Meet the golf club manager: Elaine McBride

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir June 9, 2019 22:24

The general manager of The North Berwick Golf Club talks about a career including the army, police force and turning around a community golf club, the perception of golf within society and how that relates to being a general manager, and why she is a huge fan of NLP.

The North Berwick’s West Links is one of the oldest, and greatest, golf courses in the world. Can you tell us a bit about the course and its history?

The club was founded in 1832 and is the 13th oldest golf club in the world, with only St Andrews hosting a club, which has played continuously over the same piece of land for longer.

In 2017 Golf Digest said we were the most underrated course in the world, over the last five to 10 years we have steadily climbed up the golf rankings and are now ranked as the 25th best course in the world, which is a great accolade to have. The course is very much a true links in every sense in so much as it is straight out for nine holes and straight back on the second nine holes. It is one of the few links courses whereby you can see the sea from every hole.

Our 15th hole, which is called Redan is the most copied hole in golf. Redan is a term meaning fortification or a fortress. The Russian army used redans in the battle of Borodino against Napoleon and a redan hole will typically have a green which slopes downwards and away from the point of entrance, typically the front right portion of the green, which very much is the design feature of a redan.

We also have a couple of unusual holes and I found them very quirky the first time I played them. The 13th hole is called The Pit and has a dyke surrounding the green.

It was where the shepherds used to congregate the sheep so they would shelter in that particular area behind the back of the sand dune. We also have a very famous tw0-tiered green on the 16th which is a very unusual green because of the way it is designed.

If there is a Scottish Open or an Open event nearby a lot of the professional golfers want to come and practice on that particular green because it is very unusual.

North Berwick is a fantastic course and has something for everybody and it is very unique. I think because of its uniqueness we are very much on people’s bucket list or wish list to play.

North Berwick – West Links

Do you have a particular favourite hole on the course or one you find most challenging?

The second is a great hole and it can be very challenging depending on which way the wind is blowing! I don’t get the chance to play as much these days and I haven’t played competitive golf for about six years due to ongoing back problems.

What is your career path to managing a club as prestigious as this?

Golf has been a big part of my life and it has been very kind to me over the years. My dad Brian first introduced me to the game when I was six years of age with a chopped down five iron.

He used to drop golf balls when he was playing and I hit a few shots and that’s really how I got into golf. I was very lucky to represent the army at golf when I was in the Intelligence Corps and also Tri-Service during my time in the forces. When I left the army, I continued to play amateur golf at a good level when I was working in the private security industry. I then joined Wiltshire Constabulary, working within their Learning and Development department, and continued to play golf.

At the time I was working with the police I had always wanted to pursue a career in golf and decided to emigrate to Spain whereby I got the opportunity to teach golf. I had a scratch handicap at the time and I did some courses with the PGA and the Spanish Golf Federation.

I was lucky enough to teach golf at Hacienda del Alamo Golf Resort in Murcia for five years. I moved back to the UK after six years in Spain and decided to move into golf management, due to an ongoing back injury, which was preventing me from teaching and playing. It was really difficult because at one stage I practically couldn’t move for three months. I was constantly in a horizontal position having regular work by an osteopath alongside regular consultations with a surgeon in Spain who offered surgery but I didn’t want to have surgery as I was only in my early 30s at the time.

I carried on with the osteopath and did some gym work to try and strengthen my core but it became a habitual cycle whereby I would get to the stage where I was fit enough to practice golf again and then the base of my spine would misalign. I had to make some tough decisions that I couldn’t play golf to the standard that I used to. (I can still get the ball around the golf course but I still cannot play golf the way I used to.)

So, I made the decision not to play anymore completely for a time. When I go home and visit my dad in Stranraer, who is in his 70s and still playing golf, I go out with him and play nine holes, but I can’t play 18 holes of golf pain free.

Back in the UK I got the opportunity to cut my teeth in a managerial role at a little nine-hole course near Castleford in Yorkshire. It was situated in an area of very high deprivation and it was previously managed by the council and a charitable organisation called Groundwork took over the lease. They had some really good, innovative ideas about engaging with the local community and getting families and kids involved with sport to use it as a diversionary activity from anti-social behaviour.

