The State of the Game 2020

Welcome to my third annual review of the state of golf in England.

As in previous versions, I will analyse three key areas of the industry and offer grades to judge how each is performing. Is golf the class nerd with top marks or is the game wallowing in the sporting wilderness?

Entry Level

Driven by technology and improving practice facilities, the entry level to the sport is showing positive signs.

The Topgolf model has shaken up the driving range sector, creating a social, fun element to hitting balls and attracting a younger market. The ideas brought to this sector, particularly the use of technology on the range, are being widely copied. At the recent GCMA Conference, representatives from TopGolf were in attendance, selling smaller franchise versions of their products including TopTracer.

Along similar lines, more and more indoor facilities are opening. Particularly in the winter months these comfortable, warm environments are far more attractive to learn the game than on a freezing practice ground.

Indeed golf is in some danger of becoming ‘cool’. Combine the trendy new facilities with celebrity endorsements from the likes of Niall Horan, Justin Timberlake and Kim Kardaishian and young people are giving the game a go. Social media driven campaigns such as #thisgirlgolfs and Girls Golf Rocks have been effective in building the number of young female players taking up the sport. There has recently been a pop-up indoor cocktails and putting ‘bar’ opened up in a previously vacant retail space in the centre of Norwich. In this way, businesses are making money and golf in various forms reaches the masses.

An area that is still waiting to be exploited is the architecturally interesting ‘short’ courses of 6,9 or 12 holes. These facilities will be crucial in encouraging the TopGolf, adventure golf or cocktail and putting player to transition to playing on a course. The traditional council run pitch and putts just do not cut the mustard. They are muddy and boring. Whilst reading Tommy’s Honour recently, something struck me. Old Tom Morris created the original Prestwick course over a limited space of land. He used the natural contours to create a fantastic 12 hole course that was good enough to stage The Open Championship. The clubhouse was simple and with limited overheads the model sustainable. If it could be done in the mid 1800’s, why not in 2020?

Grade: B-

Club Level

At the very heart of the game in England lie around 2,000 Clubs that incorporate a membership fee to join with associated benefits such as gaining an official handicap and playing competitions.

In the last 12 years this model has been put under severe pressure, with the economic downturn forcing many households to trim their budgets, with golfing memberships a luxury that could no longer be justified. To counter-act this, many Clubs have introduced more flexible categories of membership, whereby the golfer pays a lower initial fee for a restricted number of rounds.

For some, this has been a success. But in 2019, golf clubs continued to close down at the rate of around one a week. Whilst naturally attracting the headlines, these figures hide the real picture. Under the surface, Clubs have been quietly investing and modernising, helped by the flow of new members created by other Clubs closing and VAT repayments from historical claims. My own Club is looking at a waiting list for membership in 2020 for the first time this century.

So there has been a gentle revolution taking place and many Clubs are now stronger than they have been for several years. The traditional model of membership is alive and well, retained by the valued communities that are established within Clubs, whose social and wellbeing benefits stretch well beyond just a game.

But at this very time that Clubs are re-emerging from a difficult period with strength and confidence, a threat lies from within. In an attempt to gain funding from the non-member, or ‘independent’ golfer the National Governing Body (England Golf) is attempting to implement a scheme whereby golfers can gain the key benefit of membership – an official handicap – without joining a Club but rather paying an annual fee to England Golf. This has the potential to rip the very soul out of the annual membership model. The Governing body should be reminded that they exist to help grow the game and not just protect their own position.

Grade: C

Professional Level

Anybody witnessing the remarkable victory of Tiger Woods at Augusta back in April cannot help but see what a needle mover this gentleman is for the game of golf. Tiger as an individual transcends the world of golf and brings headlines to the front as well as the back pages. His reinvigorated presence at the top of the professional game by itself means that the sport at this level is in a healthy place.

Delve a little deeper however, and there are issues to address – not least slow play. This is a turn off for TV and live audiences alike. I understand that there are grey areas here such as crowd control and the like. I am also aware that there is research going on behind the scenes to come up with a fair way to analyse speed of play, but the truth is that until the authorities start imposing shot penalties on serial offenders, not much will change.

It would appear that we are grinding, or inching a little closer to rolling back the distances players hit the ball. Drives averaging well over 300 yards take away most of the interesting strategy from classic architecture, making many of the worlds greatest courses obsolete at the elite level. Most likely (and easily) will be restrictions on the golf ball. A reduction of 10% would be effective. I see no reason why the amateur should not continue to use the same ball as the pros. After all an average golfers 10% loss will be much less than the top players. Let us also hope that more venues are kept firm and fast in the mould of the recent Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne as the ground game introduces thrilling elements of chance, variety and skill.

The ladies side of the game is still some way behind the men’s in terms of media coverage and prize levels but the product is improving all of the time. The recent intervention of the LPGA and European Tours into the ladies game in Europe is a welcome boost for female players based here.

Many people lament the loss of golf on free to view terrestrial television. I am not so sure that it is a problem. The excellent wall to wall coverage on Sky and The Golf Channel and the investments that they put back into the game far outreach anything that the free to air channels could provide. For those unwilling to pay for their golf coverage, online sites such as YouTube contain an extraordinary amount of quality content covering everything from PGA Tour highlights, to instruction, to course vlogs.

Grade: B-

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