Strict dress codes ‘can be bad for a golf club’s business’

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir October 29, 2013 15:31

Dress codes are a hugely contentious issue in golf, but could they even be costing your club income?

Do you remember waking up to hear the news that Barack Obama had been elected as the president of the USA (the first time in November 2008)?

It was one of those days when every news outlet in the world was leading with the same story, as demand for details of the momentous development was proving to be insatiable.

Yet you might be surprised to know that, for most of that morning, the election was only the second most read story on the BBC’s website. Number one went to the – no less important – revelation that 113-year-old Frinton Golf club in Essex had (four months earlier) amended its dress code so that male golfers no longer had to wear knee-high socks if they were wearing shorts.

The move, due to complaints from younger players, had, claimed the BBC, divided the club’s 600 members and Frinton’s pro admitted that they weren’t all happy about it. The club insisted that other aspects of the dress code were still being enforced. ‘No denim should be worn in the course or clubhouse’ said a reassuring statement.

Did the story go viral because millions of men had been waiting for the day to show off their legs at Frinton? Or was it because so many people are bewildered and amused at seemingly illogical rules that some pillars of society try so hard to keep in the name of tradition? And, from Muirfield’s failure to allow women to join to Frinton’s members’ opposition to bare legs, nothing is more open to ridicule and anger than golf clubs’ rules, especially ones surrounding exclusive and perplexingly detailed dress codes.

The derision has not abated since. In 2009 the comedian Mark Steel, in The Independent newspaper, queried the logic behind one club that has a rule that ‘caps must not be worn the wrong way round at any time’ and wondered that, if the rule was relaxed, would violent gangs start playing at the club? Almost every month the Mail Online, the world’s most read news website, runs a story that mocks golf’s dress rules – in March 2012 it stated that ‘most amateurs would be turned away from their local course’ if they arrived wearing a t-shirt and baggy shorts, and, to illustrate the story, showed several pictures of David Beckham wearing a t-shirt and baggy shorts at a Los Angeles golf course.

What’s devastating about these stories, which are far better read than articles about the outstanding work some golf clubs do with the environment, local communities, junior golfers and so on, is that they reinforce a negative stereotype about golf clubs that puts new people off playing the game at a time when the future of it is reliant on them.

Colin Montgomerie recently stated that golf has an elitist feel to it and that barriers need to be broken down. Mike O’Connell, manager of Hoebridge Golf Club, added that dress codes “restrict entry into the game”.

This is potentially catastrophic as many golf clubs are struggling to make ends meet at the moment, and several are fearful that they might go under. Don’t forget that despite all the good work that the likes of the Golf Foundation and the England Golf Partnership have achieved in recent years, the nearly 3,000 golf clubs in the UK and Ireland have 228,000 fewer members than they did just six years ago.

Would a relaxed dress code really improve the financial performance of a golf club? There is a much higher golf participation ratio per population in Scandinavia (in Sweden and Iceland more than five percent of the entire population are members of golf clubs), where few clubs have strict dress codes, than in the UK. And many golf clubs in the UK that have relaxed dress rules have seen business performance improve. For example, a spokesman for Parklands Golf Club in England said: “We have a relaxed dress code, which is one of the main reasons why our bar and restaurant is always busy.” A Tenby Golf Club spokesman added: “We have relaxed dress codes for the range, course and club. This provides a friendly and busy venue.”

The manager of Lincoln Golf Club added: “We are in the hospitality business and must give punters what they want. Otherwise golf clubs are failing themselves and their members.”

It may not work for all (Stoneham Golf Club relaxed dress rules regarding jackets, ties and shorts several years ago, and this, according to manager Richard Penley-Martin, “made no difference to clubhouse usage”) and, naturally, many do not agree with the course of action. One GCMA member summed up the feelings of many opposed to change when he wrote in Golf Club Management recently: “I am becoming ever more annoyed at the people on the outside telling us, on the inside, where we are going wrong. If people don’t like the way they are treated at golf clubs because of the dress code, they can, as far as I am concerned, go where they will receive no grief – somewhere else!”

But do these views, which ignore golf’s economic plight, even represent the ‘inside’? According to a survey last year, 89 percent of 1,181 members of UK golf clubs believe that a relaxed dress code at their clubhouse would either have no effect (46 percent) or a positive effect (43 percent) on bar and restaurant revenues. Just 11 per cent said it would have a detrimental effect. That’s 11 percent of members – the people who make the dress code rules!