The course was haemorrhaging money when I first arrived. We improved the condition of the course, we improved the facilities and we engaged with the local community. We did a lot of initiatives and engaged with teaching professionals to develop junior golf. After a year we turned it around. That was my first journey in golf management and after a year I felt I had taken it to the point I could take it.

From there I got offered a role at Glen Gorse Golf Club in Leicestershire, which was a private members’ club. They recruited me based on making a number of changes to the golf environment and the operation of Glen Gorse. I spent two years there and during that time we went through a governance review, franchised the catering operation and made a number of staff changes. Again, from a financial perspective, we were able to turn things around; ensuring the club was in a healthier position when I left it than when I arrived.

I do relish a challenge, I love change but I don’t believe in change for the sake of change. I can normally see areas for improvement – it is all about the learning process and what we take from various situations. I then got an opportunity at Northamptonshire County Golf Club, which for me was another step up the career ladder at a club that has a great reputation, great heathland course and a great environment. I was there just under three years.

Communication was lacking when I first arrived at County, and we did various things to ensure that communication was transparent and the members felt involved. It sounds quite insignificant, but it was very important and hopefully I created an environment of empowerment for the team. I am all for heads of department having the empowerment and the confidence to make decisions. With empowerment comes accountability and that is how we learn at the end of the day.

Training the team is very important. I am a big advocate of NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) training which is a massive topic. All too often in the golf industry we become very focused on people having skillsets from a technical capacity or a competence, for example they know how to read a budget or complete a course assessment, use a portable sprayer and so on. However, for me, it’s more of a focus around peoples’ actions, their behaviours, their thoughts and feelings. It is about how they act and behave, their beliefs, communication, ability to build rapport, perceptual positioning, how we act and behave differently. Understanding their personality characteristics, are they dog like or are they cat like?

Transactional analysis is fascinating. If somebody is an adult ego state or a matching parent state or if they are in a child ego state. I am all about understanding, I think these are fantastic things for managers to be able to understand and learn and bring back to the workplace. I rolled out that training at County and it had a real positive effect on the heads of department and I have gone through a similar process at North Berwick with the team and heads of department and they have all got something from it. To help with the training we enlisted the services of Vivienne Joy, who is the owner of EnjoyNLP.

I became very engaged with NLP. It doesn’t just help you in a professional capacity; it can help you in a personal capacity as well. It can help you to understand when to manage and when to lead. They are both very different things and sometimes we can be too bogged down in managing rather than leading and you have to get your team to come on a journey with you. I think that is really key and sometimes just because you can doesn’t mean to say that you should. I think it is about really understanding your interactions with other people, be it members of staff, members and visitors, it is such a wide, diverse topic but I think very impactive.

I think there are a lot of golf club committees who would also benefit from NLP training. Committee members also have a part to play within golf clubs and they too need to develop their beliefs and behaviours in order to better develop relationships with the professional teams employed at clubs and of course the membership in general.

How you do one thing is how you do everything. I find the interactions that you have with members or with people fascinating. We can all be guilty of playing the victim or maybe going into a child ego state where you get a bit petulant and you can read the signs straight away. It is about how you adapt your ego state to manage the situation, it is a great tool kit for me and the team at North Berwick. The team have been very engaged, very open and fully committed to the NLP training that they have done and I can certainly see the benefits in them and the changes in them.

The training is conducted by a qualified NLP master practitioner. I believe in it and I think it is a missed focus in this environment. The golf industry has got so much better at education and offering support for different people in different roles but I think soft skills training / behavioural training is something that is equally important, if not more important.

When you mention the term NLP a lot of people don’t know what it means so I think here at North Berwick we are quite ahead in that particular aspect, possibly leading the way to be ‘best in class’.

I became general manager at North Berwick in May 2018. When I heard about the position I threw my hat in the ring because opportunities like North Berwick don’t come up very often. I got the job and the rest is history as they say.

North Berwick – West Links

Within the sector itself how unusual is it to have a general manager who is a woman?

