The top 40 trends of 2016

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir December 16, 2016 07:13 Updated

The top 40 trends of 2016

The year 2016 was like no other in the golf club industry. The vote to continue the ban on women from becoming members at Muirfield became an embarrassment, while Adidas’ and Nike’s decision to pull out of the game caused concern. Yet thanks to a series of good news stories including the health and social benefits of golf, the success that shorter formats of the game were having and golf’s return at the Olympics, it turned out to be a very good year.

But what were the biggest trends of 2016?

Tania Longmire and Alistair Dunsmuir have compiled their annual top trends list:

40. Rugby Golf became a thing

Footgolf has been huge in recent years and in 2016 we saw the introduction of Rugby Golf – a hybrid of rugby and golf that is best suited to be played at golf courses. The game involves players punting rugby balls down fairways. When they get close enough to a hole they throw the ball into a designated net.

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There already is a UK Rugby Golf Association and Killiow Golf Club in Cornwall has become one of a handful of venues to have already hosted a tournament.

 

39. Municipal golf received a much-needed boost

It’s been a dreadful few years for municipal golf clubs. Local authority budget cuts, falling participation in golf and housing shortages have meant many venues have been sold off or even closed down.

The struggle for these venues continues but they did receive some welcome news in 2016. It emerged that The Masters champion, Danny Willett, learnt the game on two municipal golf courses in England and Wales.

 

AUGUSTA, GEORGIA - APRIL 10: Danny Willett of England celebrates with the green jacket after winning the final round of the 2016 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 10, 2016 in Augusta, Georgia. (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)

Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images

Willett played at the municipal Birley Wood Golf Course in Sheffield, now run by SIV, part of the Sheffield City Trust, and when the family spent a two-week holiday in Wales during summer holidays, he played at Llangefni Golf Course, another municipal course that offered affordable golf.

 

38. Changes to CASC brought turbulence to hundreds of clubs

Several golf clubs were registered as Community Amateur Sports Clubs (CASCs), which brings certain tax benefits, but in April 2016 new eligibility criteria came in including the price of membership fees, the overall cost of being a member and the number of members who ‘participate in sport’.

It meant many had to relinquish their status and / or set up new trading subsidiaries – losing some of the benefits they had experienced for many years.

 

37. More clubs used mystery shoppers to boost customer service

With a TripAdvisor survey on golf clubs finding that poor customer service was customers’ number one complaint – about four times more so than the state of the golf course – clubs started to address the issue.

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Golf Development Wales, for example, sent ‘mystery shoppers’, made up of golf club members, society golfers and nomadic golfers, to provide feedback as to whether each club provided an enjoyable value-for-money experience.

“The volunteers do not just focus on the condition of the course and facilities, but look to capture the customer experience as well as the club’s ability to capture data, encourage loyalty re-visits, identify potential new members and communication after the visit,” said a spokesman.

 

36. Hiring clubs became outdated

Those were the words of Rob Climas, director of operations at Crown Golf, Britain’s largest golf club operator, which runs 22 venues.

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The group decided in 2016 to allow anyone to hire golf clubs for free – and give golfers free balls and some tees.

“It’s another barrier lowered,” he said. “Making a profit from club hire isn’t why we or most other clubs are in business, and we realised that charging for club hire felt a bit outdated these days.”

 

35. A debate started about concessions for elderly golfers

It’s been a contentious issue for many clubs for many years – do you offer discounts to elderly golfers, particularly ones that have contributed a lot of money to the venues over a number of years, even if it means they have to be subsidised by younger golfers who the clubs are desperate to attract, and who cite cost as deterrent against club membership?

Stockwood Park Golf Club in Luton became the centre of the debate when it ended its practice of offering concessions to elderly members. One septuagenarian member said the club was ‘picking on pensioners’, the club said it was committed to providing accessible and affordable services for all of Luton’s population.

 

34. More people from ethnic minority backgrounds tried golf

There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about getting more women to play golf, but people of colour are also proportionally unrepresented as golfers relative to their population size in the UK. For example, just two in every 100 golf club members in Wales come from a black and minority ethnic (BME) background.

