‘Since reopening new attitudes and behaviours are evident’

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir August 7, 2020 12:59

As the world of golf adjusts to a new normal, Elaine McBride, General Manager of The North Berwick Golf Club, reveals how the pandemic affected the historic club and how post lockdown provides an opportunity to commence a very different journey.

When the UK went into lockdown, golf courses lay deserted and dormant during the imposed measures necessary to help everyone, including players and clubs’ staff, stay safe. However the world famous West Links Course in North Berwick wasn’t empty during the three month lockdown. It wasn’t players taking to the course, however, which took on a new role, temporarily, as locals used the golf course as their green space to take exercise outdoors.

General manager Elaine McBride explains: “When lockdown was announced the local community seemed to identify the golf course as their ‘green space’, where they could potentially walk, run, cycle or play ball games with their children.

Elaine McBride

“Due to the close proximity of the golf course to the town, it became a focal point for that community activity. The vast majority of locals have been very respectful of the staff that were still working to maintain the course based on governing body guidelines.

“We seemed to have coexisted quite well. We received a lot of nice ‘thank you’ cards put through the clubhouse letterbox from members of the local community thanking us for the use of the course during the period it was shut down. They fully appreciated it was now going to have golfers on it and their time roaming around it had come to an end.

“It was really quite nice. We used social media as a platform when announcing that golf was going to resume on May 29. We did a social media campaign, focusing on the resumption of golf and thanking everybody for looking after our course and being respectful during lockdown and for them to be mindful golfers would be back out on the course. We are very community-focused so it was nice that people took the time to email us to say thank you or buy a card.”

Like thousands of workers UK-wide, the majority of the team at the golf club were furloughed.

“It has been very much a challenging situation, especially for the members of staff who have been furloughed and those that continued to work from the end of March. Both groups had challenges for different reasons.

“The staff who couldn’t perform their role at home, i.e. food and beverage staff, golf operational staff such as starters and course rangers, were furloughed and that was effectively a large percentage of our staff.

“Initially we had 27 members of the team furloughed including golf operations staff, clubhouse attendants, course rangers, starters, golf operations manager, the food and beverage team and members of the administration team.”

Elaine acknowledged the coronavirus job retention scheme proved to be indispensable for North Berwick and many other golf clubs.

“The furlough scheme has probably been a lifeline for many clubs during the lockdown period, with clubs of different statures and sizes benefiting from the scheme to ensure that staff can be retained during these unchartered times.

“I am sure most golf clubs would want to finish this journey with all of the staff they started with because it takes a lot of time to build the knowledge, trust and skills in the team you have around you. Careful consideration will be required from all clubs as we now start to navigate our way through a very different map of the world.”

Elaine admitted there have been testing, tough times experienced, especially during the early weeks of lockdown and it has proved to be a very hectic period for her trying to adjust to everything as it evolved.

“For a period of time there was myself plus two colleagues working as our bookings office remained ‘open’. We were dealing with lots of cancellations from visitors, tour operators and we needed to manage that process. We also had our finance administrator available to manage payroll and invoice payments.

“During lockdown it was a limited team so I was kept very busy throughout the whole period. There was a lot to do and reacting to change on a daily basis.

“There was a lot of time spent on Zoom calls, understanding furlough, understanding any changes the governing bodies were bringing in and really getting engaged with your peers that were managing other golf courses and understanding what they were doing, how they were approaching the situation when golf resumed again.

“I would imagine that lots of other general managers, like me, were effectively running all aspects of the operations single-handedly, so that was a learning journey for me in relation to having to know the details of everything quite closely as normally you would be taking a more strategic lead.”

With a world-renowned golf course, standards also needed to be maintained in accordance with guidelines.

“With regards to course maintenance during lockdown we had to follow governing body guidance and all clubs very much had to work within the parameters laid down by the governing bodies on what was deemed to be essential maintenance and what wasn’t. As a result we operated with a very small course team, however we moved back to our full staff levels at the end of June.”

Since golf resumed in Scotland from May 29 there has been a slow and measured return to the ‘new normal’ at North Berwick.

“Since reopening the work has increased exponentially. We have tried to roll out phases of resumption of golf whereby we started off initially with two balls only with long tee time intervals between each group. We constantly reviewed our policies to measure their impact and effectiveness and reacted to member feedback which was very valuable as we modified our policies.

“During the first few weeks of being back out playing golf we rolled out different phases and have gone from two balls to three then four balls by the end of June, which was when members could bring guests as well providing everybody adhered to the travel restrictions imposed at that time.

“Many of the measures and restrictions that were implemented were based on Scottish government and Scottish Golf guidance so we followed those recommendations and a lot were centralised around trying to minimise the risk of Covid-19.

