AFTER 120 YEARS an accountant’s letter is now attached to the Edinburgh-based, Lothianburn clubhouse front door stating that the golf club is closed. Membership, which totalled over 820 in 2004, had slumped to 270 at the start of 2013. Starved of income it was no longer possible to remain open.
Further north, Perth Merchant’s GC, who play over the North Inch course is currently waiting to hear from its financial advisers on a decision whether to keep trading is a viable proposition.
So while golf is mushrooming in the likes of India, China and Vietnam aimed at capturing wealthy local grandees and travellers alike looking for new five star experiences to enjoy, the game in more grass roots destinations is suffering the age-old economic dilemma of supply outstripping demand.
Hamish Grey, CEO, of the Scottish Golf Union, said recently, ‘We have more courses than we need for the current playing numbers,’ having seen closures at other previously popular venues of Letham Grange in Angus, once glibly described as ‘The Augusta of Scotland’; Whitemoss GC in Perthshire and Craibstone GC in Aberdeen. In Scotland there is one course per 9,800 people compared to one per 27,000 in England and one to 112,000 of the population in France.
Continental Europe, where many new courses have been developed as an environmental sop to local and regional planning authorities while holiday villas and apartments have sprung up in clusters along the fairways have also suffered; with a strong Euro and failing local economies deterring buyers from both home and abroad.
Monte Mayor, north of Estepona in Malaga province, cost a fortune to develop with developer La Perla Living creating top quality residences and infra structure in an area that simply could not sustain so much high-end real estate.
The fact that one had to be half mountain goat and half scratch golfer to be able to play the course without losing dozens of balls did not help either. But despite a hefty marketing budget, Monte Mayor is now every bit as closed as Lothianburn and others look set to follow.
What is clear is that courses dependent on a high proportion of green fee payers are most at risk. Of the 150 or so courses that closed last year in the USA the high proportion were those public amenities that charged under $40 for a green fee.
In order to run a golf club efficiently in the US a great many $40 visitors are needed simply to keep a course in an attractive enough state to pull in the punters and pay the staff. The attitude in America in golf, as in other walks of business life, is that the weakest going to the wall leaves golf in a stronger position with fewer clubs competing for custom.
England Golf has been similarly optimistic in its latest report on the state of the game published earlier this year. ‘These are very difficult times for golf clubs, both in terms of the economy and overcoming the effects of the wettest summer for 100 years,’ said Richard Flint, development manager of England Golf. ‘But, it is encouraging to see clubs responding to these challenges in creative and imaginative ways and putting their customers at the heart of everything they do.’
What England Golf is urging its members to do is encourage far more youngsters to participate. According to the report around 97 per cent of golf clubs now offer junior coaching to members and non-members, and there are now more opportunities for young players to compete in main events and adult tournaments. Given the increasingly high age profile of many members’ clubs recruitment of young boys and girls has never been more crucial to ensure that, in the longer term, more clubs do not go the way of Lothianburn.