‘Do not rest on your laurels’

Seamus Rotherick
By Seamus Rotherick May 8, 2021 12:47

Participation had been falling for years prior to the pandemic, and it may do so again. Here, Sam Thompson, who studied golf coaching and performance at the University of Central Lancashire, takes us through research he carried out shortly before the pandemic started into why there had been a decline – and found it was driven by three factors.

Often, it is said that golf has changed; research shows that many of the barriers still exist. Life has its struggles as does golf. Bobby Jones once said: “Golf is the closest game to the game we call life. You get bad breaks from good shots; you get good breaks from bad shots – but you have to play the ball where it lies.” While participation has boomed since the pandemic, it was falling significantly prior to that – and it would be foolish to ignore what lessons we may have learned from that drop.

My name is Sam Thompson. During my degree I conducted an in-depth project into the deterioration of membership levels both across the UK and Europe. I conducted research into why participation is decreasing in the sport, finding that there were predominantly three factors: money, time and family. I created a questionnaire sample of 40 participants with a wide variety of demographic variables which enabled me to collect a large amount of data in a short space of time. This gave me a greater understanding of participants’ views on important areas that affect membership levels. To develop the data collected from the questionnaires, I carried out four semi-structured interviews with different participants enabling them to give more specific answers and views, further developing my research.

Golf has been seen in a tinted light in the past as initially it was viewed as an elitist sport in which only royalty or affluent males could play. This view of restricting those who could take part in the early form of golf may have had a long-lasting effect on those who play it, with it remaining an overly expensive sport, used by many in the business industry to display power, wealth, and position. It is seen as difficult and uninviting to become a member of a golf club as many are run by elderly men from similar social backgrounds controlling both policy and membership.


Golf has a reputation for being expensive compared to other sports like football and rugby, causing many golfers to reconsider their future in the sport. The number of active golf club members fell by 23 percent from 2010 from nearly 1.4 million members to just over one million a decade later. The survival of privately run golf clubs depends largely on the membership subsidies that it receives from its members annually; without this income, a golf club would have insufficient funds to cover its operating liabilities. This surplus of demand for golf clubs caused many that are struggling to close their doors for good, removing variety and history from many golf clubs across the globe. Since 2014, the number of golf clubs in Europe has declined from 7,000 to 6859.

Cost is a significant factor in a golfer’s decision to play or not. One solution would be for golf clubs to increase the consumer’s perceived value for money without it costing them too much. Attractive incentives attached to their membership offers will increase its worth to the member. Potentially, free range balls, a yearly bar tab, discount on merchandise in the pro shop or free / discounted trolley and golf buggy access. What does your golf club offer?


Golf is a time-consuming sport. A round of golf that could take up to five hours over 18 holes, could present difficulties for a modern family who may be working up to 40 hours per week and looking after children. This length of time is considered too much of a commitment by many who turn to other sports such as football and rugby as ways to competitively exercise. Within a family, the period of raising children and caring for elderly relatives has a damaging effect on participation in sport. One participant in this study said: “You’re looking at between four and five hours all-around when people are living busy working lives so it’s hard to schedule that into the working week”.

The pace of play within the game of golf is a complex subject with multiple causes and many potential solutions. One initiative that has been created to combat the slow pace of play is the introduction of GolfSixes. GolfSixes league, which is supported by The R&A and involves a largely changed form of golf that can be more appealing to the modern junior golfer. This form of golf has also seen success on the European Tour when both male and female professionals competed together in an enjoyable, fun and interactive form of golf. Another initiative which could benefit those members with a busy work schedule would be the introduction of a mid-week golf express day: A reduced six-hole golf tournament with discounted refreshments in the clubhouse upon completion. Are sub-18-hole rounds of golf the future of the sport?


To begin any sport or hobby, there must be a trigger that has encouraged your involvement. It is unlikely that you would take up the game of golf without being inspired by a family member or friend. They provide the basis for support regarding time, money, instruction, and praise. Family provides strategies and practice for the individual partaking in the sport to help them achieve their goals and become successful. Seventy percent of participants in this study had an immediate family member who either played golf or was a member of a golf club when they were a child. This shows how children need to have meaningful experiences in sport at a young age to instill important life-lasting values such as having fun, challenge and positive social interaction. Family provides the financial stability needed for children to participate in sport at a younger age giving them the potential to thrive.

To increase the number of new members it is crucial that projects are put in place to encourage members to introduce family to their golf club. The introduction of family golf days, with tuition included, could encourage new golfers to get involved in the sport. An exclusive membership could be offered to those who participated in the golf day, further supporting their future participation.

Many traditional barriers still exist. If golf does not change, the future may not be so bright.

Six ways to increase membership numbers in golf:


  • Incentives in membership packages that increase their perceived value (discounted range balls)
  • Vouchers to members who introduce new members to the golf club


  • Alternative forms of golf for members with busy work schedules to play in less time
  • GolfSixes for junior golfers


  • Family golf days to allow members to introduce relatives to the sport
  • Exclusive memberships to those who participated in the family golf day.

To contact Sam, email samthompsongolf@gmail.com

Seamus Rotherick
By Seamus Rotherick May 8, 2021 12:47
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  1. Philippe Wattinne May 13, 09:29

    And don’t forget the most popular sports : walking, running, swimming, biking… All sports you can do when you want, as you want and with no particular needs!
    Yes, golf has to adapt quickly

    Reply to this comment
  2. PReeve May 9, 19:51

    Do not become complacent colleagues of the golf industry! I’ve already experienced a sandwich taking more than an hour to come on a lunchtime, and random closing to suit staff as customers on course but poor weather….. #customercentricity #customerfocus #supportlocal #kyc

    Reply to this comment
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