The BBC examines the state of the golf industry

Tania Longmire
By Tania Longmire July 4, 2017 11:49

BBC Radio 4 has devoted a 30-minute programme to analysing the state of the UK’s golf industry after nearly 20 years of significant change.

Journalist and broadcaster Mark Hodkinson visited Riddlesden Golf Club in Yorkshire, which closed down last year, and talked about the changes – including the rise of cycling – with the likes of The Times’ former golf correspondent John Hopkins, the BBC’s golf correspondent Iain Carter and the editor of The Golf Business, Alistair Dunsmuir.

“In the 1970s and 80s many men of a certain age and class spent their weekends and summer evenings playing golf,” stated Hodkinson. “Not any more. England Golf reports that one in five golfers has given up club membership since 2004.”

The programme then revealed that over a recent seven-year period the number playing once a month has fallen from 1.5 million to 1.1 million.

“It has had the knock-on effect of hitting golf clubs very hard, leading to many closures,” said Dunsmuir.

Riddlesden Golf Club was formed in 1927, its membership halved over three years to barely 100, forcing it to close last year. It is now abandoned, the greens overgrown, the clubhouse derelict and boarded up.

“When the council came and took the keys off me, the drive home that day was gutting,” John Dickinson, its former secretary, who had played the course for more than 30 years, revealed. “My wife just said to me, ‘Sit down, I’ll get you a drink, because I know how you feel’.”

The broadcast explained that gender roles and the work / life balance in society may have played a role in the participation decline, as men are now less likely to disappear for a day to play the game.

“People are working longer hours and want to better enjoy their free time,” said Professor Sir Cary Cooper of the University of Manchester, an expert on wellbeing. “Studies have shown that the key to this is relationships, especially within the family. So this means men aren’t out on a golf course somewhere with their mates but are doing stuff with their wife and kids.”

Richard Fletcher, business editor of The Times, told the programme that he believes cycling has replaced golf as an out-of-office jolly, where contacts are made and business deals negotiated.

“I can’t remember when I was last invited to a golf day,” he said. “So many people now cycle and it has a real corporate element. Often it will be the first topic discussed, or we’ll agree to follow each other on Strava [a website and mobile app that tracks athletic activity via GPS].”

The programme did leave cause for optimism however.

“Whatever the doomsayers say, it is still the fifth most popular sport in the UK,” said Hodkinson.

“Whether you’re playing traditional golf on a great course, or at your local municipal, or TopGolf, or on the driving range, you’re contributing to the industry,” said Carter. “All these different initiatives give me optimism that golf can grow and remain relevant. And golf will be massive at the next Olympics in Tokyo.

“But golf has to find ways of playing it to make it more attractive to families; to women and children.”

In The Rough: Golf’s Uncertain Future was broadcast on Monday, July 3 at 8pm and Wednesday, July 5 at 11am. You can hear the broadcast online here:


Tania Longmire
By Tania Longmire July 4, 2017 11:49
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  1. Tony July 6, 12:56

    Interesting listening to the BBC Radio 4 programme contrasting the fortunes of golf and cycling and having personally been involved in the golf sector for 32 years, and several recessions, I am curious to get the industry’s view on the thoughts that came to my mind while stuck on the M6 Motorway:

    The loss of terrestrial TV coverage of golf apparently coincides with the decline in participation
    One of the contributors commented on the fact that the highest viewing figure of any golf tournament last year was the Olympics – Free to air terrestrial coverage.
    Mention was made of the young and dynamic players on golf tours – if sky sports only attract a few hundred thousand viewers, mainly existing golfers and football fans, compared to millions on BBC (Danny Willetts winning the Masters and the viewing figures published for the Sunday of that tournament) not enough potential golfer will see these players in action and be inspired in the way Seve, Woosnam, Faldo, Nicklaus etc. inspired my generation.
    The last bulge in golf participation was in the 1980’s and 1990’s – TV coverage and British/European success in Ryder Cups and Masters – Professional golfers were recognised and household names
    Many of my friends have watched cycling on ITV4 and Eurosport over the last decade, and seen the competition and excitement of the sport – helped by significant British success more recently
    Time is not the issue – The chap from British Cycling said rides are anything from 15 miles to 70 or 80 miles (5 or 6 hours!) and that is what me and my friends do at weekends. Easily the time equivalent of 18 holes plus.
    Ageing population – the bulge in the playing population is going to stop playing in the next 5 to 10 years simply due to their age and physical ability – this will be potentially catastrophic to the industry unless something changes very soon.
    I understand that cricket’s governing body has changed direction, moving away from a subscription based channel with exclusive coverage and now they see it as imperative to get cricket coverage back on terrestrial free to air TV

    Is it arguable that Sky Sports subscription has restricted the viewing of golf in the UK to existing sports fans and golfers, rather than non-golfers that potentially stumble across a tournament on terrestrial TV. If so, could we be losing out on potential golfers that could be tempted to go to their local “Muni” for a bit of help and guidance and become future golfers? The TV rights for PGA Tour will never be decided based on participation issues in the UK, however could it be argued that terrestrial TV coverage of European Tour, Ryder Cup and The Open would have an impact on participation levels in the UK.

    Here is another question: How much would it cost for our industry to pay for 7 or 8 hours advertising per day, for 4 solid days showcasing some of the best golfers, and course, in the world on BBC with 4 or 5 million plus golfing and non-golfing viewers in the UK? To draw to parallel between golf and cycling; the Tour de France is being show in its entirety this year from gun to tape, and broadcast on terrestrial TV for the purpose of promoting both tourism and cycling in France.

