Scottish Golf is pressing on with controversial plans to resuscitate the industry. To my mind, there is one very simple reason why golf in Scotland is in trouble - it’s too cheap.
“How can it be good for the game for GolfNow to be selling 18 holes @CanmoreGolfClub for £8?” said someone on Twitter recently. “You start to understand what @ScottishGolf are attempting to do.”
Roughly a dozen clubs in Scotland have folded in recent years. According to some, that number could rise to anything between 20 and 40 over the next ten years if the administrators of golf in this country ‘bulldoze’ their plans through, whether the clubs like it or not.
That bulldozing might have to be done, because the decline is not stopping.
In the last few years, Scotland has lost, on average, 6,000 registered golfers per year. Since 2005, roughly 80,000 players have given up club membership. Scotland accounted for 30.8% of all the registered golfers Europe lost between 2017 and 2018.
This is happening because the decision not to be a club member is much easier to make due to tee times being sold for a pittance.
It should be cheaper to be a member and play lots of golf. It should not be cheaper to not be a member and play lots of golf.
The current system is broken.
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Online commercial companies have managed to work their way into clubs and offer software systems that provide handicapping and online tee time booking. In return for the software, the clubs have to give up tee times to the vendor. And when competition between clubs increases, green fees drop. When that happens, it’s the golfers who have the power, not the golf clubs.
It is now easier to book a round of golf - and cheaper - than it has ever been.
Half-price promos, like 2-for-1s, are a thing of the past. Run by various magazines, including bunkered, they were an option in the late 1990s and beyond that allowed golfers to take advantage of the golf boom.
But then the market slowed and the promotions did, too, only to be dramatically out-fought by the Groupon phenomenon. All the while, green fees continued to drop, with clubs under pressure to ‘outsell’ the club down the road.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with timely promotions, something this magazine has done with its ‘free’ golf subscription package. We’re 0.01% of the golf market in Scotland, a blip on the scene – but the green fees race to the bottom is now mainstream and part of the daily workings of the industry. In Scottish golf, every day is Black Friday.
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Nomads have been described, harshly, as pariahs leeching off the system without being part of it – and Scottish Golf quite rightly want to fix that.
But they need to win the trust of their clubs. And that’s one thing Scottish Golf has consistently failed to do in recent years. Appearing to monopolise the handicap system is a major issue that cannot be ignored. Not turning up at area/club meetings to enter dialogue with the very clubs they’re meant to represent isn’t a good way of building trust.
Another big plan is to put an arm round nomad golfers by way of a £4.99-a-month Netflix-style virtual club membership. Their argument, essentially, is that these golfers operate ‘outside’ the industry, so this gets them involved. I’m all for that. The problem is, some believe it effectively says, ‘don’t join a golf club, just pay us £4.99 a month and we’ll give you an official handicap anyway’.
But, here’s the grand theory. If the race to the bottom with regards to green fees is halted, and quickly, a nomad golfer will be better off joining a golf club further down the line. Green fees will increase, growing revenues at clubs, thus staving off the threat of falling memberships. That’s how the model should work.
If it does, Scottish Golf may well be forgiven for forcing through dramatic, revolutionary change during a worrying time. For some, it may be a gamble worth taking, because the status quo isn’t working.