the number of players not affiliated to a club is estimated to be around half a million.
They’ve been on the outside, though, as the sport has traditionally focused its vision on those that pay annual subscription fees.
OpenPlay is going to change that. Costing golfers £5.99 a month, they will register on the Scottish Golf app and will be able to gain an official handicap.
They’ll do that in the same way as club members, by putting in 54 holes worth of scores, and they will be able to maintain their mark by submitting general play scores.
Similar schemes have proven controversial. In England, the decision to launch an offering for non-member golfers produced a significant backlash from golf club managers and unhappy members.
But this is about being more inclusive, maintains Hopley, and helping those who – for whatever reason – decide they don’t want to be a member of a club to feel more involved in the game.
“There are situations for independent golfers where they might turn up on a tee, and they’re playing with people who have a handicap, and they say ‘well, what are you going to play off today?’
“They might say ‘well, I kind of play to about 10’ and that might work out great, or it might work out that they win or lose by miles.
“Either way, it’s not a particularly enjoyable experience for that person, or it may create a sense of awkwardness. So, by having that handicap, you are going to create that sense of inclusivity for people.
“We also feel that it could be more beneficial for others including, particularly, female golfers who maybe have felt that going along to a golf club, or even if they are members going and playing in a competition, might feel a little bit intimidating.
“They can get a handicap independent of all of that and put scores in as they feel like it through general play. That will hopefully increase the number of female golfers.
“All of this will lead to membership because it is there to create this pathway to membership.”
Isn’t there a disconnect there? If an independent golfer scheme caters for those who don’t necessarily want, or can’t, be members of a golf club, how will it create that pathway?
“The evidence we’ve seen around the world is that this does encourage people back into membership,” explains Hopley, who says OpenPlay could prove an attractive halfway house for some players.
“I think, what you’ll find, is that by having a handicap, [these golfers] are then seeing the benefits of playing more regularly. They might see their performance improve.
“They might say ‘maybe I’ll play in an open competition’ and, from there, ‘maybe I’d like to play in competitions a bit more now’.
“That will be there for that proportion of golfers for whom competitive golf might be an option. Of course, there are plenty who will not go down that route.
“So those people that would never join a golf club in the first place will probably continue not to.
“But the data is showing us that there is this drive back towards membership and there’s virtually no data showing it’s going the other way.”
That final point has been one of the main arrows fired at independent golfer schemes – that they will drive members out of clubs because they provide a cheaper and more attractive option for players.
In the eyes of the critics, removing the ring fencing around membership – that you must be a member to hold an official handicap – will open the door to an exodus.
Hopley insists: “We don’t really agree this is the case as data does not back this view up, but we are aware of these concerns and have addressed them in a couple of ways.
“We’re not launching until the summer months, giving clubs a chance to renew their members for this year.
“Secondly, we’re putting measures in place where nobody can leave a golf club and join the scheme straight away.
“They have to wait for at least a year, and our clubs are going to be in control of that process and the duration of it.
“Effectively, with both these measures we’re giving them 18 months to two years’ protection.
“However, we strongly feel this protection isn’t really required. If clubs are concerned that people are going to leave to play cheap golf, then the issue really isn’t with the concept of independent golfers, the issue is really about green fee levels.
“Research is showing us that independent golfers are playing five to 15 times a year. So, if the membership decision point is such that it’s more cost effective for them to be a member than not a member when they’re playing more than 15 rounds a year, then that creates a decision point at which people decide it is better to be a member of a golf club.
“If that decision point is higher than 15 rounds, such as 20 to 30 rounds, the incentive to be a member is less.
“If clubs can get this membership decision point at the right level, then that is what is going to create the pathway into membership because it’ll be more commercially viable for people to be a member of a golf club.
“However, when it comes to green fee levels, this is completely in the control of the clubs. It’s not something we can control as a governing body, and it’s certainly not something that we can get involved with.”
So what can clubs do to engage with the independent golfer and how can they make OpenPlay work to their advantage?
Scottish Golf says revenue generated from the scheme will be put back into the game – whether that is through a possible reduction in affiliation fees, providing more services to member clubs, or helping clubs with grant opportunities.
“We are a not-for-profit organisation. We are a members’ organisation and our members are the golf clubs. So we are there to generate funds, grow club membership, and grow participation in the game. That’s what the money would be put towards.”
Hopley added: “The key thing is obviously to get the membership fee structure and the green fee structure in the place where [clubs] are happy and that’s going to appeal to all these players.
“Perhaps having a rate for casual golfers and then a rate for OpenPlay golfers would be the way to go.
“Then I would look at trying to engage with these golfers because what this programme will do is create a sustainable long-term demand for regular tee times. They could offer a package number of rounds for a fixed price.
“As well as potentially opening up their regular competitions, there is nothing stopping clubs running a competition purely for these independent golfers that have a handicap.
“They can be promoted through the Scottish Golf app and through the Scottish Golf website as well. And when you’ve got players at your course on that day, it’s a tremendous opportunity to promote what your club offers.”
Players can download the Scottish Golf app from the Apple and Google Play stores and can register and click OpenPlay to get started.
“We are very positive about the scheme,” Hopley concludes. “This is something we’ve been working on for a long time.
“Everything we’ve been doing has been focused around this. The VMS platform was built with this in mind, and it is there to grow membership.
“We want to see membership grow and we want to see participation increase as well. We’re quite confident this will be successful and it will meet the need.
“This has been well thought through, there are sufficient protections for clubs if they feel they need them, and we can see this as being a huge benefit for clubs.
“It will hopefully encourage more people to see the benefits of membership and make golf Scotland’s game for everyone.”
For more details, visit Scottish Golf’s website.
Three years in the making
Scottish Golf say OpenPlay is the culmination of three years of planning and development by the governing body to give clubs control of their business so they can grow their membership.
The Venue Management System software platform was designed with independent golfers in mind, but was launched initially to provide clubs with an integrated platform of scoring, handicapping, tee sheets, EPOS and communincations for their members.
VMS offers affiliated clubs in Scotland the tools to manage their tee sheets and engage with independent golfers to create a pathway into membership and inclusivity for all golfers in Scotland.
The Scottish Golf app provides access to handicapping, tee sheets, competitions, scoring, general play, GPS and news through a single login.
This allows club members and independent golfers to login to the Scottish Golf app or any VMS club website to book directly and submit general play scores.
The From the Clubhouse podcast with Scottish Golf’s Head of Digital Martin Hopley
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