I think now there are more women in managerial posts within the golf industry but I think if you were to compare the two genders through playing golf from a participation perspective, through women who are volunteering and women who are managing or working in golf environments, it would still be very low.

You would probably find that less than 15 to 20 per cent of people employed in the golf industry will be female. We are still very unrepresented but I think in relation to perception, the golf industry is working to break down barriers and make it more accessible to women and give more opportunities to women. At the end of the day it needs a blend of skills from all different people, from all different backgrounds and hopefully in time women can be more represented in every element of golf.

You’ve been involved in the golf industry, and golf club management in particular, for a number of years now, how has it changed during your time?

The game of golf has not fundamentally changed in hundreds of years but the social and economic map of the world has changed a great deal, which has directly created the various challenges that many golf clubs now face. A lot of people don’t simply have time to play 18 holes of golf because of various work or family pressures and I think the perception of golf is still very poor.

As an industry we are not very good at selling the concept of golf, people’s perceptions are quite strong and their perception is their reality, so that’s a very powerful image that many people carry with them about golf.

I think there is so much choice, there are so many options open to golfers in the UK. The tradition of being a member of a golf club has somewhat evolved and there is now such a high number of transient or nomadic golfers in the UK. If they can have a round of golf at a relatively good price or a price that they perceive as value for money, then a lot of people are going to gravitate towards that rather than committing and being a member and having to pay an annual subscription, which may include a joining fee. People want value for money.

I think so many other sports have grown in the last five to 10 years, such as cycling and I don’t think there has been relatively as much growth in the game of golf. I think the fact that golf is no longer on terrestrial television and is not as accessible or visible in households or people’s living rooms, can also have an impact in relation to visibility.

It is still not a mainstream sport or offered as part of many schools’ curriculums. In Scotland it is more accessible but there will be a lot of children that will come through school having never touched golf unless a parent or a grandparent is actually involved in the game.

There have been some positive changes. The R&A have changed quite a few of the rules, which rolled out this year, to try and improve slow play with some of the changes they have implemented and that will have a positive impact. It is difficult, perception is still very much key. A lot of people perceive golf as not to be welcoming, to be quite stuffy and have lots of rules, lots of can’t dos or mustn’t dos. I think it is about how we can engage more, it is all about visibility, likability and credibility and I think the industry as a whole does need to work on certain aspects within those three areas.

What do you find are the biggest challenges managing North Berwick today?

We are a little unusual in that we have three clubs who have access to the West Links so it can be very challenging to try and meet the needs of three golf clubs; Tantallon, a male-only club, Bass Rock and The North Berwick, providing fair access to the course.

When we include The North Berwick Golf Club ladies’ section we have to run four competitions, four club championships and so on. The biggest challenge is managing the expectations of a private members’ golf club and the rapid commercial growth of The North Berwick, because it is very much a golfing destination of choice.

We accommodate over 11,000 visitors a year so I think sometimes the members can have a perception that they don’t always have adequate access to the first tee. So it is trying to balance the commercial element of the club and ensuring that we are still providing a true member environment for our members to enjoy. We want our members to feel it is an authentic members’ club and it is their club for them. The fact we have three clubs means the internal processes and accounting procedures can be a little complex and challenging at times.

How does The North Berwick fit in with its local community?

Like St Andrews, the course merges into the town and as such we do face a number of challenges with dog walkers, pedestrians and anyone wishing to access the beach via the course. I think over the years we have managed that relationship very well, we have to co-exist with all of our neighbours so it is really important we do that we continue to do that.

In relation to the town itself we work closely with local companies, with suppliers and I think The North Berwick does benefit from the fact that we are here, given 11,000 visitors come to play the course each year and may stay in local hotels and B&Bs and use the High Street. When we look at our full seasonal operation we are probably one of the largest employers in the local area as we employ a team of approximately 55 staff during the summer months.

Elaine with Catriona Matthew and Jim Robertson, captain of The North Berwick GC, and the Solheim Cup

In 2016 the club gained the GEO certification for environmental best practice. Can you detail what the club does for its environment?

