With some US golf courses being converted back to farmland, Peter McCusker asks whether the 20-year growth in UK golf is over and how many of the region's 80-plus clubs can survive.
SINCE the early 1980s, the stock of golf courses in the UK has risen by over 30% and now stands at a record level of 2,400.
Just 10 years ago, some courses would have had waiting lists of more than five years and after the wait was over prospective members would have had to pay a £500 joining fee and then a £400 annual subscription. Not any more. Most golf clubs are now crying out for new members and have even waived joining fees.
Even the likes the region's most prestigious venue Slaley Hall now offers cut-price deals on membership in order to boost revenues.
"Commercial interests realised there was shortage of supply in golf courses in the 1980s and piled new money into golf course construction. The level of investment had been unprecedented in the history of the game," says Mike Williamson, of MW Associates, an Edinburgh-based golf business consultant.
But times have changed and there is now an oversupply of courses - and Williamson believes not all of them will survive.
"As many as 20% of the traditional mid-range members clubs could be in financial difficulties faced with a double-whammy of rising costs and falling revenues," he says.
"In America, which witnessed a similar construction boom, courses have been closed and returned to farmland.
"Some UK courses may have to think the unthinkable of folding, amalgamation, or at least considering sharing a clubhouse, management or greenkeeping operations.
"Rationalisation may be unpalatable but it may become inevitable if they are to survive."
This bleak assessment was reinforced in a recent report on the golfing industry by Stockton-based Plimsoll Publishing, which predicted that zero growth, sliding profits and escalating debts have pushed a third of the UK golf courses to the brink of failure.
David Pattison, a Plimsoll analyst who produced the report, said: "Consolidation is essential as supply is outstripping demand... bit by bit the weaker players will be removed from the market."