Street Golf 15.02.16 ©Steve Pope - Sportingwales

©Steve Pope – Sportingwales

In 2016 the Equality and Human Rights Commission therefore donated £10,000 to Golf Development Wales to address the issue. This led to more than 1,000 people taking advantage of 30 sessions in schools as well as 50 ‘pop-up’ golf sessions in areas known for anti-social behaviour. More than half of those who took part were from BME backgrounds, while two thirds of those engaged were from Communities First areas and a third were young people not in education, employment or training (NEETs).

 

33. A small blue butterfly became proof that golf can be good for the environment

There’s a lot of negative perceptions about golf, and one of the most prevalent is that golf courses are bad for the environment and the local habitat.

This was spectacularly challenged in 2016 when it emerged that the small blue butterfly, which had been absent from Ayrshire since the 1980s, is now growing there thanks to a translocation and the work of a wildlife trust, a butterfly conservation body and, crucially, various links golf courses.

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The butterfly is attracted to coastal areas but only eats kidney vetch – so greenkeepers at several links courses have sown this food source by their courses – giving the butterfly a large area to colonise.

The R&A has provided £33,000 of funding until 2018 and its director of golf course management, Steve Isaac, said: “The continued success of the small blue is exciting news and an example of how golf courses can help protect and conserve our wildlife.”

 

32. Scottish Golf went through a period of personnel changes

Golf business in Scotland has been tough in recent years and that was partly why in 2015 the all-male Scottish Golf Union (SGU) merged with the Scottish Ladies’ Golfing Association to form Scottish Golf, the new governing body for amateur golf in the country.

It turned out that was not the end of the administrative changes. The new CEO of Scottish Golf was Hamish Grey, who had been leading the SGU since 1998. In March it was announced that he was leaving with immediate effect, with deputy chief executive Andy Salmon taking over. A few months later Andy Salmon then left the organisation, also with immediate effect.

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Blane Dodds

The organisation recruited the chair of Tennis Scotland, Blane Dodds, as its new chief executive, and announced it would no longer have a deputy CEO.

 

31. Business leaders were told to play less golf

There’s been a link between golf and business going back several generations, with many clubs offering corporate memberships and several business leaders being keen golfers. Some authorities don’t like this.

In 2016 the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) said that industry bosses were spending too much time on the golf course, and this could be a ‘conflict of interest’.

“Hospitality provided or received did not always appear to be designed to enhance the quality of service to the client,” said an FCA report.

“Individuals from firms had participated in sporting or social events such as golf. There were instances of sporting activities like playing golf provided after participation in training events. These benefits did not appear capable of enhancing the quality of service to clients as they were either not conducive to business discussions or the discussions could better take place without this activity.”

To make matters worse, government minister Liam Fox then said he thought the UK’s prosperity was being put at risk by business leaders playing golf.

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Liam Fox

“People have got to stop thinking about exporting as an opportunity and start thinking about it as a duty – companies who could be contributing to our national prosperity but choose not to because it might be too difficult or too time-consuming or because they can’t play golf on a Friday afternoon,” he said.

 

30. Golf clubs could no longer ignore the internet

Almost all clubs have had a website for many years but a club’s online presence goes much further than that, and 2016 was the year it became clear that this had to be treated as a priority. One survey of golfers found that in the last four years the number that have a smartphone has shot up from under half to now 90 per cent, and another poll found that 80 per cent of golfers now at least partly base their decision on which golf course to play at due to online reviews.

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Clubs have responded to this trend. England Golf found that three quarters of its affiliated clubs use social media for marketing, up from 60 per cent in 2014.

 

29. Wentworth brought to an end its extraordinary dispute

Perhaps the biggest individual story about the industry in 2015 was Wentworth’s new owner, wealthy Chinese company Reignwood Group, stating that it was going to increase its joining fee from £15,000 to £125,000 and annual subscriptions from £8,000 to £16,000 with an added £100,000 debenture charge. As there were reports the club wanted to reduce the number of members, many thought the club simply wanted to get rid of its high net worth members because they were not rich enough.

Existing members threatened legal action and even to disrupt the PGA Championship, but the club backed down and said all existing members could apply for a non-debenture category and a five-year subscription rise limit would be put in place.

“We have listened to a variety of differing interests from members and estate residents,” said a Reignwood spokesman.

 

28. It turned out that faster greens make golf slower to play

It seems obvious that one way to speed up slow play is to make the greens quicker, however, at an R&A ‘Time for Golf’ summit it was revealed that for every foot over nine on the Stimpmeter – the distance travelled by the golf ball between the device and where it rests – the length of the round increased by about 10 minutes (according to the USGA, 8.5 feet on a Stimpmeter constitutes a ‘fast’ green for a golf course, although it recommends 10.5 feet for the US Open).

