It is not too long ago that if you were to walk into your local golf club without a handicap and ask about joining, you would be shown the door. Either that or be told in no uncertain terms that you could go on a waiting list but should not expect a call for at least five years, possibly ten.
The impression given at many private clubs was that if you had not played golf before, then you were probably "the wrong sort" anyway. It was a classic Catch-22. You could not get a handicap unless you were a member of a club, and you could not become a member of a club unless you had a handicap.
Most importantly, you were not needed. Private clubs had enough members to cover costs and healthy waiting lists that provided a steady drip of new members when others died or left. In this way, income was guaranteed and there was no need for clubs to market themselves. How times have changed.
Even before the credit crunch, old, established clubs throughout the UK had been experiencing a decline in membership numbers, a reflection on changing lifestyles and the fact that demand was being easily met by the 800 or so new courses, many of them pay-and-play facilities, constructed since the 1980s - a time when the popularity of the game reached new heights thanks to the exploits of Nick Faldo, Sandy Lyle and Ian Woosnam, major champions all, as well as a burgeoning Europe Ryder Cup team.
Recent surveys in England and Scotland have identified what is termed a "demand deficit", with too many facilities chasing too few golfers.
An English Golf Union (EGU) survey in 2008 revealed that about four million people play golf in England alone, but that only about 28 per cent are members of clubs, a fall of 4 per cent since 2006.
If this continues, and 2009 looks like being a pivotal year, then many could find themselves in dire straits, unable to meet their costs.
The report found that almost half England's golf clubs have falling memberships; nine out of ten have vacancies; the majority are seeking new members and that waiting lists have virtually disappeared. Now, at a time when many clubs have just sent out annual renewal notices, many are wondering what impact the economic downturn is going to have. Are things about to get worse? And will some clubs go to the wall?
Keith Lloyd, the chief executive of the Golf Club Managers' Association, said: "It's probably a month too early to form an exact opinion on memberships, but the reaction I'm getting is that some people are paying their subs and some are not.
"It was not uncommon for clubs to lose 30 to 40 members last year and that's probably going to be the same this year. I think most [among the managers] are worried by what will happen this time next year, because the economic climate is adding fuel to the fire.
"In the Eighties and Nineties, there was a big expansion in golf because the demand grew so much. We built around 850 new courses in that time [there are now about 2,500 in Britain] and now we've probably got a few too many. Without suggesting that some should close, it seems inevitable that some will do so.
"Those that are more proactive and well managed will survive. We have to market ourselves better and be more flexible. For example, instead of paying, say, £600 a year as a membership, perhaps you could pay half that and £10 every time you played."
At a time when people are losing jobs and struggling to pay mortgages, many younger players are reassessing whether they are getting value for money from their memberships.
It is an issue that concerns Richard Flint, the golf development manager for the EGU, which has recently received a £12.5million grant from Sport England to promote the game, particularly among youngsters.
"The trend is that more people than ever are playing the game, but fewer are committing to golf club membership," he said. "Over the next year we will see the true impact of the credit crunch. This year will be a testing time for golf clubs, to see whether people will be forgoing memberships for other things."
The news is not all negative, however. While the 2008 survey showed that about 40 per cent of clubs have had a decrease in membership, 23 per cent have had an increase. "A quarter of the clubs have put in innovative programmes to get members in and have shown it can be done," Flint said. "Gone are the days when you were turned away from golf clubs."
With Celtic Manor, venue for the 2010 Ryder Cup, recently announcing 70 redundancies from its staff, among them a number of greenkeepers, it is little wonder that Scott MacCullum, communications manager of the British and International Golf Greenkeepers Association, is concerned.
"There are job losses, but it is difficult to quantify because clubs are independent entities," he said. "I know there are a number being laid off at present, but much of our information is anecdotal. We know that economic times are hard and that golf in many people's eyes is not an essential.
"If golf clubs are not retaining their memberships or getting people through the door, there's a knock-on effect. But good clubs realise that their best asset is the course. If they try to maintain their standards, they will attract what business is out there."
Michael Williamson, a golf business consultant based in Edinburgh, has witnessed the same thing emerging in Scotland. "The recession may accelerate a pattern [of falling memberships] that was there already," he said. "Social trends are to do with people's scarcity of time and the wider availability of golf on a pay-as-you-play basis.
"It's anecdotal, but I'm hearing stories of clubs where the cost-cutting has got to such a stage that there aren't many costs remaining to be cut. Some clubs are getting rid of greenkeepers, or laying off the secretary, and dividing up the tasks among volunteers. I wouldn't be surprised to see some clubs going to the wall or having to consider radical alternatives. For example, if there are two or three clubs within a small radius, might they share one managing secretary or one head greenkeeper? Things of that sort, to try to economise."
While there are still some high-end developments being planned, the future probably lies much farther down the scale. Williamson points to a development near Edinburgh where a farmer is adding a nine-hole course to an existing driving range and is encouraging families.
In 1997, the Henley Centre identified an emerging demand for what it called "fast golf, friendly golf, family golf". This is just such a development. "I think traditional golf clubs have to move as far in that direction as they possibly can," Williamson suggested. "Particularly in terms of relaxing dress code, welcoming families and so on."
And as for the Royal Troons, Muirfields and Royal Birkdales of this world? They seem immune from the downturn, earning good income from visitors without having very many of them. The one thing missing from all their websites is an invitation to join the club. Now there's a surprise.
Worrying trends identified by wide-ranging surveys in England and Scotland Based on a 2008 EGU survey of golf in England, many of whose trends are replicated in Scotland and Wales.
See rest of the article and survey information from Source:- Timesonline
By Peter Dixon