    Ultimately if the decline in participation cannot be addressed, then the laws of demand and supply will result in more golf clubs closing until the balance point is achieved. Is it possible that the bulge in the golfing population that started playing the 1980’s and 1990’s was an anomaly and we are simply contracting back to where golf should have been all the time?

    I would be really interested to hear everybody’s thoughts

    Reply to this comment
    • Andy July 6, 14:43

      I just listened to the Radio 4 programme. I’ve been an “avid” golfer for 20 years since I was able to pay for a membership and took the tough decision that my knees and ankles couldn’t continue to put up with the pounding they took from football, squash, etc. I’ve been a golf club member since that time and am now just into my 60’s.
      However, I started playing at nearby municipal pitch and putt courses with my football pals during the Summer, this was where I learnt to connect the face of a 7 iron with a tiny white ball and how to line up a putt. Only one of the three short/easy/fun courses I played during my teens still exists.
      I agree with the interviewees various comments regarding the need for family inclusive, fun, short, easy, etc. forms of golf and everyone knows how football and cricket have adapted, so why hasn’t golf.
      The primary issue to address, in my humble opinion, is the facility infrastructure, i.e. an over supply of long standard 18 hole golf courses (taking up too much land) and an under supply of inclusive, fun, short, easy and compact facilities.
      By way of example, a well performing full length 18 hole golf course rarely exceeds more than 30,000 rounds of golf in a year and sits on an average of 140 acres of land. The Three Hammers Golf Centre near Wolverhampton sits on 21 acres and welcomes over 220,000 people each year to try out golf in varying forms (driving range with digital technology, pitch and putt, indoor virtual golf, etc.).
      The programme also mentioned Topgolf with it’s variation on a driving range theme to attract families to have some fun while hitting a golf ball at a target. Each Topgolf centre hits an average of 40,000 balls per day, this is ten times the average for a standard golf driving range. The problem is, there are only three Topgolf centres in the UK currently, all near to the M25 motorway.
      The answer to correcting golf’s facilities infrastructure is to convert unsustainable golf courses (there are hundreds) into family inclusive, fun shorter versions of the game of golf, which subject to local demographic, will make them both sustainable and a benefit to golf’s growth ambitions.
      Such conversions are not cheap, a typical Adventure Golf installation will cost upwards of £250,000, but by under pressure Local Authority planners realising the potential for using underused golf course land to meet their housing targets, there is a way.

      Reply to this comment
  2. Pete July 6, 17:14

    We are the Pointfive Golf Company, LLC, USA. We saw this day coming many years ago, when we realized that the psyche of people would be forever changed with the emergence of the computer & new economy.
    Now as thought, things have certainly changed with a new generation weaned on efficiency & enjoyment and no longer interested or having the affordability or time to support their father’s time consuming, costly activities.
    Faced with the continuing loss of millions of golfing participants & empty golf courses…it’s a new world…and time to get real about the games future!
    After a myriad of poorly conceived industry attempts to right the ship, nothing has proven to work, because they forgot to ask the modern golfer & non-golfer what they want in the modern game.
    We however did!
    They expect: – the full golfing experience time cut in half from 41/2-5 hrs. to 2-3 hrs., more in line with modern free time lifestyles.
    They expect – time oriented, affordable & convenient golf facilities.
    They expect – less difficulty & more enjoyment.
    They expect – golf course enviro-responsibility.

    So, how do we economically & efficiently combine all of these modern aspects into the new golf game so everyone – new & old golfers, new & existing golf courses, the whole industry can benefit, without disturbing the traditional experience?

    So how is this all possible?
    Well, it’s simply a matter of the development of the new Hybrid Golf Ball and it’s ability to address the game in a smaller, sustainable & smarter fashion for future growth.

    Revolutionizes the smaller land-saving compact golf facility with full club performance & play. Offers same traditional game in 1/2 the time, Makes the game FUN!

    Reply to this comment
  3. Ali July 6, 21:29

    Many junior members gave up golf after leaving school ,work hours were longer than school hours and other things came along like cars,girls and nightclubs . These people used to come back to golf on their retirement from work ,much to the delight of the local pro ,who then kitted them out with all the latest gear,but now when many people retire from work ,they become fulltime babysitters .Attitudes have changed and mothers now work ,some have too ,to make ends meet ,but others want ,the new house ,new car , new iPhone etc and rely on Gran &Grandad to look after the children ,cutting off a good revenue stream for golf clubs .It will be interesting to see if this generation are being selfish or will do the same when it’s their turn . Please don’t think I am being judgmental,just pointing out a possible reason for the drop in membership and coukd it be possible to help these people by providing crèches at golf clubs?

    Reply to this comment
  4. Dean August 4, 11:25

    Sorry for late post but I was fortunate enough to take some Secretaries and wives out to Romo in Denmark a few years ago. We all had our eyes opened at the golf venue. It was not just an 28 Championship links, but a wellness centre, crèche, cafe, swimming pool and children’s play area. The visitors were not just guys going to play golf but families who then went onto to do various activities while Dad went to play golf. Now I know that clubs do not have the land or possibly the money to copy Romo but it just showed me how they looked at things very differently .
    I would jump at the chance to have 9 hole course close by with a wellness centre attached!

    Reply to this comment
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