“We removed all the rakes from the bunkers to minimise any touching. We didn’t issue scorecards initially as members were only playing social golf and could use a scoring app on their mobile phones

“There is lots of signage around the course reminding people about social distancing, with a number of signs on our paths and hard ground surfaces. We have screens up in the starters lodge and are asking people physically not to go into the lodge, to stay outside it.

“All tee times must be booked in advance to ensure that gatherings don’t happen and to satisfy ‘track and trace’ requirements. The tee is managed while we are open and we gradually started to open some of our practice facilities as we didn’t want people to arrive 40 minutes before their tee time to practice.

“We wanted people to turn up about 10 minutes before their tee time, play a round of golf and immediately leave to minimise any gatherings or multiple interactions. We changed our policy and procedures as restrictions were lifted. It has been pretty fluid but it has been a massive learning curve for everybody and it was a case of trying to react as best we can and to a point preempt which can often be tricky given the fact that in Scotland we are on a different road map to England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

“Slowly we have started moving back to providing an environment both on and off the course that members are more familiar with but it will take time.

“Our course team were back on June 29 and our starters are back managing the first tee and we were able to offer a takeaway food and beverage service from late June. Slowly but surely we were able to bring some of the office staff back as well.”

Elaine sees things changing as everyone get to grips with a new way of working.

“I envisage more home working going forward and possibly ‘compressed working weeks’. From a meetings perspective more will be done via Zoom rather than asking people to drive to a destination to have a face to face meeting. This also has a positive impact from a sustainability perspective. I would imagine that a blended working environment (home and office based) improves productivity of staff and also minimises any work-related stress issues, which is something that is prevalent in this industry and unfortunately we are behind other industries with support and tools for managers to deal with such situations.

“It has been a very strange time for us all, but also a great learning opportunity in relation to our adaptability, resilience, flexibility and understanding a very different map of the world for the staff and for the members going forward.”

There have been lessons learnt as the club and team have adapted to changes during such uncertain times.

“It’s been a journey that’s for sure. It has been a journey of learning different things about members, your operation, your staff and it has probably allowed us all to develop different behaviours as we have tried to navigate through very unchartered waters. It has also provided an opportunity for humility as you learn more about yourself and also others.

“Financially we do rely heavily on visitor income but we have to be very pragmatic and ascertain areas of opportunity as restrictions get lifted.”

Covid-19 has taken its toll on planned events at the club this year. The Scottish Boys championship planned in April was cancelled as was the Duke of York Young Champion’s Trophy scheduled in September. Pre-pandemic the club had decided not to host any events in 2021 so it could ensure the course could prepare for its next major tournament, another R&A championship, the British Ladies Senior Amateur event due to be held in August 2022. On reflection Elaine is hopeful about the future and can also see the benefits this turbulent time brings to the future face of the golf club.

“I think there have been a lot of good lessons learned from the situation we can take forward to better deliver our strategy and operations for 2021. I am sure this will be the case for many clubs going forward.

“There have been some challenging moments and you learn a lot about yourself, you learn more humility during the journey. You also get a better understanding of the challenges that your team face. It also demonstrated that general managers need to find the right blend of being strategic and ‘on your operation’ and also having the detail and knowledge to be ‘in your operation’.

“Certainly the last few months have allowed me to really get back to the detail of various parts of the operation. It has been a challenge; there has been an awful lot to do, but I have really enjoyed the journey!

“Communication has been very important and the members, the committee have been very supportive as have the staff that have continued to work and those that haven’t. You get to see a different strength and depth to your own skill set but also the skill sets of the team around you.

“The situation has given us an opportunity to do things differently and understand that there are different methodologies out there for us to manage golf clubs that are slightly out of the normal approach. I think it would be good for everybody to take the new behaviours and the new learning forward.

“Going forward we want to try to get to a point where we can provide a golfing experience and environment to members and visitors on and off the course that they are more familiar with. We appreciate that’s going to take time and it is going to have to be planned. I think we will be looking to consolidate and learn from the experience to make us more robust going forward, with a strong focus for 2021.”


Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir August 7, 2020 12:59
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  1. David S August 9, 13:35

    Elaine I am sure a great course like North Berwick will emerge from the pandemic as viable as ever! Stay safe.

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  2. Peter August 8, 13:01

    Great to hear !! Obviously, Elaine McBride “gets it !” The importance of community !! Engagement with it, involvement in it and participation alongside it !! Properly executing, keeps your course from being vandalized (most of time), keeps members on roles and assures a brighter future !! Great success !!

    Reply to this comment
  3. Ian Mac August 7, 21:18

    Visited North Berwick for the first time in 1974 and have been coming back regularly for 46 years. As a golfer who has advocated strongly for the West Links for years I was aghast last week when we visited to find out that a round on the West Links is now £160 a round rising to £175 a round next year. I am sorry but I will never play the course again. It is a great course but not at that course. Sold its soul.

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