This followed research by Lucius J Riccio PhD, who found that every foot of green speed per green adds up to 15 minutes to a round of golf.

“Al Radko, the former USGA green section director once said ‘no matter where the golfer is putting from, it should be possible to stop the ball within two feet of the hole’. That sounds easy, but on greens of 11, 12 or 13 it’s rare that weekend players can do it. Instead of tap-ins, he or she must take time to line up that second, and often third,” said the contributing editor of Golf Digest, Bob Carney.

 

27. A number of clubs reported vandalism to their courses

This is an issue that seems to get worse every year. Just some of the clubs that reported vandalism to their courses include Notts Golf Club, which was hit by bikers twice in two months. The first time, in January 2016, trespassing riders rode onto the course and caused more than £6,000 of damage. Around the same time Enville Golf Club, Penn Golf Club, Kingswinford Golf Centre and Swindon Golf Club, all in Staffordshire, were all broken into and buggies were driven around the courses, causing damage to the fairways and greens. Elsewhere Essex venue Chingford GC found that vandals, armed with shovels and spades, dug up several greens across two nights in July.

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26. The Olympics was golden for golf

It was a patchy to build up to the highly anticipated return of golf to the Olympics – after 112 years – in which Rory McIlroy said he wouldn’t watch the tournament on television, but in the end it couldn’t have been more successful.

Britain’s Justin Rose won the gold medal for the men’s event. And if that wasn’t good enough he used many of his post victory interviews to promote playing golf.

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“Golf is a great game for people looking to keep fit, as you don’t need to be an elite athlete to play,” he said.

“It is a game for everyone, of all ages or levels of fitness. It gets you out in the fresh air and doing some gentle, but effective exercise and can only help people looking to get or keep fit.”

 

25. Flooding caused huge problems

Heavy rainfall at the end of 2015 was the last thing the industry needed, and it meant clubs all over the UK, but especially in northern England and Scotland, had to close because their venues were submerged under water.

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The damage led to some extraordinary pictures and stories – a member of staff at Eden Golf Club in Cumbria found a pregnant cow on the course – after she had been swept 18 miles along a river – with several clubs shut for many weeks.

Fifteen golf clubs in England alone even applied for support from the Emergency Flood Relief Fund – and 13 of them were successful.

 

24. Get into golf continued to grow

Get into golf or #GetintoGolf is a summer of activity and golf marketing aimed especially at encouraging adult beginners to pick up a club and get in the swing.

In 2016 it meant people in Nottingham could try the game for free at festivals and local leisure centres, clubs in Durham worked together to offer joint packages aimed at encouraging more women to play golf and the Premier League 4 Sport teamed up with golf authorities to offer a football-themed StreetGolf championship.

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#GetintoGolf led to 3,900 people joining golf clubs in England in 2015, and this meant that it was extended to Scotland in 2016. Over 100 Scottish golf clubs took part, delivering affordable beginner lessons coupled with access to free club hire, free use of practice facilities and exclusive introductory membership offers.

 

23. A legal ruling went in favour of golf clubs

In 2011 a golfer at Niddry Castle Golf Club in Scotland was awarded nearly £400,000 when he lost an eye after being hit by a stray ball, the money paid by both the golfer who hit the ball and the club where it happened. This led to several clubs improving their risk management and health and safety procedures, leading to warning signage and, in extreme cases, redesigns of their courses to make them safer.

But this changed in 2016 when a golfer who sued Workington Golf Club in Cumbria after suffering brain damage when being hit on the head by a stray ball lost his case.

After hearing that there had been one accident in 44 years at the club, where about 20,000 rounds are played each year, the judge dismissed the claim, saying that the club could not have foreseen or prevented such an incident.

 

22. More clubs went crowdfunding to secure money

With banks still reluctant to lend money, golf clubs have had to be creative if they need to invest in their facilities. In 2016 this meant crowdfunding – funding the project by raising monetary contributions from a large number of people via the internet. Murcar Links in Scotland raised nearly £8,000 for a new irrigation system thanks to a crowdfunding campaign, and the UK’s most westerly golf course, Barra Golf Club, on the west coast of the Isle of Barra, in the western isles of Scotland, also went crowdfunding to raise £30,000 for a much-needed clubhouse.

