The problem with Golf Memberships

According to Esquire, the number of people playing golf at least once a month has declined by more than a quarter in the UK since 2007.

The story is similar in Australia and Japan — which has lost 40 per cent of golfers from a peak in the mid-Nineties — and is especially pronounced in the US, which has almost half the world’s players and courses. Each year for the last 10 years, more 18-hole facilities have closed down in America than have been built; that trend is expected to continue for at least another decade. (And, because of the brute power of the pros these days, the rare courses that do open are often long and nightmarishly hard.)

The article went on to say why golfers are giving up the sport in favour of cycling, in my view THAT was an interesting observation!

Tim Lewis writing for Esquire said "Golf’s problem really is one of image: while cycling evokes freedom and wind-in-your-helmet vitality, golf is uptight and governed by rules that haven’t changed for centuries". “Most clubs are still entrenched in a tradition and a committee behaviour,” says Tim Southwell. “So when some kid comes in, 20 years old, who wants to have fun, he’s confronted immediately with about 55,000 things he can’t do. And he’s supposed to be paying for the privilege. Compared to any other service industry — which is what golf is at the end of the day — you don’t really get that anywhere else. Someone telling me to tuck my shirt in when I’m 40 years old or whatever? I just don’t need it, do I?”​

The most common explanation for the recent decline of golf is the financial crisis. The sport is expensive, so in the squeeze the first luxury to be sacrificed was the club membership (think from £5,000 to upwards of £200,000 per year at some name courses). Between 2004 and 2013, one-in-five golfers in England gave up their club membership; in the same period, membership dropped in Scotland by 14 per cent. It's a big problem, and Golf really needs to reinvent itself somehow.

I have tried to make sense of what the main problems are below, and I'd be interested in your views on this important topic. 

1. Considerable Costs

When you decide to purchase a golf membership, there are a wide range of costs that have been considered and some of these fees are far more cumbersome than you may have realized. The membership fee that you will be paying is typically not a flat rate and there are a plethora of added costs that you should thoroughly consider before you finally decide to choose a club and sign on the dotted line. Also, if you don't play you still PAY!

Many clubs still impose an initiation fee which is in excess of your annual membership. In all likelihood there will also be monthly dues to pay as well. For example many golf clubs institute mandatory monthly minimum spending requirements that ask members to spend a certain amount of money in the pro shop or on food and drinks. Whilst this is sold as a "convenience factor" it is also money in the bank for the course which in some cases the member will never see back (rarely have I seen these bar initiatives rolled over into the following years membership if the money is not spent).

If the club undergoes any sort of renovation or addition in the future, guess who will be footing the bill for these changes? That's right, the member. Some clubs have what is known as a separation or debenture policy, which means that a current member cannot actually suspend their membership until a new member has been found to replace them. This was certainly the case for my Company when it invested in a corporate membership at the Hanbury Manor CC in Hertfordshire, England. 

Tipping the employees especially in the US, is a must and not something that is as prevalent in other sports, tennis for example. As a member you will also have to pay for the usage of a locker, shell out for any added golf lessons you may want to take and there also usually cart and caddie costs that are not built into your base membership fees.

2. Lengthy Process

If you believe that you will simply be able to waltz into a private golf club, plunk down your membership fees and start playing the same day, you are in for a shock. I am a member of a gym and leisure facility near where I live. I met with the membership team at 10am and was playing tennis by 11.30. The process of gaining a golf membership tends to be much more arduous and selective.

For every club that is willing to let you write a one time check for all of your fees and join immediately, there are a variety of others who have a far more stringent registration process and they will force you to jump through a variety of hoops to prove your worthiness as a member. If you are not ready and able to do so, you could experience some major difficulties.

Some clubs may ask for references from current members before allowing you to join and if you are unwilling to network your way in, you may find yourself out of luck. The concept of walking into a golf club and leaving with a brand new membership in the same day is unrealistic in most clubs. I was asked to play 9 holes of golf with three members before I was considered for membership at my previous club. It took a month to arrange a suitable time for everybody to play given existing commitments, and that was before I had an interview with the membership committee and the Club Secretary. Painful!  

3. Prohibitive Rules

While the costs of joining a golf club and the process of gaining membership can be cumbersome, just imagine your delight when you finally reach the end of the tunnel, only to find out that there are a number of rules that are designed to diminish your level of personal enjoyment once you've completed the process. To some degree you buy into this being a golfer, rules and etiquette are a mainstay of the sport, and in the most part honoured, however some of these regulations are way out of date in my opinion. Take the mobile phone for instance.

In a world where everyone has a smartphone attached to their hip and many people need them for work purposes, most golf clubs still apply a universal ban on their usage inside of the clubhouse. Whilst I can appreciate the need for etiquette, and usage on the course itself should be minimized, the banning of mobile communication within the clubhouse is fast becoming an outdated stance (no pun intended). 

4. Politics

A golf club is just any other group that you will join throughout the course of your life. There is always going to be a certain amount of infighting and political agendas of to deal with, you may not enjoy the company of all the people who you are now essentially signed up to spend your free time with. But that's life, you pay your money you make your choice. It doesn't detract from the point though that this can serve as a huge letdown after going through the process of paying membership fees and registering.

I was reminded by an excellent article I read in the Economist which you can read here as golf grows more inclusive, Britain is growing less so. At the risk of stretching the analogy too far, the country is like Muirfield, a club with a long tradition of excellence. In May this year, Muirfield’s members effectively voted to quit a larger club (of courses which host the Open) rather than allow outsiders (women, in this case) to join their little bastion. It was a decision that, unless reversed, dooms Muirfield to a steady decline into obscurity.

It makes me sad that the business of golf seems to be going backwards, especially in a world where innovation in pretty much every other sector is set to disrupt traditional business models. Think of what Airbnb has done to the travel sector, Apple has done for personal computing, Google has done for finding out pretty much anything and AliBaba has empowered people to save, spend and be entertained.

​Golf needs to adapt and do so quickly in order to accommodate the next generation of players and reverse the current trends in dwindling membership. 

What do you think? Let me know.

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