For us, it is important that the club integrates well with the surrounding landscape character and we work with the typography and vegetation to ensure the views, the vistas and the quality of the playing experience is maximised. There are many projects we are working on or have already completed so we can protect and enhance the natural habitat and contribute to the wildlife conservation in and around the course.

There are processes and procedures around managing natural and protected areas on the course, looking at habitat and species’ surveys, how we manage the grassland areas, minimising the application of chemicals and adapting to the challenges of new approaches in relation to agronomy.

Alongside this we are trying to maximise renewable sources in relation to energy, sustainable procurement of products and services, how we handle and dispose of waste and reducing the risk of pollution. Really raising the awareness of the club’s environmental programme with staff, members and visitors so they also have an understanding of what we are trying to achieve.

The club is a links course and there have been worrying predictions from various bodies in recent years that some Scottish links venues are at risk from encroaching sea levels. Is The North Berwick concerned about coastal erosion and, if so, is it doing anything about it?

All three clubs have been very proactive with this issue and recognised that they needed to enhance the provisions of coastal erosion defences in order to protect the course. We had two main areas of concern; the 2nd and the 11th holes.

The club started this particular journey back in 2016 working in conjunction with STRI (Sports Turf Research Institute) and Professor George Fleming to look at how we could best protect the course from coastal erosion. From there we employed EnviroCentre as our consultant and in April this year we completed our coastal erosion project.

The project, which has taken over three years, has allowed us to reinstate the rock armouring on the second hole. We replaced a number of sleepers and then we reinforced with rock armour. We also rebuilt the sand dunes adjacent to the 11th green in order to protect it and used over 1,200 tonnes of sand; we used geotextile sand filled bags overlaid with sand, which were overplanted with marram grasses.

During the whole coastal erosion project we planted over 30,000 marram grasses and the overall project costs exceeded £500,000 – it was a big project.

The club was one of the first in the UK to sign up to The R&A’s Women in Golf Charter and it has Europe’s 2019 Solheim Cup captain Catriona Matthew as an honorary member. What is the club’s approach to promoting the game to women and girls?

We are trying to implement a number of recruitment initiatives to target getting women and girls into golf. We have our Get into Golf scheme which is really centred on beginners, creating the right environment for them to learn golf and feel comfortable and confident, within a golf environment.

It is basically a structured programme whereby they start with coaching from our professional team. They have access to our Wee course, a nine-hole, par three course and that really acts as a vehicle to give them the opportunity to develop their golf game in a ‘safe’ learning environment. That aligns itself as a programme to full membership at The North Berwick.

We have also committed to increasing female membership within our membership recruitment process. We are also supporting Solheim Cup activities to support Catriona. The club will have provided buses each day of the event to take members, friends and family up to the Solheim Cup and I think we are working quite hard to change the perception of women’s golf.

It is very important to try and look at any under-represented group and try and understand why it is under-represented, and what we can do differently, to address the imbalance. Fundamentally it is harder to get girls into golf than it is boys, most boys and most adult males can probably converse about something but I think it is much harder for a 14-year-old girl to have a conversation with a 65-year-old woman. It can be a challenge to engage and try and get the right people involved to mentor and develop young girls.

North Berwick – West Links

The Wee Course (formerly known as the Children’s Course), is more than 130 years old – and Catriona Matthew learnt to play on it. What does this course offer and how does the club try to attract juniors to the facility?

We are very lucky to have this amazing nine-hole, par three facility. We recently gained planning approval in order to enhance the starters’ lodge to provide better facilities for those who are going to be using the course.

We also have our own junior club called The West Links Juniors. It has its own constitution, its own committee and own set of annual accounts.

Within the West Links Juniors we have split the juniors down into two very distinctive groups. We’ve got our pre-course membership called the Puffins, whereby the smaller or younger kids get a number of coaching sessions from the professional staff who provide coaching sessions on the practice ground, on the Wee Course and a variety of benefits for being part of that membership.

As they develop, improve and have the capacity to play more holes and be out on the course longer, we would move them up into full course membership, which we named the ‘Gannets’.

