Comment: Handicaps for non-members of golf clubs

Seamus Rotherick
By Seamus Rotherick March 21, 2021 08:07

Chris Gray, the head professional and general manager at Cottingham Parks Golf & Leisure in Yorkshire, argues that the plan to create handicaps for ’nomads’ in England risks repeating trends from the 1980s and 1990s, which led to a decline in golf club membership this century.

If we look back over the last 50 years, The R&A and the home unions must be congratulated on the advances they have made on safeguarding golfers, developing grassroots golf and opening up golf to a host of people. However, I cannot help but think their current approach to non-members or ‘nomadic golfers’ being allowed an official handicap might prove to be an ‘own goal’.

Only by looking at how golf has evolved over the last 50 years can we start to see the warning signs.

Having done some sterling work back in the 1970s and 80s, resulting in an increased demand for golf, we saw many landowners being persuaded to convert their land to golf courses. This saw the rise in the number of proprietary courses around the country, which worked hard to introduce new golfers to the game and become feeders to established members’ clubs. However, the unions did not recognise them as eligible for affiliation, with only the individual members of such clubs qualifying. A decision that would impact on more recent court cases relating to VAT and affiliation fees.

With hindsight, it could be said that the demand created back in the 1980s leading to an oversupply was the foundation stone for the challenges that golf clubs currently face. The home unions have tried to support members’ clubs through VAT and tax exemptions, while seemingly disregarding proprietary clubs, leading to an unlevel playing field to different types of clubs who operate in the same marketplace.

This oversupply led to a price war. Clubs were required to do deals on green fees to attract players to their club to balance the books. As time passed many clubs found themselves in a position of increased subscriptions with, in real terms, lower green fees being charged. Inevitably, more and more golfers saw less and less value in membership. For years, clubs’ survival relied on their ‘sleeping members’ (those who happily paid the annual subscriptions for 15 or 20 rounds a year just to keep a handicap and support their club), but these members were now leaving, no longer interested in a handicap, reverting to just social golf with their friends.

Then there came more deals. 2-for-1s and so on, which, by the time everyone had joined in, led to even less green fee income. On a brighter note this fight for customers brought about a much better offering in terms of customer service and facilities for all golfers. Those delivering the best service thrived while other clubs slipped further into the red. This has seen many, even long-established golf clubs, disappear over the last few years. According to a recent article in The Golf Business, 38 percent of clubs have admitted to being in financial difficulty, the real figure is probably higher. This decline in membership numbers has had the knock-on effect of a loss in revenue for England Golf (and other unions and possibly The R&A) through the decline of affiliation fees, both issues clearly need addressing.

I think we can all agree to the vision shared by The R&A and England Golf, that golf should be all inclusive as opposed to ‘elitist’ and that every golfer should contribute to achieving this goal, including nomads. But is issuing handicaps to nomads really the answer? Several golf clubs rightly challenged this proposal in recent years as they could see the potential financial impact it would have on their clubs along with the increased, mostly unpaid work it would give them. Instead of working with these clubs it would now seem that both The R&A and England Golf look set to bulldoze it through the back door.

Who are they really looking after? Golf in general, the golf clubs or their own little empires?

The proposal will certainly get back the revenue England Golf has lost through affiliation fees, but at what cost to the clubs?

Many members are seeing less value in the membership, so to offer them an official handicap without the need to be a member will only hasten their departure. No problem for England Golf as they will still get their affiliation fee, but the club suffers another loss in their revenue. Advance this a few months or so and the result is more club closures.

What is the effect of these closures?

As supply drops, demand increases. Good news for the clubs that survive as they can now increase their green fee rates, increase their subscription rates and balance the books. The problem with this is that golf has once again become an elitist sport, the very thing The R&A and England Golf were supposed to be trying to change.

I feel sure that we all welcome the principles of the World Handicap System (WHS) in that there is one system for the whole world and that the slope will level out the degree of difficulty between clubs, but how will this translate to club competitions?

Let us agree that the purpose of any handicap system, including allowances, is to create a level playing field to give everyone entered, who plays well, an even chance of winning regardless of handicap or format.

One of the biggest problems to competitive golf at many clubs presently, be it a club medal or open competition, is the ridiculous winning scores. The best example I can give is the Ping Ladies Betterball run by England Golf. The top 50 qualify for the final, the next 50 qualify for the plate. The leading score was 50 points and there was a card playoff on 46 points for the 100th spot. How is that a level playing field for, say, two scratch golfers? They would have to birdie 10 separate holes while making par at the remaining eight holes. Even Tiger and Rory would be pleased with that performance.

