Although the extremes of weather encountered these days do little to help the plight of golf clubs faced with financial difficulties, I believe that the problems facing the game are more ‘deep-rooted’.
The challenges faced
Golf participation across the globe may not have declined to the same extent as in some European countries, nevertheless there needs to be a change in future development. Firstly, we should not build any more golf courses, unless there is sufficient demand. The UK and other well-established golf markets are currently over-subscribed with golf courses. This has resulted in the closure of at least 30 clubs in the UK in recent years, with more likely to follow. Development of golf courses world-wide has generally been from the ‘top down’. In other words they serve only the wealthy and those who are competent golfers. ‘Championship’ style courses at over 7,000 yards in length and with an excess of 100 bunkers are far too difficult for the average golfer and unfortunately too many have been built. They are also costly to maintain and it is no surprise that the largest owner of golf clubs in some European countries are the banks! Club and ball technology also has to be addressed. Many courses are already at maximum length and cannot be extended to accommodate the additional distance that the ball is being driven. Longer courses take longer to play and cost more money to maintain; hardly the right solution when revenue streams are in decline. “
Many courses are already at maximum length and cannot be extended.
The way forward
So what can existing golf clubs do to improve their financial viability? As far as managing the golf course is concerned, clubs need to recognise that golf is a business and for any business to be successful, it means implementing and managing change where appropriate. For most clubs, maintaining the golf course will be the largest line of expenditure, but it is the course that is likely to provide the greatest level of income and the reason why the club exists. Therefore a balance needs to be maintained by providing good playing conditions for as much of the year as possible and at an affordable cost to both club and golfer. The starting point for clubs is to fully evaluate the golf course, the daily set-up and the way in which it is managed.
The design and layout of the course will have the largest bearing on costs, particularly labour which usually accounts for around 65% of the course budget. Although longer courses require more input, it is bunkers that are likely to have the biggest impact on expenditure, especially labour. The level of bunkering on modern courses has in my opinion become obsessive and more of an ego trip for many architects. They have become a luxury for many clubs and the recent wet summer has again highlighted that they can quickly become expensive money pits. High sand faces and heavy rain do not mix! Small multiple teeing areas and large undulating greens can also give rise to high labour input along with large numbers of ditches and water features. Undulating greens often require additional hand watering which is labour intensive and more difficult to manage.
Course set-up can also be a determining factor in terms of cost vs playability. The width of fairways and the extent of deep rough are two examples where the mowing extent can lead to higher labour and fuel costs. Since every hour of mowing equates to over 4 litres of fuel, any reduction in mowing is a direct saving in both fuel and labour. Perhaps the one area where costs have risen dramatically is on the thorny issue of greens speed. The ‘race for pace’ has become an obsession for many clubs. The vast majority of golfers find greens speeds much above 9 feet as being too difficult to putt upon, especially on sloping greens. Secondly, the cost to maintain greens at this speed is expensive in terms of labour input, plus the amount of top dressing, water, fertiliser and chemicals required maintaining good surfaces.
The last aspect in course evaluation is the way in which it is managed. Here the key starting point is a policy document which defines the way the course should look, play and the method of course maintenance. Once this is in place, it is then a case of determining the daily standards or expectations and ensuring that resources in the form of labour, equipment and materials match the agreed requirements. This ensures that everyone involved is working towards a common goal and that such work is fully transparent.
The final part of management is to measure performance and to ensure that results are communicated within the club.
Clubs need to evaluate their situation and be realistic with objectives. This may involve some tough decisions for the long term benefit of the game. Golfing bodies and organisations can also play a part in promoting sustainable and affordable golf, even it means questioning previous recommendations. Golf has to become affordable for everyone and be a fun sport to play if the game is to continue to succeed.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not, necessarily, those of The R&A.