Healthy, yet not as fit as it could be: the general consensus on the state of golf in the UK.
The economy and the weather have both affected the golf industry over the past few years, with 2012 being an exceptionally wet year.
However, there are industry factors that provide a positive outlook.
For example, as Jim Croxton, BIGGA Chief Executive Officer (CEO), says, “With the success of Rory McIlroy and the 2012 Ryder Cup, plus the fact that golf will be in the Olympics in 2016, you could say that things are very good.”
He points out that over the last three years the UK (Northern Ireland) has claimed four major titles when the previous one was in 1999; the Ryder Cup team has lost once since 1999; the current crop of leading UK players is the strongest since the late 1980s and early 1990s; and Sport England funding is opening up golf development at local level for juniors and adults.
Certainly, Jason O’Malley, General Manager (GM) at Buckingham-based Woburn Golf Club (GC), commenting on the general health of the UK golf industry, believes “the industry is probably relatively static compared to ten or 15 years ago, but given the current economic climate the golf market is faring better than many other business sectors.”
Graham Duncan, GM at Carnoustie GC in Angus, also thinks the industry is quite healthy. “I haven’t seen any significant downturn in level of interest or of people participating in the last ten to 15 years, although I don’t think there’s been a big increase either,” he says. “We haven’t seen any downturn in either number of players, or number of rounds or young people playing.”
Golfers and Golf Courses
As Jim Croxton points out, 2011 Sports Marketing Surveys Inc. showed the number of core golfers has changed little in ten years, with 3.957 million in 2001, and 3.936 million in 2011 – although numbers peaked at 4.191 million in 2002.
He adds that the number of UK golf courses has grown substantially during the past 20 years: at the last count there were 2,659 in total, with 1,881 in England, 536 in Scotland, 159 in Wales, and 83 in Northern Ireland.
“Over the last two or three years, this number has remained relatively static,” he adds. “In 2012, there was a small net decrease in the number of courses. Closures were mainly limited to relatively low-end courses being returned to more profitable agricultural use.”
James Laidler, Secretary of Rye GC in East Sussex believes the golf market remains oversupplied. “Many clubs will continue to struggle unless their golf course is excellent,” he says.
And Ian Symington at the Royal West Norfolk GC in Brancaster, also thinks there are too many golf courses, “which is causing the main problem. I think the actual state of the game is reasonably healthy, because you have many golfers out there and they’re playing golf. But there are so many golf courses, and they’re all cutting each other’s throats for the same business.”
Meeting Players’ Expectations
Jim Croxton also points out that, while 2012 was a bad year for participation due to the dreadful weather from May onwards, over the last few years the number of golfers has stayed relatively steady. However, he adds, the number of rounds played has dropped marginally, while player expectation continues to rise.
“Happily, this expectation is generally met as course conditions improve every year,” he says. “However, golfers expect year-round golf in playable conditions, whereas 20 years ago many clubs were hardly played in winter months. And they also expect faster, smoother greens – due partly to TV and partly to superb improvements in maintenance.”
He adds that as golfer expectations increase, so those clubs who allow the condition of the course to decline will get caught in a downward spiral: “I would expect to see a continued decrease in the number of courses over the next two to three years because of this.”
The recognised estimate of people employed in the industry to maintain the grounds is 12,000 to 14,000, with a proportion of that number being seasonal labour. Jim says the skills of the workforce are increasingly valuable to employers, although as golf revenue is down (economic pressure and the recent weather) costs also have to drop.
He adds: “The more progressive and positively managed facilities are managing to increase market share in this declining market, but that means that some clubs are losing share and total revenue. Very few clubs are increasing the size of their greenkeeping team and many have seen either a decrease in numbers or a shift to less overtime/annualised hours.”
Ian Symington says the golfers’ demands also create pressure. “If you’re a greenkeeper and you can just prepare it as you want to that’s one thing, but when you have people with expectations, and they want a course in a pristine condition on a particular date, that then poses much more serious problems, and it’s not always conducive to the way they’d like to do it.”
