It’s pretty common knowledge today that dwindling, or at least aging, memberships are a real and genuine concern for a large number of golf clubs in the UK & Ireland. The challenge facing many is to promote junior members into full members, convert nomadic golfers into club members, and satisfy the existing membership while attracting enough visitors and societies to balance the books. It’s a permanent fixture on the agenda of golf club committee meetings up and down the country.
Twenty years ago or so, demand so outstripped supply that just about every club had a membership waiting list and then followed the inevitable dash by over-zealous developers to get in on the action. As is so often the way, this led comparatively quickly to a situation where it’s arguable that supply now outweighs demand, with too many golf clubs (over 3,000 in the UK & Ireland) for the number of existing or would-be members.
But the problem isn’t quite as straight forward as just that. There are other forces at work and reasons why golfers aren’t willing to commit and invest in a membership.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge advocate of club membership, but it would be short-sighted to ignore some of the plain truths. There are also a number of myths that need to be dispelled. For a start, it isn’t simply down to cost. (In fact, the more you look into the benefits of golf club membership, the better the value becomes – more on that to follow). The last ten years or so has seen an enormous increase in the number of people prepared to spend £50-100 per month on a gym membership they hardly use. OK, times are tough at the moment and the financial argument will always have some merit, but you only have to walk past a few local restaurants mid-week (at least in my neck of the woods) to see that people still have money to spend. For my part, I believe other reasons have a greater influence.
To touch on a couple of them; I think it’s difficult for young professionals today to commit to settling in an area for a number of years. Asking many people in the mid-twenties to mid-thirties where they’ll be living in two years’ time and you’ll get a shrug of the shoulders and a “not sure”. Being relocated to another part of the country or indeed further afield is pretty common, so you can understand the reluctance to shell out a joining fee. This is especially true when you consider that most young people are struggling to save the money to buy a house. If the choice is between a golf membership and a deposit on a property, it’s the sensible option to go for the roof over their head. And for anyone with a young family, the days are long gone when you could leave the other half at home to look after the kids while you spent the day at the golf club (and rightfully so).
Perhaps a little controversially, I also see one of the recent “successes” of the industry as having perpetuated the problem. ‘2-for-1’ schemes and discount golf in general have been hugely popular with a section of the golfing community – and who doesn’t love a bargain? – but clubs were so quick to jump on the bandwagon that many have suffered the consequences. It’s worked well for some but for others it’s just eaten away at their green fee revenue and discouraged people further from considering membership. Unless you’re lucky enough to play every day of the week, it’s going to be far cheaper paying £15 a round than taking out membership. In my opinion, many clubs haven’t helped themselves in this regard by inadvertently devaluing their ‘product’. Golfers are now expecting to pay 50% of the green fee, or even less, and that’s unsustainable, unless you’re going to charge the members even more which they would never countenance.
Unfortunately, this is only scratching the surface and I don’t want to dwell on the reasons why some clubs are struggling. I’m still a firm believer in the value of a golf club membership and I’d like to turn attention to that. There are plenty of attractive and enjoyable aspects of membership that I think clubs need to promote more widely in order to attract new members.
Preferred Tee Times
The aforementioned ‘young professionals’ would tend to argue that the only time they get to play is on a weekend. Saturday and Sunday are peak playing times often, and quite rightly, reserved for members. Joining a golf club affords you those rights, and is a major selling point for any club.
Signing in Guests
Whether it’s a colleague, a client or just a friend, there’s a certain pleasure to be had in extending an invitation to come and play at “my club”. Even if you’re covering all costs, paying and playing somewhere just isn’t the same as welcoming a guest at your own club. For me, that’s one of the greatest advantages of membership. Not to mention the fact that the favour will no doubt be returned.
The Value of Opens and Club Matches
Aside from the internal golf club competitions, being a member of a golf club affords you the opportunity to play in open competitions at other clubs. Nothing compares to the value of these, and with a variety of formats to play at venues spread all over the country, as a golf club member you can genuinely play open competitions at some of the very best golf courses in the world, with dinner and prizes included, at terrific value. Not only that, many clubs have reciprocal arrangements with other golf clubs, some local and some further afield, that offer access to other courses. Coupled with the prospect of playing in matches against local clubs, there really are tremendous opportunities to play an expansive array of golf courses through your club membership.
Being a nomadic golfer generally means that you turn up, play 18 holes, and go home again. One of the luxuries of being a golf club member is that you can squeeze a few holes in after work and not worry about the cost of it. Evening rounds in the summer are some of the most enjoyable times to be on the course, and often some of the quietest. Equally, those times when you get caught in horrific weather as a visitor or when you don’t quite finish the round due to darkness, leave you with that feeling that you’ve not had your money’s worth. Never a problem as a member, the weather affected rounds, spontaneous 9 holes, and opportune evening rounds all feel like a member’s privilege. It’s never really advertised as such, but I’d bet that it’s a perk all club members would agree with.
The goal of a large number of golfers is to get their handicap down, and the reality is that the only way to do that is in club competitions. Knocking it around a foreign course with a few mates has its merits, but playing in club competitions whether they are the Club Championship, Weekly Medal, or Christmas Greensomes, provides the opportunity for golfers to enjoy the competitive nature of the game, meet new golfers, win prizes, and ultimately improve as a golfer. You don’t join a cricket or netball team with the intention of never playing a competitive match. Golf is a competitive sport, and the best way to experience this is by playing in club competitions.
Facilities & Improvement
The practice facilities are another home benefit for golf club members. The nomadic golfer might hit a few balls at the local range, but always at a cost. The golf club member can use the range and practice facilities at their home club for free. There’s a place to practice your putting, and these days many clubs are introducing a short game area as well, so the facilities associated as part of a club membership will not only improve your game, but they won’t make a further dent in your wallet. This leads nicely into my next point about the club pro, who will get to know you and your golf game as well as you do.
A good relationship between the club pro and the members can be a real added bonus. I was recently told a story that serves as a perfect example. It’s not an unusual story by any means, but certainly one that demonstrates the extra and unexpected value given to members. A member was looking to try some clubs out before buying them, and having been given some good advice and a fitting, the pro then gave the recommended club to the golfer to take out on the course for a couple of rounds before making a decision as to whether to buy it or not. It was a simple gesture but it’s not something you can offer to a visiting golfer and you certainly won’t get that service from an online retailer!
The clubhouse delivers value to a member, not only in a social sense but a financial one, too. Most clubs provide a substantial discount to members in the restaurant and bar, and the atmosphere in your own clubhouse can provide a real sense of belonging. Life doesn’t afford many opportunities for meeting new people in an easier environment then your clubhouse, and when you set it against the feeling of walking in as a visitor, the advantage is self-evident: the familiar atmosphere, recognised faces and cheaper prices are significant benefits. You can also feel comfortable using the golf club as a place to relax, be it before a round, after a round, or simply as a social club. That’s not to suggest that most clubs don’t welcome visitors warmly, far from it, but it’s fair to say that as a club member you have a sense of belonging, whereas as a visiting golfer there can be a feeling of intrusion.
Where to join?
So, if you’re won over by the true value of a membership, how do you decide where to join? Of course you have to consider where your friends are members, what’s local and where you’ll find the right kind of atmosphere. But you may also be looking for attractive incentives, special facilities (eg tennis or a spa on-site), or a particular style or quality of course. And there are Country Memberships to consider, too, if you live in a city and are prepared to travel a little distance for your golf.
As a start, if you’re looking for a golf club membership, you can use iSpyGolf to see what’s available where, filtering your search by area, availability, special offers, etc, to find the perfect place for you. You can contact the clubs directly without having to leave the site.