One of the 43 percent explained why a strict dress code, enforced by a committee that should be acting as its custodian, could actually be harming his golf club. “I have never seen my club carry out research or canvass the members on dress codes and so any decisions are made on perceived facts rather than any analytical data,” he said. “Allowing jeans in the clubhouse would be a no-brainer for me. I, and all of the people I golf with, wear jeans 99 percent of the time. As such, I am never likely to drop into the club for a quick drink or a bite to eat because I am never going to be suitably dressed when I am passing the club. Equally, when I have finished playing, my wife is never likely to drop in for some food with me because she only wears jeans, so is never going to be suitably attired. I know many in the same position – the club is never going to see the potential income that this could bring.

“Now, if a larger group of individuals would stop using the clubhouse because they would be so affronted that I would be in there in jeans, then I am fine with maintaining the dress code as that as it is the financially correct position for the club. What, however, is more likely is that the members who run the club do not wear jeans and wish to apply this standard to everyone, and will not entertain the idea of change.”

In 2005 I tried to have a few drinks and a meal at a golf club after a fourball round, but the one, solitary person drinking in the two bars at the club demanded that the one, solitary member of bar staff working move us to the other bar as one of us (me) was not wearing a tie.

That man had, of course, paid a lot of money to be a member of a golf club that had these rules and that’s why I’ve never had a problem with him and the club making us feel unwelcome, albeit it was a bit of a hassle to get a taxi to a nearby pub where we invested the money on food and drink that should have gone to the golf club.

What has changed, though, is the economic downturn, which made his stance untenable. A few years later that club’s members debated among themselves how much more they were prepared to pay in subscriptions to cover the cost of lost earnings by having the rule. As a result, the ‘ties must be warn in this bar’ policy was removed, and when I returned to the club in 2011 I found considerably more people (and staff) in both the bars in a weekday autumnal afternoon than there were on a summer’s weekend afternoon in the days before the recession.

If a golf club is concerned about its financial future and has a dress code, then it is probably only a matter of time before it has to change. In his article Mark Steel wrote ‘far more people would play golf if the game wasn’t ruined by stuck-up condescending suburban snobs who insist on jackets and ties being worn in the bar to ‘protect standards’’.

You may not agree with, or like, his statement, but the pressure on golf clubs today means it is increasingly difficult to ignore the fact that it is a viewpoint shared by many people who would, nonetheless, be prepared to spend money at a golf club. It could be that investment, which many clubs are missing out on, that cuts subscription costs for existing members, prevents green fees rising for visitors or even keeps the club afloat during these economically challenging times. Tradition is important, but not as much as the future.


Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir October 29, 2013 15:31
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  1. Jonathan Gaunt (@jonathangaunt) November 29, 10:45 – sadly true – golf dress code has to change

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  2. Keith Haslam November 28, 15:10

    The dress code debate is one that is gathering momentum and I feel is a factor that golf club owners and managers have to be aware of and does influence the commercial business of golf clubs.

    This issue seems to divide opinion and from reading blogs and forums, strongly in some case. As with most things, “one size does not fit all” and each business will need to carefully consider what is right for their specific business aims, vision, market – now and in the future.

    There does seem to be some “myths” about dress code that seem a little un balanced and therefore unhelpful in a sensible debate about what is right for a specific business – who at the end of the day have to make a decision about what is right for them. So the following are a few examples of discussions that I have heard and read recently;

    Relaxing the Dress Code will Somehow Lead to a Deterioration in Etiquette, Honesty and Inferred a Lesser Quality of Client;

    I have seen this written and said numerous times but I certainly do not agree. Lets face it, regardless of how well dressed they are and complying with the dress code, we all see golfers (members and visitors) not rake bunkers, not repair pitch marks, even bend the rules, so I do not subscribe to this myth. Golf is a great game and we want to preserve the fact it is one of the most honest sports today and that in general, people are respectful of the etiquette and rules placed on them by governing bodies and golf clubs alike. Our job as golf managers is to uphold and improve this with continued positive education and communication

    It is a Tradition of the Game and Should Stay

    As the saying goes the only thing that stays constant and cannot change is that “things will change”. Golf rightly holds on to many traditions, but I would suggest that changes in trends, society and what people consider “smart” dress is something that golf clubs have to consider and adapt to. Golf has changed hugely over time, including golf attire.

