Changing the Story | Iain Carter

Changing the Story | Iain Carter

We are constantly being told golf is in decline but this is nonsense.

People within the sport too frequently shrug shoulders in that “well what can you do” kind of way when confronted with figures showing membership numbers falling across the United Kingdom.

There seems to be an acceptance within and outwith the game that golf is struggling; out of date and yesterday’s sport. I repeat, it is nonsense.

The truth is that golf is changing. The club model is not for everyone and fewer people are able to justify the kind of outlay required to be a member for what they get in return. 

And as a result membership numbers are contracting. But that is only one part of golf and many sections of the industry are thriving.

This was reinforced last week by the chief executive of the R&A, Martin Slumbers, when he addressed the media in his upstairs office at the famous clubhouse in St Andrews. 

Each February members of the golf media are invited and while Slumbers’ key motive was to announce that the 2023 Open will be at Royal Troon, he also took the opportunity to address other golfing issues of the day.

And it was clear that the St Andrews boss, one of the most influential figures in golf, wants to change the narrative. He confronted head on the the doom and gloom merchants who would have you believe the sport is dying.

Furthermore, he had the figures to back it up. “We had independent research done,” Slumbers told us.  

“If you look at how many people consume golf, so 18-hole golf, 9-hole golf, driving ranges, par-3 courses, adventure golf, TopGolf, all of those aspects,” he added.

“That group of people is 10.2 million people in GB&I. It is also a group that is much more diverse. It is also a group that is much younger.” 

That is a lot of people consuming golf, one way or another.  

Slumbers added: “There's only two sports in GB&I that have more people who participate in it if you look at golf that way. That is swimming and the gym. That's it.”   

Look at it that way and you might say golf is in rude health. But Slumbers is a businessman and knows the importance of taking into account worst case scenarios.

He knows that membership figures have dipped to around the one million mark and that some of the consumers of the other forms of the game might not consider themselves golfers.

“Let's say, because we're all a bit cynical, half of them don't think they're playing golf,” he went on.

“That's still 5 million. So 5 million versus 1 million.” He urged us to check out local driving ranges, I know the one closest to me is always very busy, and then hit us with the key question.   

“Why aren't those 5 million joining golf clubs? I would argue it's because the golf clubs are not providing a product those 5 million people want to buy.”

And there we had it. The boss of the R&A, that most traditional of organisations, saying it was time for golf clubs to change to capitalise on the interest that evidently remains in the game.

“I think if you go into clubs that are very family orientated, have fitness, have creches, have coffee shops, have wi-fi, have no dress code, have short par-3 golf course, have short 9-hole golf course, pitch and putt, those are the ones that are going to succeed,” he said.

The dress code bit was a bit rich, given that this is the only press conference we attend where we are expected to wear jacket and tie. But the central point makes perfect sense.

There are opportunities out there for golf clubs. There is demand to do golf in many different forms that are not necessarily the traditional way we have consumed the sport in the past.

It was uplifting stuff. The next day I was lucky enough to play The Old Course and, for once, the February weather cooperated. It was an amazing way to spend a morning. 

But it didn’t have to be on the most famous and historic golf course in the world. It could have been anywhere. I would have been enjoying myself, socialising and exercising - in short having fun. 

Hitting golf balls, trying to solve the puzzle of the most maddening of sports is enough at whatever level you play.

The figures prove it, people like it. We should look to capitalise and no longer shrug our shoulders if the game isn’t quite what it once was. In many ways, that is not a bad thing.

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