 

21. Community focussed clubs found income opportunities

If crowdfunding isn’t a viable source of money, several clubs that perform a community role found that they could receive much-needed funds from public bodies.

Harpenden Golf Club and Welwyn Garden City Golf Club, both in Hertfordshire, received £75,000 and £70,000 respectively from Sport England. The money was spent on refurbishments and improvements. Harpenden used it to provide new disability access and Welwyn Garden City installed new Astroturf greens on its existing practice ground, for example.

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Meanwhile, the not-for-profit ethical funding organisation and environmental body, SUEZ Communities Trust, granted Ravensworth Golf Club in Gateshead £27,000 to spend on aerating its course – meaning older golfers will be allowed to use trolleys and buggies for longer.

And South Moor Golf Club in Durham was awarded £4,926 of National Lottery money from Sport England’s Flood Relief Fund. This meant the club received more than £100,000 between 2011 and 2016, all from Sport England, the Stanley Area Action Partnership and Stanley Town Council.

 

20. More rival golf clubs discovered the benefits of working together

It might seem an odd business decision – to work with your competitors, but it does seem to lead to impressive results whenever golf clubs do it.

Six Derbyshire golf clubs set up the High Peak Golf Development Group so they can work together to attract people to join and visit their clubs. They engaged a community golf coach to visit local parks, schools, organisations and businesses in the region and even received £8,600 from Sport England for developing golf.

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Cavendish GC

Nine clubs all with their courses designed by Alister MacKenzie formed the ‘Cavendish MacKenzie Trail’. “The Cavendish MacKenzie Trail is an example of taking a risk and doing things differently; a collaboration between disparate clubs, but all with a shared heritage,” said Mike Watson, Cavendish Golf Club’s director of marketing.

“The grouping has combined visitor numbers of 20,000. If leveraged this could create welcome promotional benefit for all the clubs involved. Each club takes its own bookings with no commissions to complicate things.

“Leaflets, posters, website, social media and email are all being deployed to good effect, but we are also now getting traction with the local tourist board who see this as a unique tourist attraction for golfers.”

 

19. A number of longevity records were broken

One of golf’s selling points is that it’s a game that can be played regardless of age, and this was proven a number of times in 2016.

When a 91-year-old golfer hit a hole-in-one at Stoke Park Country Club, Spa & Hotel in Buckinhamgshire, it was asked if his fourball, with a combined age of 358, was the oldest regular playing quartet in the UK.

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In 2016 Geoffrey Crosskill was certified by Guinness as a world record holder for the amount of time he had been a continuous member at Eaton Golf Club – 82 years and 18 days. But then it emerged that Willie Cuthbert had been a member at Kirkintilloch Golf Club in Scotland for more than 90 years!

It was also asked in the summer if Aquarius Golf Club in London’s PGA professional, Fred Private, who has worked continually at the club for a staggering 52 years, was the longest serving PGA professional at the same club. By the year-end no other club had come forward with a professional who had been there longer.

 

18. Record amounts for charity were raised

A golf day at Wentworth raised £116,000 in support of Depaul, an organisation that helps homeless and vulnerable young people in London. It was thought this was the highest amount ever raised at a golf club in one event for charity, but a few weeks later, a day at Stoke Park Country Club raised more than £140,000 for JDRF, the type 1 diabetes charity.

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In both cases it the amounts were boosted by having famous golfers involved in the fundraising – Gary Player at Wentworth and Sam Torrance at Stoke Park.

 

17. Flexible membership became too popular

Approximately 36 per cent of English golf clubs now offer a flexible membership policy, a huge rise in the last five years.

One of the first to set the scheme up, Golf at Goodwood, closed its category at the end of 2016 because it had become too popular. It saw a net gain of 600 members between 2014 and 2015.

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“Despite membership difficulties for golf clubs, Goodwood’s Credit Membership has proven so popular that it was closed with the club reaching its capacity,” said a club spokesman. “New applications for membership will be asked to join a waiting list.”

 

16. Members are getting older

England Golf’s biennial research into the state of the nation’s golf club industry came out in 2016, and it showed one significant and worrying trend: a large rise in the age of members of golf clubs in just two years.

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The average number of members of an English golf club fell slightly from 466 to 460 between 2014 and 2016, but, at the same time, the average number of members over the age of 65 at an English golf club has shot up from 148 to 171 – a 13 per cent increase.

