Golf Business News spoke to Jeremy Tomlinson, CEO at England Golf, to understand the challenges the organisation has faced this year, how it has responded to the pandemic and how the sport is placed heading into 2021.
GBN: You have lobbied government on a number of occasions this year – why did you think it was important to do this?
J.T.: This was something new to us all, but it was crucial to make sure golf’s voice was heard in the corridors of power and explain how golf could play a positive role in the nation’s sporting recovery.
After golf clubs were closed in March, the process began immediately to work on a plan for golf’s safe and swift return at the earliest opportunity, highlighting the advantages for physical and mental health during a period of wider isolation. In conversations with officials and ministers at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) we were able to promote the many advantages of golf as an outdoor and naturally socially-distanced sport.
Through the publication of our ‘Play Safe, Stay Safe’ guidance for clubs and golfers in April, we were able to clearly demonstrate to government how golf could be played while at the same time not jeopardising wider public health concerns about the transmission of the virus. They understood that we had gone through a thorough process to produce our comprehensive guidelines on playing the game and these formed the basis for government allowing golf to be one of the first sports to return on 13 May.
It was frustrating when golf courses were closed again in November, but after a huge groundswell of public support for the game, I think there is now a greater understanding in government about how playing golf – even during periods of tight restrictions – is a positive thing for our communities.
This was also a year when the golf industry came together like never before to work collaboratively through the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Golf – and moving forward our own work and that of the group will continue to champion the game.
GBN: Can you talk about how you managed the COVID-19 fund process and what benefit you feel this will bring to golf clubs in England?
J.T.: As lockdown measures were introduced in March, I immediately began discussions with Martin Slumbers at The R&A. It was clear the closure of golf clubs for an extended period would have a major impact on our 1,800 affiliated facilities. This was an extraordinary time calling for extraordinary measures.
With £2.55 million of funds made available in June we then had to find a way to distribute this money quickly, fairly and in a way that would bring positive long-term benefits for clubs with a financial need and a well-structured plan designed to assist business resilience.
It was a huge task to set up a robust and demonstrably fair application process with a quick turnaround, but within weeks clubs were able to submit their request via an anonymised process for a grant of up to £10,000.
The first tranche of funding was able to support applications from 328 clubs and this money was paid out from September onwards.
Clearly, though, we had a need to do more and I was extremely grateful to the Board for pledging another £500,000 of England Golf funds to support many more clubs who only missed out on having projects supported first time around because demand had outstripped supply. We had £7.2 million worth of applications for £2.55million of funding and we wanted to do more to help our clubs.
The money paid out to clubs has helped fund a variety of projects and in the coming months, we will look to highlight a great many of these across the country.
Clubs who benefited from funding have also made further commitments to safeguarding and equality which is another huge positive for the game in England.
GBN: You have successfully launched the World Handicap System this year, what difference do you think this will make for the golfer and golf club?
J.T.: In any ‘normal’ year the launch of the World Handicap System – the biggest change to handicapping in over 100 years – would have been a major project. Obviously, 2020 had placed many other challenges in our way ahead of the 2 November start date, but we were able to launch on time and, notwithstanding the inevitable teething problems, the system is now bedding in.
The scale of the project is maybe not fully understood. We transferred over 15 million scores from the old CDH system to the new WHS platform in a matter of days. Instead of having 1,800 calculation hubs across England (every club), England Golf is now the one central hub and this will bring with it a greater integrity – a key element of any handicapping system.
To get to this point, the playing records of around 630,000 golfers had to be transferred over and it was years in the planning.
As with any project, it’s only once a system is up and running that you can iron out live platform-based issues that may or may not have been planned for, but, six weeks in, we’re happy with how things are progressing and our clubs and counties have been hugely supportive in helping us get to this point.
At this point I would like to say a huge thank you to all volunteers involved in handicapping at clubs and counties, as well as the general managers who have shown great patience and calm helping to transition their clubs onto the new system.
Change can be difficult, but the key thing for golfers to remember is that it doesn’t alter how we play the game, just how a computer calculates a handicap index.
What is different with WHS is that more than ever it encourages golfers to play more rounds of golf and record more scores to monitor how good they are.
Golfers are already adapting to the changes and putting in scores from general play as well as competitions. By building up a bigger bank of scores the handicap index will accurately reflect the golfer’s actual playing ability and is portable anywhere in the world. The aim is to make golf more inclusive and encourage more people to play the game and I look forward to watching this play out. We’ve had one set of rules for golf and now we have one unified handicapping system, which is a really good thing!
GBN: Talking of inclusivity, despite a challenging year, what level of priority has England Golf put on this aspect of the game and what moves have you made to widen golf’s appeal?
J.T.: There have been huge strides made on a number of fronts in recent years – but we need to do much, much more.
We acknowledge work must be done to bring greater diversity to the game and we have recently commissioned our biggest ever study into golf and the Black, Asian and minority communities. The findings from this study will help increase our understanding and inform future policies to encourage wider participation from all under-represented groups in our society.
England Golf is wholly committed to promoting golf as a sport for everyone regardless of age, gender, ethnicity or ability. We are committed to following words with actions.
Since August we now have gender parity on our 12-strong board with an even split of male and female members. This is an important step forward and along with our support for The R&A’s #ForeEveryone campaign and our own successful projects such as Girls Golf Rocks and Women and Girls’ golf week we are committed to increasing female participation in our great game.
In 2020, we jointly staged the Men’s and Women’s Amateur Championships at Woodhall Spa on the same week – it was such a success that this is now a central part of our schedule again for 2021.
For the first time we will run a mixed gender under 18 event at Farnham Golf Club and in 2021 we will once again support golfers with a disability with a world-class championship at Whittlebury Park.
GBN: Finally, what are your hopes for 2021 – and will you get a chance to play much golf this festive season?
J.T.: I’m hugely encouraged by the way everyone in golf has rallied behind the game in 2020 and look forward to 2021. I think there is a new faster flowing energy level throughout golf at all levels. Taking time to reset and appreciate what the game meant us to us all in 2020, I think, will turn out to be a good thing in the long run.
The game is being viewed in a much more positive light and the sight of so many golfers returning to play in the summer or picking up a club for the first time and joining a club was great to see.
Through our ‘Membership: Give it a shot’ campaign, launched with clubs in June, we hope to not only recruit more members for golf clubs, but very importantly retain those who enthusiastically joined our ranks this year.
We’re also looking to engage more with independent golfers in 2021 through a new connectivity platform and strengthening our ties with this group of non-members.
None of us can or would want to make small of the fact that 2020 has been a draining year and the chance to relax a little over the holidays with family will be a welcomed break. But I do have games planned over the next couple of weeks (appropriately socially distanced and in line with current restrictions) and look forward to finding out whether I can still hit it a golf ball or not! Either way, I will just be appreciating and enjoying the fact that we are playing….
GBN: Jeremy Tomlinson, thank you very much