“However,” he adds, “I think the majority of discerning golfers are aware there is a difference between a links course in this country, and an American inland course.”
Members and Visitors
Tuck Clagett, General Manager at Cornwall-based St Enodoc Golf Club, believes the state of health in the industry is ‘variable’, and points out that the declining membership numbers in most clubs indicates some problems. “A variety of membership and green fee schemes indicates that the market is scrambling for what is, fundamentally, a finite group of golfers,” he says. “Having said that, there is always a demand for quality venues and those clubs that can afford to invest in their product should find a supportive customer base.”
Howard Jones, Secretary/Manager at the Llanymynyech Golf Club in Oswestry, believes that while the membership numbers are declining on the whole, “participation in golf as a social golfer is probably remaining, if not increasing in numbers, because people would rather pay £200 per annum while playing several rounds at different clubs, rather than being a member of one club.”
James O’Malley has also seen an increase in the number of ‘nomadic’ golfers versus golf club members, with a club’s income having to rely more heavily on income generated from green fees. The decline in the number of members he attributes to lifestyle pressures: “Whereas, previously, golfers aspired to being members of clubs and developing handicaps, in reality now with increased pressures on time, the majority simply play less golf each year.”
“With the option of using the internet to compare fees, prices for Golf Days, and ‘special offers’ makes budgeting and the scheduling of events and greens maintenance a challenge,” he adds.
Graham Duncan says membership is probably lower than it was 15 years ago, with a number of golfers who don’t think they need to be club members. “It’s always a challenge to maintain your visitor numbers,” he says. “Our greatest challenge is to diversify the places people come from – we’re an open championship venue, and the majority of our visitors come from the US; we’d be in a much stronger position if we had other golfers from other parts of the world.”
And Robert Southcott, Manager of the Cradoc GC in Brecon, says the club relies quite heavily on visitors. “Being in a rural area, the number of local people is quite small.”
Ronnie Carswell, Club Secretary at Ranfurly Castle GC, also sees a number of visiting parties in the summer, although club membership is based mostly on local people. He thinks there needs to be flexibility in the way clubs approach membership, such as “flexible membership, such as an extended visitor package that give them certain rights on the course.”
Jim Croxton thinks “the better managed and run, then the better chance a golf club has of surviving a downturn in the economy, or bad weather.”
As with all outdoor leisure businesses, the wet weather during 2012 is an ongoing factor that will have repercussions into the following year.
As Ronnie Carswell, points out: “We’re used to the rain, but we don’t expect it in July and August. We just haven’t had any decent weather in the last couple of years.”
“Root depth is still a concern, although we drain the site very well, and make the roots work hard,” says Jason O’Malley. “At Woburn, we go into 2013 with a positive outlook with all three courses having been voted in Golf Monthly Magazine’s Top 100 Courses in the UK and Ireland.”
And as James Laidler says: ”The challenges remain the same – to provide an excellent product for as long a period as possible.”
Role of BTME
Jim Croxton says, “Golf clubs need to be ‘business run’.”
He adds that the purpose of BTME is to meet the communities’ needs, and get the industry together. Individual visitor statistics were
4,402 in 2010, 3,106 in 2011, and 5,627 in 2012.
“BTME is an important event for the industry and works for the exhibitor and the visitor,” he adds. “The increased emphasis on education has served to ensure that the visitor quality is maintained. Equally, the exhibitors take an active part in the show by providing fringe seminars free to visitors. In 2012, attendance was up more than 40% on the two previous exhibitions.”
The 2013 event was the 24th BTME, in Harrogate, with three halls. Jim adds that “the almost unique venue is enormously popular with all as the proximity of the Halls to the centre of a town with ample accommodation, restaurants, and bars mean that the networking and social experience is key.”
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Healthy, yet not as fit as it could be: the general consensus on the state of golf in the UK.