 

15. Brexit led to an unexpected boost for some golf clubs

Britain’s vote to leave the European Union shocked the industry and many quickly delivered warnings that still may come true.

Greenkeeping organisation BIGGA’s chief executive officer, Jim Croxton, said: “The decision to leave the EU will have an impact on people’s pockets and within the golf industry this can manifest itself in a reduction in greenkeeping budgets.” Will Hawkley, UK head of leisure at KPMG UK, said: “The decision to leave the EU is likely to cause the leisure and hospitality sector a great deal of uncertainty and concern. It’s fair to predict that the result will probably impact consumer confidence, driving down discretionary spend on leisure in the short to medium term.”

However, it did bring cheer to some clubs. Brexit led to a large fall in the strength of the pound and this led to a boom in tourists visiting the UK to play their courses.

According to holiday website Golfbreaks.com, sales to US-based customers between July and September increased 238 per cent on the previous three months.

Neil Hampton, general manager of Royal Dornoch Golf Club (pictured), said that more visitors from the United States than ever before had visited his club.

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“Since Britain voted in June to leave the EU, the currency dip and the uncertainty of what lies ahead has led to a rise in incoming tourism. Scotland has so far reaped the rewards, with the Highlands, where the scenery and the golf courses are renowned, among the locations to benefit.

“The prognosis for golf tourism following Brexit may be uncertain, but at the moment we are enjoying an unexpected and welcome side effect.”

 

14. Clubs got back to investing in themselves

After several years of tightened purse strings many golf clubs started investing in their facilities in 2016.

One of the biggest ever in golf is Celtic Manor Resort in Wales saying it is prepared to invest in a new £80 million international convention centre accommodating up to 5,000 delegates with a total floor space exceeding 20,000 square metres. This could open as soon as 2019.

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Just some of the other investments in 2016 include Birchwood Park Golf and Country Club in Kent (pictured) benefiting from a £5 million spend to transform its health and fitness area, Oulton Hall in Yorkshire undergoing a £1.1 million upgrade, The Westerwood Hotel & Golf Resort in Scotland spending £500,000 on a renovation and expansion of its spa and leisure facilities, Essendon Country Club in Hertfordshire building a new state-of-the-art short-game facility, Highwoods Golf Club in Sussex opening a fitness room, Lough Erne Resort in Northern Ireland investing in its course and adding a swimming pool and The Warwickshire Golf & Country Club opening a 56-bedroom hotel.

 

13. Fraud became a major issue for golf clubs

Hull Golf Club in Yorkshire became the victim of what was thought to be, financially, the biggest bank fraud to have hit the golf industry ever. The club’s account has had nearly £300,000 taken out by fraudsters.

It then emerged that Waterlooville Golf Club in Hampshire had recently been swindled out of £90,000 and had to take a ten-year loan to plug the black hole.

The fraud occurred because the club downloaded spyware on one of its computers, and its bank refused to pay because the club did not download its own security software.

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Digital security expert John McDowell said: “Sports clubs make ideal targets. Most large organisations have already been attacked, and so have taken the necessary precautions to protect themselves. This has forced hackers to go for golf clubs.

“The biggest weakness is people. People like to be helpful and scammers exploit that. They will phone businesses, as well as individuals, saying they’re from the bank and could they have account numbers and passwords.”

 

12. Facilities still found the economic conditions too tough

There might have been some signs of positivity in the industry in 2016 but that didn’t stop several clubs going into administration, or worse, going under altogether.

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The bigger names to go were Channels Golf Club in Essex, Kyngs Golf and Country Club in Leicestershire, Glinisla Golf Club in Scotland, Frome Golf Club in Somerset, Canford Magna Golf Club in Dorset, Blairbeth Golf Club in Scotland, Western Park Golf Club in Leicestershire, Riddlesden Golf Club in Yorkshire, Izaak Walton Golf Club in Stoke, The Oaks Mollington in Chester and Padbrook Park Golf Club in Exeter, which all either closed down or ended the golf side of their businesses.

 

11. Struggling clubs found light at the end of the tunnel

While some golf clubs went under others found their futures were secured.

For example, Glendale Golf agreed a deal with Rushcliffe Borough Council to ensure Edwalton Golf Centre in Nottingham will be around until at least 2025.

