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england golf

What we loved and hated about club golf in 2018

Club golf editor Steve Carroll picks out highs and lows of the last 12 months
 

It’s been a busy year in club golf up and down these fair isles. So what did we like and what did we not like so much? Let’s start with a positive…

We loved… the rise of 9-hole golf

We’re time constricted. The demands on our leisure time have altered forever. For many, spending four hours walking a golf course is no longer an option.

So it was pleasing to see the rising popularity of nine hole golf – with the number of competitive scores recorded increasing considerably over the past few years and revealed in an early summer report.

England Golf saw a 50% rise from 2014 to 2017. In Ireland, there was a 64% increase in women and girls’ scores and men’s and boys’ scores were up more than 200% from 2016 to 2017.

Big rises were also recorded by Wales and Scottish Golf. It is clear the work to promote both 9-hole and shorter formats is paying off.

There is still work to be done. I know of one particular club that doesn’t have 18 holes, has a loop to and from the clubhouse, but refuses to offer a 9-hole green fee to visitors. Madness, but this is a great start and, with competitions such as the R&A’s 9-hole Championship leading the way, it should only get better in 2019.

We hated… all-male clubs congratulating themselves

March

When even Muirfield have voted for women membership before you, there is absolutely no glory to be taken by belatedly realising it’s 2018 and not 1818.

Yet that hasn’t stopped some previously all-male clubs from joining the rest of the human race and then hailing themselves for it.

If I see another talking about an historic moment, admiring a forward-thinking stance, or proclaiming to be “delighted”, I might be a little bit sick.

There’s nothing historic about it. It’s frankly pretty shameful it’s taken you this long. It’s good that you’ve finally come out of the caves, but stop trying to spin it in a positive light.

We loved… the increase in memberships

It’s been a gloomy time to be a club golfer. The financial struggles over the last decade forced people to look at what they spent their cash on and that meant some left the game forever.

We’re by no means out of the woods. But, for some clubs at least, the last 12 months or so saw a surge of new faces.

England Golf’s biennial membership survey, which questioned 426 clubs, revealed that the average number of members in those establishments had increased from 460 to 484 in the past two years.

There were individual successes all over the country. At Elgin, for instance, a family friendly approach to membership has seen the club increase their numbers to an incredible 1,222 – an increase of 95 on last year.

Have we finally turned the corner? There are still plenty of problems, as you’ll see below, but at least there is a chink of light in some quarters.

We hated… draconian dress codes

Golf dress codes

I know some of you would rather your club closed than allow a pair of jeans anywhere the gates. I’d prefer you, though, to focus on the future rather than what you personally want and like.

If there was a big negative to come out of the membership survey results detailed above it is that the numbers of young people playing the game have not increased.

There was a sharp fall in the 16-19 age category, while the 0-15, 20-25 and 30 plus age groups remained largely static.

That’s despite some of the many schemes and projects designed to get them started and retain them as players.

There are still a number of barriers to golf club membership but, for a lot of people under 40, dress codes is one of the primary obstacles.

Lots of people simply don’t want to spend their leisure time dressed up in an odd-fitting polo shirt and comfortable slacks.

Related: Is it acceptable to wear golf clothes off the course?

It is, of course, for clubs to decide what they want members and visitors to wear at their establishment.

But, if they are struggling for footfall, should they complain if they are sticking to rigid policies that simply belong in another age? Even the boss of England Golf is arguing for change.

I’m not suggesting for a minute that relaxing the dress code would solve all the ills. The reasons why people don’t play golf are many and complex.

But the restrictions on what people can and can’t wear is definitely one of them and it won’t be going away any time soon.

We loved… the new rules

Rules of Golf

OK, they haven’t come into force just yet, but they were revealed this year and we’ve been getting a bit giddy about them.

This is a bit of a controversial one – as there will be plenty of readers out there who despise the 2019 changes.

But even though I have issues with a couple of the tweaks – the alternative local rule to stroke and distance is a stretch too far for me – I believe you’ve got to be positive about the seven-year project completed by the R&A and USGA.

The rule book itself, thanks to the Player’s Edition, is now far easier to understand and many of the changes will undoubtedly speed up play.

For the first time I can remember, there is a general willingness among the club golfers I know to dip into the rules and find out more.

Those were the main objectives behind the alternations – the biggest for a generation. In that sense, they’ve hit the mark.

We hated… watching clubs go to the wall

Wimbledon tennis

I fear the recent spate of clubs we’ve seen closing will only be the tip of the iceberg.

It was particularly sad to see Sandilands, a club set to celebrate their 125th anniversary next year, go to the wall despite a recent pick up in membership.

They joined the likes of Carrick Knowe, Potters Bar, Canwick Park, Fishwick Hall, Raglan Parc and Southwood closing, to name but a few. Wimbledon Park is also soon to be sold in a £65 million buyout by the All England Lawn Tennis Club.

Even though, as revealed earlier, the fall in golf club membership appears in some quarters to have stabilised following the recession it is clear that supply still more than meets demand in the present golf club market.

The raft of clubs that sprang up in the early 1990s now means we probably have too much choice. It is unfortunately inevitable that we’ll be watching a lot more cherished institutions shutting their doors over the next 12 months.

That’s such a shame.

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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