0 Time for operators to think the unthinkable and pool resources?

The last 20 years has not only witnessed a dramatic boom in golf course development, it has also seen a sea change in the way golf courses are run, with the emphasis now on a commercial return.

The traditional model established in the initial golf course boom at the start of the 20th Century is that of a private members' club.

These were run for the benefit of their members, were non-profit-making and were on the whole run by volunteers.

But almost all of the courses which have been built in the last few decades were conceived and are run by commercial interests.

One man with in-depth knowledge of the commercial factors now in play in the world of golf is Mark Stancer, golf operations manager at Slaley Hall for 12 years.

This has been a period which has seen the prestigious venue narrowly miss out on hosting next month's Ryder Cup as well as hosting 13 European Tour events.

"In the mid-1980s there was a lot of research which showed that golf was under-catered for.

"In some cases you would have to wait six years to join and it was basically just a golf club.

"This prompted a golf course building boom with more than 750 clubs being built, taking the total number of courses in the UK to more than 2,400.

"The commercial world woke up to the fact that there was a huge market out there and these new proprietary clubs were being driven by profits.

"The other change came with the creation of additional facilities centred on the golfing experience.

"It became more than just golf, with the addition of a whole host of additional leisure facilities.

"De Vere developed the market for golfing leisure breaks which allows the golfer to bring his family by providing additional facilities for the family while the golfer was on the course.

"The professional person now has less time and this is an ideal way to play golf in leisure time as well as being able to see the family."

This change in the way people play golf has also had a major impact on the private members of clubs - which still account for 70% of the UK golfing market.

Golf analyst Mike Williamson said: "There has been a major change in the way people play golf which is having an impact on private members' clubs.

"People are short of time and during the economic downturn also short of cash.

"Someone who may have previously paid £500 to join a club but only play 10 times a year will quickly realise £50 a round is not a great investment.

"There is definitely some evidence that younger people are now opting to play different courses and play on a 'pay as you play' basis and this is having an impact on traditional golf club memberships."

Despite the gathering storm clouds there is still some optimism among the experts that the region's 80-plus clubs will all have a future.

Martin Brister, a director of Humberts Leisure, which operates the Golf Business news website, is confident members' clubs will survive.

"At the moment the golf course market is saturated, but one thing in favour of private members' clubs is that there is no VAT on membership fees," he says.

Williamson adds: "The model that Crown Golf uses allows economies of scale. The operator may have just one head greenkeeper for a number of courses and one booking office for all their facilities.

"No private clubs have closed in the UK yet, but they are going to have to consider their futures.

"Running costs are going up, membership and green fees are being pegged by a lack of demand; neighbouring clubs may have to think the unthinkable and consider pooling their resources.

"But golf clubs have an amazing way of surviving whatever ill winds come their way."

Stancer agrees: "Not all private members' clubs are struggling. Some here in the North East are doing extremely well. There will always be a future for private members' clubs."


CROWN Golf is the largest multi-site golf club enterprise in Europe.

It owns 33 clubs and operates 50 courses mainly in London and the South East with a total membership of 27,000.

Despite being privately owned, its clubs all have their own membership and these committees have a certain degree of influence in the way the company operates.

Its sales and marketing director Nick Moran says: "We have grown our estate over the years by acquisitions.

"All the clubs are run by salaried club managers, they all have their own committees who we consult with and they report into our general meetings.

"Despite some of the gloom surrounding the golf sector, we have witnessed an 8% growth in membership numbers in the last year.

Mr Moran believes golf clubs will have to evolve as membership numbers shrink.

"Clubs are going to have to think long and hard about how they position themselves in the future.

"There will always be a place for a simple 18-hole course with a greenkeeper's hut, but many clubs are going to have to think about the facilities they offer, whether it will be health and fitness clubs, hiring out function rooms, developing coaching facilities, or junior golf academies."

Mr Moran believes these members' clubs will be able to survive but in recent months has witnessed a new phenomenon which illustrates the difficulties some are facing.

"This has never happened to us in all of the time we have been in existence but in recent months we have been approached by private members' clubs asking about management contracts. They are basically saying to us we need your help."

Source :- Nebusiness.co.uk

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