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“This removes any uncertainty about Edwalton’s future, and we can all now look forward to enjoying this valuable local leisure hotspot for many years to come,” said Simon Robinson, deputy leader of Rushcliffe Borough Council.

Similarly, Windmill Hill Golf Club, which saw its membership drop from 600 in 2000 to 131 in 2010, passed from Milton Keynes Council to 1Life Leisure Management Solutions, as part of a ten-year deal that will see 1Life invest in the facility.

 

10. More golf clubs reported growth

Despite increased pressures on the industry, there were several good news stories in 2016.

A survey of 101 private members’ golf clubs found that the number that reported financial growth shot up from just a third in 2011 to well over a half five years later.

Related to this, Sport England revealed that from April 2015 to March 2016 both monthly participation and club membership rose sharply after years of falls.

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More locally, golf clubs in Durham collectively saw a large increase in male members – the county’s 44 clubs had 17,543 male members, a 615 increase from the previous year’s figure.

Several clubs had individual tales of success.

Sene Valley Golf Club in Kent reduced the cost of its annual subscription to be a full seven-day member because of an influx of new members, largely thanks to its flexible membership scheme and, also thanks to a flexible package, Gaudet Luce Golf Club in Worcestershire doubled its membership from 400 to 800 in just two years.

 

9. Footgolf is still getting bigger

Last year’s number one trend is still growing exponentially. More than 200 UK golf clubs now offer the sport that’s a hybrid of football and golf, and more than 70,000 people play it every week.

Silver Birch Golf Club opened its footgolf course in 2015 and within a year had more footgolfers than golfers, ensuring its turnover increased by nearly 30 per cent.

Meanwhile, the chief executive of BGL Golf, which owns 22 golf courses in the UK at 10 venues, has said introducing footgolf at four of them has led to significant improvements.

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Colin Mayes, who is also chairman of the UK Golf Course Owners Association, said: “It was a successful year for BGL. Our short course performance was up by 14 percent and was helped on four of the courses by the introduction of footgolf which has had a tremendous impact for us.”

And Grimsby Golf Centre became at least the second golf club to secure its future by converting entirely to the new sport. Nine-hole Burstow Golf Club in Surrey recently became Burstow FootGolf Centre.

 

8. More clubs turned to housing to improve their finances

There’s a housing shortage in the UK and many golf courses, which take up a lot of land, have been struggling to make money in recent years. It’s not too surprising about what happened next.

Housebuilders such as Redrow and Barratt Homes started buying golf courses, clubs such as Bradley Park in Yorkshire and Darlington GC were earmarked to be closed down or relocated to make way for homes, a report by the Adam Smith Institute recommended that more golf courses on protected green land should be sold off and housing magazines called for golf facilities to be concreted over.

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Several clubs have also taken advantage of the financial opportunity of this trend. In 2016, Sonning Golf Club, Dundonald Links, Hexham Golf Club, Woodham Golf and Country Club, Beeston Fields Golf Club, Huntercombe Golf Club and Whitstable and Seasalter Golf Club all announced intentions to build homes on their land to boost revenues.

 

7. The war on slow play stepped up a gear

The time it takes to play a round of golf – sometimes more than four hours – is an oft-cited factor in the game’s participation decline in recent years.

It became so serious that at the end of 2015 The R&A ran a an all-encompassing conference on how to speed up golf and in 2016 produced a manual for clubs on the issue.

Slow play became so important that former US Open champion Graeme McDowell said golf needs to be quicker. “There’s no doubt the game needs to be faster, it needs to be cooler and it needs to be sexier,” he said.

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Meanwhile, Mark Parsinen, the managing partner of Castle Stuart Golf Links said golf courses have to become easier to play in order to boost participation levels.

“Golf courses have evolved to have faster greens, narrower fairways, much longer rough, and more penalty-laden ‘hard edges’. Golfers have been facing increasingly difficult courses and challenges that are all too often humiliating and costly, both in time and the cost of lost balls,” he explained.

Clubs also tackled the issue. Lichfield Golf and Country Club in Staffordshire produced ‘Ready Golf’, a series of guidelines that give advice to both golfers and marshals about what causes slow play and how it should be tackled, Dale Hill Golf Club in East Sussex hosted the British Open Speedgolf Championship and Glendale Golf, which operates several golf clubs across the UK, ran a group-wide ‘Get Ready Golf’ initiative that included widespread signage and a digital marketing campaign giving customers tips on time-efficient golf.