These juniors are slightly older, who may have been playing golf longer, and they have access to the West Links. They also get coaching through the professional team, benefits include discount on clothing in the pro shop and they get to play in competitions.

What is the club doing to enhance the profitability of its food and beverage operation?

I am sure this can be a challenge for many clubs and it can often be difficult to get the balance of providing a service to members and managing your food and beverage operation in a more businesslike manner. For us the service we provide to members and visitors is paramount as it impacts the overall experience we are trying to achieve at the club. For us it is not necessarily about profitability, that’s not our key objective.

Our key objective is to offer service excellence in everything we do and be ‘best in class’. It is really important for us not to be complacent and as such staff behaviours and training are very important along with ensuring that we are engaged with the right suppliers or buying the best possible products and buying smarter. We are constantly building relationships and rapport with our members and visitors. Our aim is to provide the best possible environment for our members and visitors to enjoy their time at the West Links.

As manager of Northamptonshire County Golf Club you put in a long-term strategy for membership retention and recruitment. Can you tell us about that?

I don’t think anyone had sat back and looked at the demographic of the membership.

When I arrived I did an exercise looking at membership demographic in relation to age, where they lived and really tried to complete an analysis on their habits and behaviours, which hopefully provided a very clear map of the world for Northants County.

It was quite alarming to see that just under 40 per cent of our members were over the age of 65 and at the time we weren’t bringing a lot of new members. So over a period of time, if no action was taken, it was going to erode the membership at the club, particularly the ladies’ section who had a higher age average than the gents. It was important that we created a call to action and a lot of that centred on engagement with members, how we managed the membership process and how we recruited new members. How to offer the right environment for members.

That involved looking at trends in behaviours. If a member hadn’t been to the club for a period of time, it was about engagement to see if there was a specific reason for it.

We also brought in membership officers to look after new members during their first few months at the club.

Often when you join a new club it can be very daunting to navigate your way around. Who to play golf with, what roll-up groups are available and how you can join them, and so on.

Membership officers effectively met with new members, introduced them into the club and looked after them for the first three or four months, very much with a view that not every member needs the same level of care but we managed that in a very effective way.

We also introduced a member ‘get member’ scheme whereby if an existing member introduced a new member they would get a number of kickbacks. It was also really important for us to look after our existing members. Sometimes the focus can be very much channelled to bringing in new members without actually looking after your existing members.

We did a number of member surveys to make sure that we were providing the right social environment through the club’s facilities and also providing the right playing environment looking at whether there were enough competitions, was there enough variety, did they want to play social or competitive golf?

We asked the question very much with the view ‘don’t ask the question if you can’t handle the response’. We got some really positive feedback and some very constructive feedback that we were able to implement and change for the better.

How do you communicate with existing members at The North Berwick and what is the club’s approach to marketing?

When I arrived at the club we didn’t have a marketing and PR strategy. We’ve now implemented a robust strategy that provides an internal and external focus for the club and the level of communication and transparency of the communication that we provide to members has received a lot of positive feedback.

We engage with members on a weekly basis through something called The Weekly Connect, which gives them here and now information.

After committee meetings I send them out a committee update so that they know what has been discussed and debated by committee and the rationale for certain decisions or changes and any projects we have agreed. I think this has gone down really well and it brings the committee closer to the membership as well.

We have our marketing and PR strategy and are doing a lot of work on social media, all in conjunction with Rocket Creative. Our presence on our three social media platforms has improved and we are getting good results there. I am really keen for all of the heads of departments and all of the teams to be engaged with social media so it becomes more of a holistic approach and everyone makes a contribution.

We also produce a quarterly newsletter for members to keep them up to date, which is more of a strategic look at what we have achieved and what we are working on for the future. I think we have created visibility, likability and credibility through how we communicate now and I don’t think that was necessarily there before.

We’ve now got a consistent look and feel about everything we do through the work we have done with Rocket. Everything now has a look and feel connected to our branding, which is very important.

What is the club’s approach to customer service?

