They say there's “an app for everything”.
Find out the species of a plant just by taking a photo of it? There’s an app for that. Calculate the calories in your lunch? There’s an app for that. Locate your misplaced car keys? Yep, there’s an app for that.
At the most recent count, there are over 3.4million apps in the Google Play store, the biggest outlet of its kind.
However, until recently, there wasn’t an app for non-golf club members to access an Official Handicap Index. To do so, you had to be a paid-up member of a golf club. End of.
That’s changing because, guess what, there’s now an app for that.
Following the huge success of a similar scheme which launched in New Zealand in 2018, England Golf unveiled iGolf this summer. In short, it is a scheme that is designed to allow non-club members to obtain a handicap index administered by the World Handicap System (WHS).
So-called ‘nomadic golfers’ can subscribe to the scheme via the England Golf website for just £40 a year and, after downloading the ‘My EG’ app, can start inputting scores that will count towards their WHS index. They will also receive personal liability insurance, the latest news and offers from England Golf partners, and access to education on golf rules and etiquette.
England Golf hopes that this scheme will incentivise the country’s estimated 2.3million ‘independent’ golfers to play more, track their performance and be more competitive, creating a pathway to full golf club membership in the process.
“This is something that has been talked about for years,” the organisation’s Chief Operating Officer, Richard Flint, told bunkered.co.uk. “How do we connect with non-golf club members? How do we make the game more inclusive? Fundamentally, how do we get more people, of all ages and backgrounds, enjoying golf? We believe that iGolf can be the vehicle for those changes.”
The introduction of the WHS in November 2020 – described by Flint as “one of the most significant changes to the game in the last 100 years – provided England Golf with the ideal launchpad for iGolf.
“As a licensee of WHS, we have a real opportunity to engage with more golfers than ever before through a robust handicap system,” he added.
Crucially, England Golf has vowed to take any money that it makes from the scheme and put it back into the game.
“We have a five-year business plan,” said Flint. “Obviously, we incurred some significant costs in the development of the app and we, of course, have had to invest in communication and marketing. That’s ongoing and to be expected.
“However, we estimate that in years two and three, we will begin to have a surplus that we can reinvest in programmes to grow the game. It’s a very exciting proposition.”
It is – but it’s one that has also invited some suspicion and consternation amongst golf clubs, many of whom pay handsomely for the right to be affiliated to England Golf and tap-in to the organisation’s wealth of resources and support.
Many club officials have been left to draw the conclusion that the body they pay to support them is now actively working against them. The lifeblood of the majority of clubs is membership subscriptions. Take those away and many will become unviable. Until now, clubs had an ace in their sleeve when it came to convincing people of the merits of a membership.
You want a handicap? You can’t get it without signing on.
Except now you can... thanks to England Golf.
Flint understands the concern but doesn’t believe it will amount to anything tangible.
“Our view is that iGolf is not going to have a negative impact on club memberships,” he said. “For one thing, we have put a ‘time lag’ or ‘cooling-off period’ in place which means that nobody will be eligible to iGolf within six months of resigning from a golf club.
“What we have also seen in New Zealand, and indeed Canada, where similar initiatives have been operating for a few years now, is that, far from a mass exodus, golf clubs have actually reported an increase in subscriptions. These schemes give people an incentive to play more golf in order to maintain their handicap. By playing more golf, they are spending more time in and around golf clubs than they otherwise might, which is giving them a better sense for what they are like.
“The onus is very much on clubs to create a positive environment and positive experience for these ‘visitors’ to encourage them to make the leap from iGolf to full club membership and, for those who want to engage, we can help them to deliver on those points.
“They need to look at their place in the market and understand how to become more sustainable and we’ll be there to support them.”
There is also the fact that more people playing golf means an increase in green fee revenue, not to mention discretionary spend in pro shops, clubhouses and the like.
“Of course, we have a responsibility to golf clubs,” said Flint. “However, we also have to represent all golfers, too. It’s our duty to reach out to all those non-members and find out what they want from the game, how we can increase their regularity of play, how we can make the game more appealing to them.”
Some people have pointed to the great participation boom the sport has enjoyed since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and questioned whether or not attracting more people to the game should really be that much of a priority.
Indeed, according to Sports Marketing Surveys (SMS), which tracks rounds played at a number of venues, the number of rounds played in the UK from October to December 2020 was up by 41% compared with 2019.
Flint doesn’t see this as the end so much as the beginning.
“Obviously, the increase in participation has been fantastic,” he said, “but now we need to push on. We don’t want clubs to rest on their laurels. From a membership point of view, there should of course be a focus on retention and looking after those new members but, equally, why shouldn’t we look to create even more golfers?”
The issue of club open competitions has also been raised as an objection to iGolf. Some have voiced concerns that these events will be overrun with iGolfers taking advantage of lower-than-normal fees, and heaven forbid an iGolfer should win one of them.
Again, Flint is swift to allay those concerns.
“We’ve been clear from the outset that, as far as open competitions go, it’s up to individual clubs to set their own terms and conditions,” he said. “What I will say is that we have an iGolf Handicap Committee within England Golf, so scores will be monitored with the appropriate checks and balances and, of course, we will take a close look at exceptional scores.”
The scheme is still very much in its infancy but Flint is greatly encouraged by the early signs.
“The iGolf take-up has been great as has been the feedback,” he added. “We will obviously continue to monitor it closely but we feel in a really good place with it right now.
“What has been particularly interesting to note is that the average age of those who have signed up so far is around 42, which is lower than the average age of golf club members, so if we are reaching an audience that traditional membership propositions have been unable to, then that has to bode well for the future health of the game and our affiliated clubs.
“It’s all about inclusion. The more people playing the game, and playing the game regularly, the more everybody benefits.”