Strict dress codes ‘can be bad for a golf club’s business’29th October, 2013 by Alistair Dunsmuir
Dress codes are a hugely contentious issue in golf, but could they even be costing your club income?
Do you remember waking up to hear the news that Barack Obama had been elected as the president of the USA (the first time in November 2008)?
It was one of those days when every news outlet in the world was leading with the same story, as demand for details of the momentous development was proving to be insatiable.
Yet you might be surprised to know that, for most of that morning, the election was only the second most read story on the BBC’s website. Number one went to the – no less important – revelation that 113-year-old Frinton Golf club in Essex had (four months earlier) amended its dress code so that male golfers no longer had to wear knee-high socks if they were wearing shorts.
The move, due to complaints from younger players, had, claimed the BBC, divided the club’s 600 members and Frinton’s pro admitted that they weren’t all happy about it. The club insisted that other aspects of the dress code were still being enforced. ‘No denim should be worn in the course or clubhouse’ said a reassuring statement.
Did the story go viral because millions of men had been waiting for the day to show off their legs at Frinton? Or was it because so many people are bewildered and amused at seemingly illogical rules that some pillars of society try so hard to keep in the name of tradition? And, from Muirfield’s failure to allow women to join to Frinton’s members’ opposition to bare legs, nothing is more open to ridicule and anger than golf clubs’ rules, especially ones surrounding exclusive and perplexingly detailed dress codes.
The derision has not abated since. In 2009 the comedian Mark Steel, in The Independent newspaper, queried the logic behind one club that has a rule that ‘caps must not be worn the wrong way round at any time’ and wondered that, if the rule was relaxed, would violent gangs start playing at the club? Almost every month the Mail Online, the world’s most read news website, runs a story that mocks golf’s dress rules – in March 2012 it stated that ‘most amateurs would be turned away from their local course’ if they arrived wearing a t-shirt and baggy shorts, and, to illustrate the story, showed several pictures of David Beckham wearing a t-shirt and baggy shorts at a Los Angeles golf course.
What’s devastating about these stories, which are far better read than articles about the outstanding work some golf clubs do with the environment, local communities, junior golfers and so on, is that they reinforce a negative stereotype about golf clubs that puts new people off playing the game at a time when the future of it is reliant on them.
Colin Montgomerie recently stated that golf has an elitist feel to it and that barriers need to be broken down. Mike O’Connell, manager of Hoebridge Golf Club, added that dress codes “restrict entry into the game”.
This is potentially catastrophic as many golf clubs are struggling to make ends meet at the moment, and several are fearful that they might go under. Don’t forget that despite all the good work that the likes of the Golf Foundation and the England Golf Partnership have achieved in recent years, the nearly 3,000 golf clubs in the UK and Ireland have 228,000 fewer members than they did just six years ago.
Would a relaxed dress code really improve the financial performance of a golf club? There is a much higher golf participation ratio per population in Scandinavia (in Sweden and Iceland more than five percent of the entire population are members of golf clubs), where few clubs have strict dress codes, than in the UK. And many golf clubs in the UK that have relaxed dress rules have seen business performance improve. For example, a spokesman for Parklands Golf Club in England said: “We have a relaxed dress code, which is one of the main reasons why our bar and restaurant is always busy.” A Tenby Golf Club spokesman added: “We have relaxed dress codes for the range, course and club. This provides a friendly and busy venue.”
The manager of Lincoln Golf Club added: “We are in the hospitality business and must give punters what they want. Otherwise golf clubs are failing themselves and their members.”
It may not work for all (Stoneham Golf Club relaxed dress rules regarding jackets, ties and shorts several years ago, and this, according to manager Richard Penley-Martin, “made no difference to clubhouse usage”) and, naturally, many do not agree with the course of action. One GCMA member summed up the feelings of many opposed to change when he wrote in Golf Club Management recently: “I am becoming ever more annoyed at the people on the outside telling us, on the inside, where we are going wrong. If people don’t like the way they are treated at golf clubs because of the dress code, they can, as far as I am concerned, go where they will receive no grief – somewhere else!”
But do these views, which ignore golf’s economic plight, even represent the ‘inside’? According to a survey last year, 89 percent of 1,181 members of UK golf clubs believe that a relaxed dress code at their clubhouse would either have no effect (46 percent) or a positive effect (43 percent) on bar and restaurant revenues. Just 11 per cent said it would have a detrimental effect. That’s 11 percent of members – the people who make the dress code rules!
One of the 43 percent explained why a strict dress code, enforced by a committee that should be acting as its custodian, could actually be harming his golf club. “I have never seen my club carry out research or canvass the members on dress codes and so any decisions are made on perceived facts rather than any analytical data,” he said. “Allowing jeans in the clubhouse would be a no-brainer for me. I, and all of the people I golf with, wear jeans 99 percent of the time. As such, I am never likely to drop into the club for a quick drink or a bite to eat because I am never going to be suitably dressed when I am passing the club. Equally, when I have finished playing, my wife is never likely to drop in for some food with me because she only wears jeans, so is never going to be suitably attired. I know many in the same position – the club is never going to see the potential income that this could bring.
“Now, if a larger group of individuals would stop using the clubhouse because they would be so affronted that I would be in there in jeans, then I am fine with maintaining the dress code as that as it is the financially correct position for the club. What, however, is more likely is that the members who run the club do not wear jeans and wish to apply this standard to everyone, and will not entertain the idea of change.”
In 2005 I tried to have a few drinks and a meal at a golf club after a fourball round, but the one, solitary person drinking in the two bars at the club demanded that the one, solitary member of bar staff working move us to the other bar as one of us (me) was not wearing a tie.
That man had, of course, paid a lot of money to be a member of a golf club that had these rules and that’s why I’ve never had a problem with him and the club making us feel unwelcome, albeit it was a bit of a hassle to get a taxi to a nearby pub where we invested the money on food and drink that should have gone to the golf club.
What has changed, though, is the economic downturn, which made his stance untenable. A few years later that club’s members debated among themselves how much more they were prepared to pay in subscriptions to cover the cost of lost earnings by having the rule. As a result, the ‘ties must be warn in this bar’ policy was removed, and when I returned to the club in 2011 I found considerably more people (and staff) in both the bars in a weekday autumnal afternoon than there were on a summer’s weekend afternoon in the days before the recession.
If a golf club is concerned about its financial future and has a dress code, then it is probably only a matter of time before it has to change. In his article Mark Steel wrote ‘far more people would play golf if the game wasn’t ruined by stuck-up condescending suburban snobs who insist on jackets and ties being worn in the bar to ‘protect standards’’.
You may not agree with, or like, his statement, but the pressure on golf clubs today means it is increasingly difficult to ignore the fact that it is a viewpoint shared by many people who would, nonetheless, be prepared to spend money at a golf club. It could be that investment, which many clubs are missing out on, that cuts subscription costs for existing members, prevents green fees rising for visitors or even keeps the club afloat during these economically challenging times. Tradition is important, but not as much as the future.