For us it is all about what we say and what we deliver so we are congruent in everything we do. We strive to deliver customer excellence in every aspect of our operation from the initial welcome provided by the door attendants to the quality of the playing surfaces on the course, to the interactions that members or visitors will have with the course rangers, the professional team working in the professional shop, all the way back into the golf club through the food and beverage offering.

During my first few months I caddied a couple of times to get a feel for our caddy operation and how it has an impact on the visitor experience at The North Berwick. Nearly everybody I have spoken to, including golfers that have played at some of the best courses in the world, and have enjoyed Muirfield or St Andrews, because these are courses they feel they should play, has said they have had the best experience at The North Berwick. That is something I don’t necessarily think you can teach or bottle. We provide a very real and authentic experience here and the visitors really appreciate it. It is a testament to what has been created at the club over the years, through the culture of the staff and how the club has been managed, and I hope we can continue to do that and improve going forward.

It is amazing to receive such feedback because there are some great clubs in the UK but in relation to the overall experience I think what we create here and the course itself is pretty special. Here you’ve got the vistas, you’ve got the views, the staff telling the story of the club’s history and people just love it, they soak it all up. I think we do that very well.

North Berwick is part of a Visit Scotland / Scotland’s Golf Coast tourism group with accommodation providers and other big name golf clubs. How did this come about, what do you offer and what benefits have you found from this?

The creation of the strap line ‘Scotland’s Golfing Coast’ has been an ingenious marketing vehicle for the area of East Lothian and it is very much a first choice golfing destination. It is not only the more recognised clubs, such as Muirfield, The North Berwick and Gullane that have benefited from this, but many of the other smaller clubs or ‘hidden gems’, which is great for the game of golf in Scotland. East Lothian has 21 courses and 30 miles of picturesque coastline.

The ability to work with tour operators and other businesses and organisations directly involved in Scottish golf is very beneficial. The Scottish Golf Tourism Week is a fantastic platform to meet and engage with tour operators and other golf clubs who all contribute to the impact golf has on the Scottish economy.

North Berwick – West Links

Finally, a few years ago we reported that some tourists were visiting the seaside town and then walking to the golf course to have picnics on the greens and even build sandcastles in the bunkers! Is this issue under control now?

It can often be challenging due to the proximity of the course in relation to the town and the fact that members of the public can access the beach via the golf course. Although this will continue to be a challenge for the club going forward, I think we manage this dynamic well.


Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir June 9, 2019 22:24
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  1. Jeff June 10, 18:05

    I am reading this 2 weeks before playing the West Links for a 2nd time (last time in 2017). What a great article and fabulous insights from a true asset to the club. I only hope I get a chance to meet Elaine when I am in town (6/29 thru 7/4) from the Chicago area in the US. Cheers!

    Reply to this comment
  2. Matchplay Golf June 10, 12:29

    Good article. ️‍♀️⛳️

    Reply to this comment
  3. Wayne June 10, 12:27

    I enjoyed meeting Elaine when I was on the East Lothian golf fam trip for SGTW last October. North Berwick is a terrific links course with quirky holes and beautiful sights of the sea. Who doesn’t want to hit an iron shot over a stone wall or play a shot from the beach that is inbounds?

    Reply to this comment
  4. Brett June 10, 11:46

    Awesome golf club good luck Elaine, I’m sure your do well !!⛳️⛳️enjoy it

    Reply to this comment
  5. Ronan June 10, 06:54

    The warmest welcome I’ve received as a visitor at a golf course was in North Berwick. Great club and a phenomenal course.

    Reply to this comment
  6. Malcolm June 9, 15:17

    Good luck — hoping to be up to play soon

    Reply to this comment
  7. Derek June 8, 13:45

    Great interview Elaine.

    I hope you are enjoying the great place that is North Berwick Golf Club.

    All the best


    Reply to this comment
  8. Chris June 7, 15:11

    Perfect professional managers

    Reply to this comment
  9. Brian June 7, 14:30

    Great article, with a pleasant blend of self reflection mixed in with Importance of service delivery and always embracing change, keeping Customer experience at the “fore” ️‍♂️⛳️

    Reply to this comment
  10. Keith June 7, 11:01

    A really good and informative interview and article.

    Reply to this comment
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