    We no longer play in tweed jackets, shirt and ties as the likes of Vardon and Ray did.

    And trainers have been a complete no no in golf clubs – on or off the course. But, the latest golf shoes from Puma are “trainers” – the Faas Lite Mesh Shoes are the lightest golf shoe in the industry and will be seen on golf courses – and surely they will have to be accepted in golf clubs as many clubhouses now allow “golf shoes”.

    In other areas of the hospitality business, changes have to be made as our clients are telling us they need to.

    One of my first examples of this was in my first job in the golf industry at the beautiful Gleneagles. For years the famous Strathearn Restaurant was “black tie” – but it was clear it was not moving with the times and client preferences and this was relaxed and allowed what was a bit of a dying reputation to one again thrive as a business and experience.

    I also heard a very apt anecdote recently from the GM of Claridges on the excellent fly on the all documentary about the workings of one of London’s finest and most traditional hotels. The GM stated that their traditions were “innovations that people liked and we kept” – we need to keep innovating to create tomorrows traditions – if that makes sense!

    Relaxing Dress Code Will Lead to Scruffy Image

    Again, this needs to be taken into context and different businesses and even parts of a golf club will ask their members and guests to respect certain dress codes – no one is saying it will be a free for all. A great example of this I heard at the recent KPMG Golf Business from the GM at a quality club in Surrey. He recalled a meeting they were having at the golf club with their chosen architect for some clubhouse work they were doing.

    The architect turned up, looking very smart in jacket, shirt, but smart (and expensive!) dark denims. After the meeting, it took no more than a couple of minutes for some members to express their dis satisfaction at this happening in the clubhouse. The GMl rightly pointed out that although they were “technically right”, in fact when he looked around, the architect was the smartest dressed person in the clubhouse and some of the members, whilst complying with the dress code, could not even be considered smart!

    This was one of the factors, along with some pure commercial reasons why the club have changed their dress policy for the clubhouse to “smart casual dress”.

    The “Commercial” Rationale

    Although different clubs will be in different commercial situations, I think most people woud agree that “golf is not exactly in rude health” in terms of participation, people taking up the game and many have commercial challenges.

    Now, the dress code of golf clubs is not to blame – but I think it is a contributing factor (how much is debatable).

    From a participation point of view, I think it is time to consider being more open minded about attire on the golf course but especially on the range and in the clubhouse. As per the point above about the architect, trends have changed and the focus should be more on being “smart” more than specific dress codes. Golf clubs and managers need to do all they can to encourage more golfers but also encourage use of the hospitality facilities.In tough times, dress codes can make it eve harder.

    Another great example of this was another reason why The club in Surrey changed their policy. The GM again recounted how many times he would call his wife and suggest she stop by the club and have lunch with him – but the answer was often “I’m out and in jeans so I can’t”. This was a massive issue stopping valuable spend at the club – but not anymore and they are seeing an increase in f&b spend as a result of “giving people what they want” – that is in their own specific case.

    Being based in the Home of Golf, St Andrews, the majority of the work Braemar Golf are involved in is continental Europe, Eastern Europe and North Africa. Experiencing different culture and different attitudes to business and dress has been illuminating. Growing the game of golf in such new markets is essential to the health of the game. Believe you me, if the traditions of dress code were implemented in important markets such as Russia – golf would just not take off. Dress codes are different and you either work with this, or have no one in your clubhouse! Yes, we have to work very hard to instil the great things about golf in new markets, but this surely is etiquette, honesty, respect before worry about whether a $300 pair of jeans are allowed in the clubhouse or practice range?

    Gladly rules such as wearing “knee length socks” on the golf course are mostly gone – but they still do exist! Maybe it is also time for the Professional Tours to also help – it certainly is not offensive to me if we saw Tour Players in shorts. It would not appeal to all golfer, but why not allow those who want to do this – at least in some events? I saw this is the unsanctioned event in Turkey last year promoted by Chubby Chandler and thought it refreshing. The Ladies Tour seem more relaxed about dress codes and the girls seem more fashionable and trendy and it is great to see some of the younger players coming through such as Charley Hull – this will only encourage participation in the junior ranks.

    Whilst the juniors would probably tell me I am using the wrong terms – we need to make golf “cool” and to quote Charley Hull “wicked”!

    In summary, this is not a black and white issue, as few are and each business will need to determine what is right for their circumstances, but surely time has come (and commercial and client pressure) to make changes to the management of our industry to secure the future.

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