The challenge of converting the UK’s millions of casual golfers into club members was one of the key subjects raised at the annual media meeting held by R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers in St Andrews earlier this week.
According to a report on the meeting published in The Courier newspaper, Slumbers said that five times as many people consume golf as are members of golf clubs, and the R&A’s next shift towards increasing participation in the sport is going to target those people.
In his statement to the assembled media, Slumbers said the first five years of his tenure was focused on the commercial side of the governing body’s business, but the next five years would be all about participation.
“Grass‑roots golf is going to struggle unless the game changes,” Slumbers said at the meeting. “The traditional way of looking at the health of golf in Great Britain and Ireland is number of golf club members, and that’s about a million golfers. We had independent research done to look at how many people consume golf, which means 18‑hole golf, nine‑hole golf, driving ranges, par‑three courses, adventure golf, Top Golf, all of those things. That group of people is 10.2 million people; it’s much more diverse, and it’s younger than the golf club membership.
He added: “Because we’re all a bit cynical, you reckon maybe half of them really don’t think they’re consuming golf, but even if you do that it’s still five million. Why aren’t those five million joining golf clubs? I would argue it’s because the golf clubs are not providing a product they want to buy.”
Golf had to break down the traditional barriers if they wanted these 4-5 million people to come into the club arena, he added.
“You go to clubs which deliver non‑traditional forms of the game, they’re busy,” he continued. “And I think that’s a lesson for all of us who love this game. Those are clubs that are very family orientated, they have fitness facilities, creches, coffee shops, free WiFi, no dress codes, a par-three course, a short 9-hole course, or an adventure putting course – those are the ones that are going to succeed.”
He added: “There are probably too many [clubs] delivering exactly the same product. You go into cities where there could be a lot of traditional golf clubs, and some of them are struggling, but then go to the driving range and it’s always busy. Golf has to evolve.”
Slumbers also felt that clubs needed to offer more choice and flexibility about how golfers play and pay for the game.
“There are a few clubs which have got a lot more choice in their membership policies and the way they do it, and guess what, they’ve got quite a lot of members,” he said. “From a business’s point of view, your whole business is about connecting with people, and golf is no different. If you just confine to a small group, you’re only going to be talking to a small group. You’ve got ask the question why, and you have to think, well, maybe golf isn’t delivering a product they want to buy. I think that’s the starting point in the conversation.”