How will the WHS change this?

It seems accepted that most handicaps to handicap indexes will increase by one shot under the average of the best eight. Under the slope system these handicap indexes will increase for the higher handicaps (12+) on average, by a further 1+ shots, more for the 20+ bracket. Even after the percentage allowances, this is going to result in even higher, more ridiculous scores winning, simple because those currently winning will have even more shots. The playing field has just become even more ‘uneven’.

From my conversations with colleagues from other clubs, several are already experiencing a decline in entries from lower handicaps, especially in betterballs and ‘am-ams’. This produces a further decrease in club revenue and continues to feed the downward spiral.

In the short term, giving a nomad a handicap might benefit the clubs. They could be allowed to enter Open events and so on, which would swell the entry fees, reversing the current decline for many clubs. But what happens after the initial surge?

As, due to the limitless number of supplementary cards that can be entered, there is little way of controlling when or how scores are recorded. The WHS is even more open to abuse than CONGU. This will result in even bigger winning scores that will ultimately see club members declining to enter and the demise of ‘open’ events.

I read in The Golf Business England Golf’s CEO Jeremy Tomlinson’s comment that no-one joins a club just for a handicap. This is belittling to managers who have raised concerns and misses the point.

He is correct in that very few will join a golf club purely for a handicap, but as most golf clubs rely on ‘sleeping members’ (those who play 10 to 20 rounds a year but pay full subs) to balance the books it is more about retention. If you need 500 members paying ‘x’ to balance the books on a course that can only accommodate 350 on a weekend, you need ‘sleepers’. These sleepers are already challenging the value of membership so if you give these another reason to leave, some of them will take it, and all for just £40?

And what happens when clubs only have 400 members and the subs rise to x + £200. We are moving back towards elite golf. The R&A and England Golf will, I am sure, counter this by saying they think it will increase membership numbers. If clubs have 500 members with space for 350, where are these players going to join that have capacity, especially given that golf has enjoyed a mini-boom over the last 12 months?

How do we move forward?

Clubs that have capacity do need to attract nomadic golfers back into membership so that they can start to balance the books. But, it is essential that ALL clubs retain their ‘sleeping’ golfers. Failure to do this will, I believe, lead to a move back towards elitist golf as clubs struggle to balance income to capacity and demand.

Information coming from proposals around the Independent golfer are that this platform will be used to engage with these golfers to sell the benefits of membership. As the sport’s leading bodies who are there to promote golf and assist clubs, should they not have been doing this for the last 10-plus years instead of using it as a way of selling affiliation fees?

There are also suggestions that golfers leaving a club would not be allowed to access this handicap platform for 12 months after leaving a club. I think this is like putting a plaster on a bleeding artery. It would be far better to stop giving them reasons for leaving. Retention is cheaper than recruitment.

I believe that both The R&A and England Golf need to review their stance on the issuing of handicaps to non-members, work even closer with all clubs and become all-inclusive by levelling out the playing field between member and proprietary clubs.

For our great game to continue to grow we must start thinking about what is best for everyone and not just our own organisation or club.


Seamus Rotherick
By Seamus Rotherick March 21, 2021 08:07
Write a comment


  1. David18 March 25, 18:40

    If your business relies on sleeping members, this is where the problem is – not this scheme!

    Reply to this comment
  2. Trouty March 25, 11:06

    What a really good, well thought out and articulated piece. Gol’s governing bodies have been wide of the mark on this one from day one and the historic evidence points to one thing.

    Reply to this comment
  3. Denise March 22, 12:07

    Chris is talking a lot of sense will England Golf and R and A listen??? Probably not.

    Reply to this comment
  4. TB March 22, 10:39

    Green fees should be set at a premium membership is no longer attractive when clubs are still on a race to the bottom.⛳

    Reply to this comment
  5. TB March 22, 10:35

    Its another ill thought out initiative from Egu

    Reply to this comment
    • Sinj March 25, 10:12

      The R&A and EGU don’t seem to have any direct connection to golf clubs, particularly members clubs with the current system of funding they can ignore them. It must be time for club members to have a choice as to whether they should fund these organisations without any influence on their actions.

      Reply to this comment
  6. Eventus March 22, 09:44

    Bad idea, Golf club members would effectively be subsiding non members. While members bear the financial burden of keeping clubs open, society golfers and occasional golfers can move around from club to club for best value without a care in the world. There should be a minimum green fee set and adhered to by all affiliated clubs or a membership category that caters to the occasional golfers needs.

    Reply to this comment
  7. Datametrics March 22, 08:13

    A good read, thanks

    Reply to this comment
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