Most of us who play golf are passionate about it, and many golfers will go out at any time of the year to play in scorching heat, rain, freezing cold or snow. There are even courses with fairway lighting for night-time rounds.
For a sport that is so obsessed with rules, it is surprisingly innovative. Developments in equipment have genuinely enabled us to improve our game, whatever our level of skill. Each year’s golf balls are designed to fly further and straighter than those of the last, and our clubs are fitted like a bespoke suit. Now, even the way golf clubs are financed is being challenged.
The traditional subscription method used by most British clubs could be said to discriminate against golfers who work full-time, particularly if they are frequent travellers. For those of us confined to solitary rounds at weekends, the full membership fee can appear to be poor value for money.
One enterprising club has come up with a more equitable system. Ten years ago, Lord March, whose family owns the Goodwood Estate on the South Downs, took back the leases on the Downs and Park golf courses, as well as the old Kennels clubhouse, originally the kennels for the Duke of Richmond’s foxhounds. He then took the unusual step of developing a credits system, which underpins the way Golf At Goodwood is now run. Members pay a small sub, decide how many games they think they will play during the next 12 months and buy the necessary credits. One of my golf partners, a member of several clubs, including Goodwood, told me: “It’s very relaxed; like me, many Goodwood members also belong to other clubs.”
I drove down to Goodwood in the autumn and, over a drink in The Kennels, asked March about subscriptions. “There’s no initial fee to join Goodwood,” he told me. “You pay a £245 annual sub and buy a bundle of credits – 300 would cost you just over £1,000. If you want to play The Downs course at a peak time, say 9.30am on a Saturday in midsummer, it will cost you seven credits – about £30 per round.” This might work out at £1,700 or so for a year’s golf and membership for someone who generally plays at that time each week. Members who don’t use up all their credits within 12 months can roll them over to the next year. So at any given time, members have control over when they play and how much they spend. By way of comparison, a year’s full membership – until now, the most cost-effective way of playing every weekend – is £4,895 at Stoke Park (plus a £2,000 joining fee and £250 annual house levy) and £4,044 at The London Golf Club (plus a £7,200 joining fee).
“Membership is vital,” continued March. “It gives you social advantage and the company of people interested in golf.” You can’t just turn up and pay a green fee at The Downs course, but members are allowed to bring guests. There’s also the option of the traditional full membership – the Braid membership – which is limited to 100.
March admits that when he started working on the credits system, it wasn’t easy to get the model right. “The software was complex and took several years to finesse.” But now it’s working well and being copied. In summer 2013, Crown Golf, which owns 26 courses in the Home Counties, launched a similar “Freedom Play” system at eight of its clubs and plans to extend it to others.
But it’s not just the subscription that has been refined at Goodwood, which now has about 2,000 members. “I was determined that the club should be relaxed and take a more liberal approach,” said March. “Golf clubs should make an effort to create a genial atmosphere. If you’re new to the sport, you should be welcomed into it and not feel intimidated. For instance, there’s no dress code at Goodwood. We didn’t feel we needed one.”
March’s instincts are borne out by research commissioned by Syngenta, a Swiss-based specialist in agriculture and turf, which canvassed more than 3,500 UK residents – both golfers and non-golfers – about their views on the sport. Eric Brown, its global turf business manager, told me about the findings: “Some people resist taking up the game because they don’t know how to get started and are apprehensive about joining a club. Many of the lapsed golfers we talked to said they would come back if the clubs were more flexible; dress codes where jeans are banned on the course and where jackets and ties have to be worn in the clubhouse often put them off.” In addition, golfers sometimes feel intimidated by club rules and regulations (28 per cent), members (also 28 per cent) or staff (19 per cent). “Twenty five per cent of them didn’t feel valued as members,” confirms Brown.
Of course, there are clubs where the old culture never changes. Muirfield, Royal Troon, Royal St George’s and The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, for example, still can’t bring themselves to admit women members. When I enquired at Muirfield about the credit system, the man in the office said, “Certainly not.”
I asked David Roy, managing secretary of Crail Golfing Society and an expert in the management of golf clubs and subscriptions, what he thought about the credit system. He believes it’s unlikely to be widely acceptable to private clubs, which thrive on heritage and regenerate by electing like-minded members, but can see it working for new types of club. “It’s the sort of device someone like Donald Trump might use. And it’s ideal for Goodwood, which is a lovely club and part of a sporting estate, making it more of a ‘destination’ than a traditional club.”
When I visited Goodwood in October, the bar was buzzing and informal, with a number of people working on their laptops. Afterwards I went to remind myself of The Downs course – a jewel in the crown of English golf. It was laid out in 1901 by the 6th Duke of Richmond, who commissioned James Braid to redesign it in 1914. Braid was one of the greatest British golfers and a prolific designer; he won The Open five times and specialised in planning parkland courses. His work here has stood the test of time. The sixth is one of golf’s loveliest holes: a par four from a high tee with oak and beech lining the fairway and a well-bunkered, reachable green 330 yards below you. The finish, particularly the long 16th, is memorable and always gives you something to talk about afterwards. Goodwood remains a beautiful, unspoiled place and the credit system makes it easier for golfers to play there.
Committed members who play in all weathers are the backbone of any golf club. They regularly spend money in the clubhouse and help to establish the competitive environment that golfers need to improve their game. But the number of golfers across the British Isles’ 3,000 or so courses dropped as a result of bad weather in 2012, and clubs need to find ways of attracting new members. Perhaps a hybrid business model incorporating some form of credit system would help to lure back lapsed members and also attract the new generation of golfers on whom their future depends.