 

6. Two major golf brands partially pulled out of the industry

Golf club managers and owners have not just noted the fall in golf participation in recent years – two of the world’s biggest brands have also been monitoring the trend.

In 2016 both Nike and Adidas, two firms that have dominated golf consumerism for decades, announced they were largely leaving the industry. Two huge announcements that made every golfer aware of the struggles their local club is facing.

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In the spring Adidas announced it was seeking a purchaser for its TaylorMade clubs division and Adams and Ashworth clothing brands, but would keep its Adidas Golf shoe and apparel business, and in the summer Nike stated it will stop making and selling bags, balls and clubs, but it will continue to produce footwear and apparel.

 

5. The health benefits of golf became a national talking point

There may be all sorts of reasons why people play golf but in 2016 clubs were given a host of health benefit stories that they can use in their marketing strategies.

The Local Government Association said the health benefits of playing golf are so considerable that doctors should effectively start prescribing it, research from the London School of Economics and Political Science found that regular walking is more effective at keeping weight down than vigorous activities such as going to the gym and Dr Andrew Murray, a doctor who is part of a group of researchers involved in a five-year project looking at the health benefits of the sport, said that golfers live on average five years longer than non-golfers, regardless of gender, age and socioeconomic status.

“Golf is a sport that can be played from the age of four to 104, and played by all ages and both genders. It also offers that social connection. I think golf has been substantially undersold – people think you have to do things like go running ultra-marathons to get health benefits. But if you find something you enjoy and do it regularly, that will offer you those benefits. Golf is a great example of something people all ages can do, they can do with friends and that is the part of the beauty of it,” he said.

Golfer Jim Blakey, 85 (July, 2016)

These comments coincided with a number of stories in which elderly golfers achieved amazing feats. For example, 85-year-old Jim Blakey won a club tournament at South Moor Golf Club, nearly 50 years after fearing he would never walk again after slipping a disc!

 

4. All sorts of people who needed help found it via golf

The year 2016 was remarkable for the amount of stories regarding clubs helping people who needed it the most.

The main stories were: A partnership between Shropshire Golf Club and a local school in a deprived area, in which a ‘satellite golf club’ was set up at the school, delivered more than £500,000 of benefits for children and massively reduced truancy; A Member of Parliament praised Lincoln Golf Centre in the House of Commons after it became the UK’s first ‘dementia friendly golf club’ when, following work with the Alzheimer’s Society, it began using golf to tailor a physical, mental and social stimulation service to dementia clients; Rudding Park Hotel, Spa and Golf in Yorkshire teamed up with ‘Golf in Society’ to offer families living with Parkinson’s the chance to relax, learn new skills and socialise; Brandon Wood Golf Course and Club in Coventry was praised by charity the Children’s University for being a key learning destination for giving children in Coventry and Warwickshire increased access to golfing activities; and Malkins Bank Golf Course in Cheshire was praised by the Stroke Association for hosting weekly sessions in which nine stroke survivors had access to several hours of coaching on the driving range.

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Other events included a ‘StreetGolf’ project in Wales that tackled antisocial behaviour, two golf clubs fundraising for an Essex holiday home for children with cancer following the death of a boy and Rotherham Golf Club working with the Samaritans to raise funds.

 

3. Nine-hole golf became much bigger

An obvious solution to the slow play issue is to reduce the number of holes that golfers play, and that became a serious proposition in 2016.

Golf’s authorities and several clubs got serious about nine-hole golf.

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The R&A, the PGA, the Golf Foundation and all the home golfing unions promoted a video on their websites showcasing nine-hole golf, featuring leading men’s and women’s players, and The R&A even ran a nine-hole tournament ahead of the 2016 Open Championship at Royal Troon. Padriag Harrington said of it: “This is a fantastic initiative and I’m sure this new competitive format will encourage more people to get out on the golf course and play nine-hole golf.”

Martin Slumbers, chief executive of The R&A, said: “Nine-hole golf is often overlooked as a perfectly valid way to play the sport.”

Golf Union of Wales chief executive Richard Dixon added: “Sometimes people do not have enough time for 18 holes. Playing a few holes of golf still has all sorts of benefits – as well as being fun.”

