Participation slumps again as more golf clubs close

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir February 11, 2016 12:40

The number of rounds of golf played in the UK in the final quarter of 2015 was down significantly on 2014’s levels, as more golf clubs have closed for good.

Two golf clubs have already closed this month alone, although one has suggested it may only be a temporary measure.

Sports research company SMS INC has revealed that in England, Scotland and Wales the last three months of 2015 saw a participation drop of seven percent compared with 2014, probably partly due to the wet weather much of the UK experienced in December.

Overall the number of rounds played for the whole 2015 was similar to 2014 – the industry’s best year since 2010 – but this hasn’t stopped more golf clubs closing down.

Whitekirk Golf and Country Club in Scotland closed at the beginning of February, when guests were asked to leave and the power was turned off.

A notice on the club’s Facebook page reads: ‘Due to circumstances outwith our control, it is with regret that we have to inform you that the facilities will be closed with immediate effect for what we hope is a short period.

‘We will keep you informed of any progress and thank you for your support and patience.

‘We have had some legal and power issues which we are hoping to have resolved over the coming days.

‘Then an engineer will need to visit to sort the power. Direct debits will be taken this month as they have been processed already. These will be refunded following collection by way of compensation for the closure.’

Local newspaper the Courier has reported that some staff have not been paid since before Christmas.

Also in Scotland, Rutherford Castle Golf Club, which closed down in 2015 due to a declining membership, is now set to be turned into an upmarket holiday park.

The club had just 56 members when it was shut. The course has been earmarked for a luxury lodge development, including a spa, restaurant, riding centre and children’s activity park. Nine holes will also be retained for exclusive use by park’s residents.

And another golf course in Scotland, the 18-hole municipal North Inch, thought by some to be the world’s oldest golf venue, could be closed by its local council as it is costing it money.

Spokesman Robin Valentine said: “This is a golf course that belongs to the people of Perth. I would be sadly disappointed if it was closed.”

Lee Bushby, club captain of the Royal Perth Golfing Society said it would be “devastating” if the course was to close.

Charlie Gallagher, president of the Perth and Kinross County Golf Union, has written to the Perth and Kinross Council’s chief executive, local councillors and the Provost of Perth calling for the course to be saved.

He said: “We appreciate the council are facing massive cuts over the next few years, but it would be a tragedy if the North Inch golf course was to be lost to the community at a time when the tide is turning.”

Mr Gallagher said the North Inch was the area’s only municipal course.

He added: “We see it as part of the legacy the area was promised in the wake of the Ryder Cup.”

In England, West Chiltington Golf Club in West Sussex, like Whitekirk Golf and Country Club, closed at the beginning of February.

The club was sold to a neighbouring vineyard and immediately closed. In a statement posted on Facebook, the golf club said Nyetimber Vineyard has agreed to takeover the land and buildings owned by the club.

The statement stressed owners Martin and Debs Ormrod had made the ‘difficult decision’ as the course was no longer ‘financially viable’.

It read: “It is with great sadness that we have to announce the closure of West Chiltington Golf Club.

“A combination of rural location, extreme weather patterns, rising costs and the downturn in the golf market have all resulted in it no longer being financially viable to continue.

“As a result we have decided to stop our activities and have now agreed a takeover of the land and buildings by neighbouring Nyetimber Vineyard.

“As a consequence of this sale, West Chiltington Golf club will cease trading with immediate effect.

“We realise it will be a shock to most people and we want you to know that it was an incredibly difficult decision to make and one that was not taken lightly and took a long time to come to.

“We would like to thank all our members, staff and friends of the course for their support over the last six years and thank you for making our time here so special – we will miss you very much and hope to keep in touch.”

SMS revealed that all regions suffered a decrease in rounds played in the last three months of 2015 when compared to the same period the year before. Richard Payne, senior manager, commented: “Whilst the deluge of rain rendered golf almost unplayable at the end of the year throughout the country, it is imperative that we put 2015’s total performance in perspective and take note that rounds played remained stable with 2014 which at the time was the best year since 2010. This stability after successive years of decline is a positive and one that the industry is well placed to capitalise on in 2016 with several new initiatives.”


Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir February 11, 2016 12:40
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  1. Pete USA May 23, 13:03

    Why would anyone today want to promote a game that takes 41/2 to 6 hours of costly difficulty & frustration?
    The world has changed to economy & efficiency and golf hasn’t kept up, so it’s no wonder few are playing.
    Modernize the golf course to match today’s lifestyle by reducing the size allowing 2 -3 hour rounds, then add the new “Hybrid” MD Hy-performance golf ball developed for 60% play. It provides the same traditional format in economy form with more satisfaction.

    Reply to this comment
  2. Handicap slasher June 5, 07:03

    The probe;m is that some clubs are too up their own a***s to allow visitors on a weekend. Members bleat like sheep when guests are allowed on to “their course” at a weekend. Unless golf clubs realise that visitor and society golf is essential, the sooner they will eventually fold. I run a society and put over £1500 into each club we play. The amount of stuffy clubs that dont want this money is a crinme.

    Reply to this comment
  3. Jon February 16, 14:26

    Golf is it’s own worst enemy. Just before the boom in new constructions, pensions where good and people retired early and played golf. Courses where full and waiting lists where needed. Very few people retire early now and need to be able to justify membership fee’s by playing several times a week. With courses competing with each other over green fee prices they continue to fall. Why would someone commit to £700+ per year if it’s only £15 per round, knowing they don’t play in winter and can turn up and play most days. If clubs stuck together and increased prices people would have to pay them and this would encourage them to join rather than pay more expensive green fees. Common sense really, but I’m pretty sure I could play 90% of clubs within 20 miles of me (which on greater manchester/lancashire/cheshire borders is a lot!) for under £20 today or tomorrow and probably not much more than that at weekend.

    Reply to this comment
  4. Ellie Evana February 16, 07:51

    every club in Cornwall is struggling ATM. I hear the same for Hampshire.

    Are The governing bodies ostriches with their heads buried deep in the sand?

    Why is This the only golf site that doesn’t reprint the spin about these statistics? how many clubs need to go under til EG stops slapping itself on its back for its ‘good work’. The VAT payments will kill off proprietary clubs – still waiting for advice from EG on this. GCMA and UKGCOA even more irrelevant. Least AGCO fights for clubs and their managers jobs.

    Reply to this comment
    • GolfSec February 17, 11:25

      Not all clubs are struggling, with some actually doing very well and and lot of good work being undertaken by dedicated managers, professionals etc. Accepted it does seem that the GCMA and England Golf are somewhat behind the times in terms of their support for golf clubs, with CMAE taking over as far as education is concerned and helping to produce professional, knowledgeable and educated club managers going forwards.

      Nevertheless, this notion that VAT payments will kill off proprietary clubs is so far fetched that it almost does not deserve addressing. Many people connected to proprietary clubs seems to accept Ms Saunders spin, and this idea that it is a completely unfair and unjust concept. What Ms Saunders never recognises is the actual facts of the matter, such as the numerous clubs who will actually be worse off given they are no longer able to reclaim any VAT on course purchases. Furthermore, Ms Saunders attempts to frame the argument that this is all unfair for golfers, whereas it is simply her attempting to further line her pockets with profit. If she were really worried about members then she would take more time to look after those at her own clubs, and perhaps turn them into private members’ clubs in order to truly serve the members as she claims she wants to.

