'It will be a miracle if we survive until winter': The stark reality facing golf clubs

Steve Carrollin Golf

A golf club's letter to the Government and golf's governing bodies shows the invidious position many are in as they try to navigate the coronavirus pandemic

The pressures facing golf clubs during the coronavirus outbreak have been laid bare in a letter forwarded to NationalClubGolfer.com. The communication, which has gone to the Government and golf's governing bodies, outlines the financial and staff pressures one club are facing - and shows their very real fear they will not survive the pandemic.

The club, who wish to remain anonymous but are based in Wales, sent the letter in an effort to reveal the choices they are being forced to make as we head into the second week of the Covid-19 lockdown and a crisis that could last for months.

The letter has been edited to remove any identifying markers but, otherwise, is run in full…

"Please let me begin by providing you with some background information. Our club directly employs five staff involved with the management of our course, two are involved in administration and our trading involves our Professional Golfer and his team of two, along with a husband and wife team who handle our catering.

Therefore 12 people are totally dependant upon our successful trading.

We are regarded as one of the top courses in Wales and such is our success in generating visitors that 40% of our annual income (+/- £200k) is generated from those visitors.

When I was involved in local government, we undertook a survey and calculated that for every £1 spent at our club by visitors, an extra £2.50 was directly generated into the town and the traders.

Therefore if our club were to fail due to the crisis, the whole town itself would be seriously impacted and the local economy could experience an overall loss in excess of three-quarters of a million pounds.

This now leads me to the reason for contacting you as, despite the publicised financial assistance from National Government, I am extremely fearful that we are about to "fall between the cracks" and our club could fail.

Please let me explain:

We are not, say, a hotel where you turn-off the lights, close the door and walk away, to return three to six months later, open the door, turn on the lights and continue as before.

Our business is entirely governed by an area of continually growing and ever-changing pasture conditions.

From late April until late October every year we fight - and I mean fight - to keep the rapidly growing grass under control and to fight against natural pathogen/fungal disease which appears on the greens of every golf course during spring, summer and autumn.

Untreated, these diseases can completely kill the surface of a green within a remarkably short time. If it should happen then it takes between one and two years to repair and it is extremely expensive (circa £20,000 per green and up to 18 greens to renew).

If we could, now, place our course into suspended animation then we would not be worried. However that is impossible.

The scenario before us is simply financial - we cannot now afford to keep employing staff for an unspecified period with 40% of our annual income having vanished.

Yes, we can apply for staff furlough. I imagine that would be simple once the HMRC Portal is active (whenever that may be). However the critical restrictions from the Government for the offer are currently clear and unambiguous - to achieve furlough status you cannot work or benefit your employer.

This leads to a logical position of staff being furloughed, our course pasture continues to grow untended, our greens suffering from the inevitable fungal disease against which we battle every year and nobody being allowed to take ANY action (even essential) as it is against the furlough demands.

In six month's time we no longer have a course, the business fails and the effort we have all taken to maintain the employment of our staff was pointless, as they will all be made redundant.

We have another option: We keep the staff employed on a reduced hourly rate.

They maintain the course.

But as we depend totally on visitors to balance the books and visitors are unlikely to attend, we would have a wonderfully maintained course but without enough visitor income to continue to trade.

My calculations show that, if this was the scenario, then we run out of money around September and that is based on us receiving the one-off Government cash handout and postponement of Business Rates etc.

Furthermore, if we did achieve a miracle and did survive until early winter, we definitely could not generate new income (at a time when golf courses are traditionally quiet due to poor weather) to allow us to exist until the new 2021 season commences around April.

At the moment, we simply do not have any direction or option which, so far, avoids our projected demise. It is the classic 'Catch 22' position!

At the present time we are 'doing our best' for our employees.

From tomorrow (Monday 30th) they are reduced to a 25-hour week whether or not they attend at work and we will do so until we achieve the furlough payment scheme from HMRC.

Unlike other employers, we have not cast our valued employees into the abyss. I am immensely proud of that decision, despite the fact it will hurt us financially.

Having enjoyed a career in UK and International Business and Corporate activity and for the last 15 years of work specialising in "saving struggling businesses", I do have a possible solution and, if you felt it appropriate, I would be honoured if you could make representation on our behalf to the appropriate section of Government.

If HMRC/Government could perhaps classify 'workers involved in the golf industry' as "Agricultural/Farm workers" then the problem could be overcome.

Golf club workers are, effectively, agricultural workers, maintaining pasture and the only difference is that the end user is not livestock, but human.

Using a WW2 expression, our workers (exactly as Farm/Agricultural) could be classified as 'Reserved Occupation' with a certain degree of flexibility and have deemed permission to travel.

Quite simply, we need to somehow have the option of:

  • Retaining highly trained staff
  • Having their wages covered by an external source (furlough) and yet
  • Having the option to call them into work (perhaps even as volunteers) as the need arises without affecting the restrictions imposed under furloughing.

I apologise for the length of this approach but believe that it is vital that you have all of the information at the outset and I look forward to receiving your response and advice within the very near future."

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