England Golf set up Golf Express featuring an online directory at www.golfexpress9.org showcasing where golfers could play nine holes, which was supported by Justin Rose, who said: “During practice I often play nine holes, rather than 18. Golf Express gives people the opportunity to go out and enjoy all the benefits of the game in half the time.”

Golf operator Glendale launched the ‘Glendale 9-Hole Summer League’ at all its venues.

While in Scotland two golf clubs, West Lothian Golf Club and Kingsfield Golf Centre, said their memberships have grown because they have been offering nine-hole competitions.

 

2. The Muirfield vote both masked and helped the industry’s female progress

The industry has known for a while now that there is so much financial potential from women – in the UK and Ireland, just 16 per cent of golfers – 162,000 people – are female, but a 2016 report found that there are 3.79 million prospective female golfers. Their latent demand value would be worth £2.85 billion to the UK and Irish golf economy.

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Clubs have therefore been running schemes to get more women to try golf – and then the issue of women in golf became a major international story.

In May The R&A kicked The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers in Muirfield off the rota for hosting the Open Championship when it voted to continue its ban on women becoming members.

The story led to ridicule and condemnation all over the world but it also had a positive effect for women. The backlash was so strong that Royal Troon, another men-only golf club, which was about to host the 2016 Open Championship, held a hastily convened vote, and decided to admit women just two weeks before the event teed off.

More men-only clubs such as Pollok and Lundin announced they would admit women and an embarrassed Muirfield stated it would hold another vote on the issue by the end of 2016.

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Meanwhile the home unions all targeted increased female participation. Both England Golf and the Golf Union of Wales issued statements saying their countries are now witnessing a surge in female participation of the game. ‘The future looks bright for women’s and girls’ golf across Great Britain and Ireland, with new data revealing a surge in the number of females becoming involved in the sport.’ The chair of Scottish Golf said she will use her high-level business experience to try and get more women to play golf. “The remit is to grow golf among those people who don’t understand it. It just so happens the biggest, most obvious opportunity is to do that with women. Only 14 per cent of golf club members in Scotland are women – but it’s not just about converting women to play golf. It’s about making them understand that it is a great sport for youngsters to learn and get them into clubs,” said Eleanor Cannon. “It’s now about developing formats so that families enjoy playing together.”

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Several golf clubs reported positive stories regarding women in 2016 that received far less media coverage than the Muirfield vote. The 123-year-old Cathcart Castle Golf Club in Scotland appointed a woman as its captain for the first time; The 112-year-old Hindhead Golf Club in Surrey appointed a woman as its president for the first time; Thorpeness Golf Club and Hotel in Suffolk appointed Christine Langford as its new senior golf professional, the first female professional in the club’s 93-year history; The Lothians Golf Association (LGA) appointed its first woman to an elected post on the LGA’s council; Gaudet Luce Golf Club in Worcestershire worked with the ‘Women’s Business Forums’ at the Worcestershire and Herefordshire Chamber of Commerce to provide golf tuition and networking opportunities to several businesswoman; and Tyne and Wear Sport provided funding for Sunderland College to offer golf lessons to girls and women aged 16 to 25.

 

1. Several golf clubs finally received millions of pounds in green fee rebates

In 2013 the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled that green fees at private members’ golf clubs should have been exempt from VAT, in a controversial case that had been going on for years. In 2015 the First Tier Tribunal looked at the issue of ‘unjust enrichment’, and the industry waited to see if the government would start paying out in 2016.

By the autumn it had and by the end of the year the majority of the hundreds of clubs that were due a rebate had received it. In some cases the amounts received were several hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Blairgowrie Golf Club is Scotland was one of the first to receive its repayment – £550,000.

Its managing secretary, Douglas Cleeton, said the money would be of tremendous benefit to the golf club.

“It’s a wonderful and significant windfall for us and we will be considering carefully how it will be invested,” he said.

“We won’t be the biggest beneficiaries in Scotland, not by a long way.

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“At the top end of the market, there are clubs with exceptionally big visitor numbers which will be getting more than £1 million.

“The vast majority, of course, will be getting a windfall which is much more modest.

“For many clubs struggling to survive in the current climate the VAT windfall will be a lifesaver.

“It may take the immediate pressure off and dig some clubs out of a hole for a year or two.

“Several projects are under consideration for the long term benefit of the golf club and to provide a legacy for the future.”

 

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir December 16, 2016 07:13 Updated
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