      Reply to this comment
  5. Dave Myers February 12, 12:36

    Ridiculous headline
    Although I’m a dead keen golfer, my own participation has slumped by almost 100% since the beginning of November. In the North West it started raining on 1 November and hasn’t really stopped since. Although my long established, and normally well drained, course has been open as much as possible, I haven’t fancied slogging around in the mud even when it hasn’t actually been raining. Many courses in the area have also implemented trolley bans which discourages many people from playing. Looking at our visitor numbers in November and December and talking to the pro, I’d be surprised if our course was used as much as 50% of “normal” and I seem to remember that we had decent weather at the end of 2014 which the “slump” is compared against. This unprecedented weather has been repeated over much of the country although I’m told that the south has been much less affected. I’m amazed that it’s only been a 7% drop. We all have a lot to do in ensuring the future financial wellbeing of our clubs but let’s keep things in perspective.

    Reply to this comment
    • Julian Adelaide February 15, 14:16

      Dave – The participation rates are down year on year, and every year has a
      thing called “winter”, which usually has bad weather when few golfers play. And The latest 3 month drop only includes a few days of the actual winter bad weather.

      For all of 2015 compared with all of 2014 it looks like figures were
      down – a bit yeah, but that’s not what the associations keep telling us, and that follows years of them being massively down. If you think everything is great is great in golf then chat to our treasurer – or the treasurer at these two clubs that closed down last week!

      Reply to this comment
  6. Richard Penley-Martin February 11, 15:55

    Shame the headline to this article wasn’t more positive! Whilst it is a shame these club are closing, it is as a result of several years poor trading not just the last few months. The stabilisation of the number of rounds played despite the cold start to the year & the wet end is good news for the industry.

    Reply to this comment
    • Julian Adelaide February 11, 17:36

      Don’t agree – all we get from the PGA or England Golf is false positivity. Or nothing from the GCMA who still don’t seem to have noticed there is a problem. Only slight drops of rounds played after years of massive drops is hardly news for celebration, and it masks the real problem that memberships are still in freefall at most clubs bar those doing a good job. And the first six weeks of this year have actually been slightly warmer on average than normal!

      Reply to this comment
      • Richard Penley-Martin February 11, 18:14

        GCMA & EG are providing information to all clubs about how they can change their business model to ensure its continued viability. Some of them take the advice before they get in to trouble & some afterwards. The way people want to interact with clubs has changed & that doesn’t mean that the model is broken, it just needs to adapt. The increase in visitor rounds shows that the demand for golf is still there. Clubs need to be creative about how they use their facilities & this is generally where the proprietary sector has the advantage over traditional members clubs because they have designed their clubhouses to be multifunctional. There will be some normalising to counteract the over demand created from the 90s as a result of the R&A report. Many of these were built in the wrong area or on unsuitable land.

        Reply to this comment
        • Matthew Orwin February 11, 19:52

          An interesting thread between the two of you. I’ll add my pennies worth if I may.

          I think it’s easier to throw stones at a house than it is to build one. I’ve been guilty of that in the past true enough.

          The PGA, England Golf, GCMA – none of them are doing any good? Maybe, maybe not. But the real question is what should they be doing? What should the various associations and professional bodies be doing to make it better?

          And what should golf clubs be doing? In my view, they should share the responsibility here because, however unpalatable it may be to accept, golf clubs are poorly managed in this country.

          So many opportunities wasted, so many easy-wins missed.

          So I’ll revert from throwing stones to building the house.

          “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the golf industry”. Okay, so not completely my quote!

          Shameful plug alert!! Promote Training are building a library of eLearning courses that are packed full of practical initiatives and ideas that can help clubs drive revenue. They’re written by operators of many years experience and ONLY contain strategies that have proven to WORK. They can also be studied anywhere, anytime and at the delegates own pace.

          After we’ve built that house, we’ll build another to put England Golf, GCMA et al to rights.

          Reply to this comment
          • Richard Penley-Martin February 11, 20:04

            Couldn’t agree more that education is key. Unfortunately, there is little co-ordination of what is needed & who will provide it.
            Equally important is ensuring that the ‘professional’ staff employed by the Club are all properly trained & just as importantly allowed to get on with their jobs without interference.

          • Bob Braban February 12, 10:41

            Amen to that!

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