By Martin Dempster (The Scotsman)
Scottish golf clubs are enjoying a membership boost from the game being one of the outdoor activities included in the first phase of lockdown restrictions being eased, with some clubs gaining between 70-80 members and the demand at another seeing the return of a waiting list.
Dwindling memberships have been the norm for several years in the home of golf, with the latest KPMG Golf Participation Report for Europe revealing that the number of registered players in Scotland fell by 7,500 between 2017 and 2018 as the overall figure dropped to just over 180,000.
Several clubs, including Eastwood in Renfrewshire, Brunston Castle in Ayrshire, Mount Ellen in Lanarkshire and Lothianburn, Torphin Hill and Whitekirk in the Lothians, were forced to close as clubs struggled to convince golfers that membership still had a value at a time when the pay-and-play market had grown arms and legs.
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A similar fate could be in store, unfortunately, for some other clubs due to the financial damage caused by a nine-week coronavirus shutdown, but, in the first week of courses being reopen in Scotland, a fair number around the country are being galvanised on the back of a sudden and unexpected rise in membership applications.
“From last week, we have officially gone back to a waiting list,” reported Kenny Monaghan, the PGA pro at Stirling. “In the build up to us reopening on Friday, the secretary dropped off the best part of 20 new member packs that had come in over a 10-day period.
“This is my fifth year here and this is the third time now that we’ve had a waiting list in that time. The demand is definitely there for golf club membership at the moment, and I think that is being helped by most clubs deciding to go with members only initially for the restart and not allowing visitors for the time being.”
At Aberdour on the Fife coast, close to 70 membership applications have flooded in since the lockdown started in March, with a dozen or so deciding to take out membership as a direct result of walking on or close to the course for daily exercise.
“It’s a massive boost for the club, especially after losing 48 members at the end of last season across all the different categories,” admitted captain Steve David. “Of the 67 membership applications we’ve had, six or so are returning members who have possibly now got more time on their hands, but the largest cross section are the so-called ‘nomadic’ golfer who, probably as a result of changes due to the Covid-19 crisis, have decided to now join a local golf club.
“The vast majority took advantage of an offer we pushed over 10 days recently, £500 cash upfront for 12 months’ membership. What is interesting is the age group seems to be mostly under 50’s, including a fair number of even younger applicants.”
In Edinburgh, The Scotsman understands that Craigmillar Park, another club which earned admirers from people walking there when it was closed, has signed up 80 new members and has more in the pipeline, raising hopes that certain categories could be capped for the first time in more than 20 years.
Elsewhere, lots of other clubs seeing smaller but equally important increases in membership numbers. “It’s gone a little crazy,” said one club professional, who asked to remain anonymous. “If I’m honest, golf needed a break. It’s come back stronger and we are in great position going into the delayed start to the season.”
Brora, the first Scottish golf club to express fears that it “might not exist” beyond the Covid-19 closure of courses in the UK, has also attracted 80 new members, including seven individuals paying £10,000 each for a special Platinum Membership.
“It’s almost like the world now understands what we have here at Brora and people realised we have a club worth saving,” said president Andy Stewart of the Highlands club now being in a healthier financial position through raising a six-figure sum, mainly from nemberships but also advance tee bookings, merchandise sales and online donations.
“We were looking forward to a bumper year of visitor numbers, projected at £350,000, before the Covid-19 pandemic halted us in our tracks in March. With a dependence on visitor income, we have had to be creative in our thinking to drive new revenue and we have simply been overwhelmed with the love for us from across the world. It has just been incredible for all of us to realise just how well regarded the golf club is. It really has been fantastic.”
South of the Border, a straw poll of clubs contacted by England Golf in the first two weeks of courses reopening revealed that a minimum of 15 new members had been recruited on average. “It’s wonderful to hear of lapsed members returning to the game or newcomers embracing the fact that golf is one of the healthiest and safest sports around,” said chief executive Jeremy Tomlinson. “It’s great news that many core values of golf club membership – camaraderie, freedom to play and a sense of belonging – once again have new meaning!”