There was widespread gentle, mocking laughter at the news that golfers could hit the fairways again when the Prime Minister announced measures to ease the lock down last week.
The fact it was declared that golfers could start golfing again in the same breath we were told that cleaners and nannies could return to their work smacked of a privileged old boys club making the nation’s rules.
And that has been golf’s biggest problem for years – its perception as a white, male, upper / middle class preserve in a sporting world which has become so much more diverse and accessible over the past 20 years. It has led to a shocking decline in numbers playing the game in the UK.
According to Statista a little over 1 millions adults play golf on a monthly basis these days – that is a decrease of about 30 per cent in the past 10 years.
But, having been granted the chance to be one of the few sports the public are allowed to play again, golf has a golden opportunity to regain much of its lost audience, and attract a new one.
The emergency measures brought in to enable play at the courses up and down the UK may, in fact, be seen as drivers of this change in years to come:
- Without clubhouses to change in, we are being encouraged to turn up ready to play. Shoes on in the car park (if indeed you are even changing your shoes to play) and straight onto the first tee. And no milling around on the putting green, getting tut-tutted by members who dispute whether your collar-less shirt is in keeping with the dress code. Etiquette will always be an important part of golf – but the priority has to be getting people through the door first.
- All this also means no faffing about in the pro shop either, signing in and paying for your round – it has already been done on your phone. Yes, many clubs after years of resistance are finally having to enter the digital age – and what a difference it can make.
- With only two-balls allowed now, pins being left unattended (a rule brought in last year already), no bunker raking, no half-way house or benches around the course and holes being filled in to easily retrieve your ball, rounds will also be so much faster. And this is surely the biggest factor in attracting new players.
There is already widespread delight being expressed on social media at the return of the three-hour round which had been consigned to history over the past decade on most UK courses. By extension, that means ninety minutes for 9 holes, which is an ideal morning activity for a player who has a family to get back to – or a teenager for whom any activity over an hour in length becomes a bit of a chore.
It is ironic really that golf has garnered this label of being so elitist over the years as the sport really should be the MOST democratic of all sports. The handicap system works wonderfully well and means the 18-handicap hacker can still have a competitive two-ball with his colleague who plays off scratch. And when the hacker rolls in a 30-foot monster putt on the last, the fact is that no one else in the world could have bettered the shot. That is the majesty of golf.
Once they have given all their members priority and they have played the golf they need, private golf clubs should now be manufacturing new marketing plans to get the sports-starved public filling up their fairways as soon as they can. What a chance to show off their incredible courses – and the wonderful world of golf.
But it is the pay and play courses which should hopefully show the biggest uplift in attendance in the coming months (and years) and they can capitalise on this window of opportunity being afforded them right now.
Personally, I have been lucky enough to book a round at the weekend. It is just the local nine-hole course and I cannot wait. But I am still being charged £30 for the privilege. It will be great just to be playing again, but next on the agenda – once the excitement has died down – has got to be a sensible pricing policy.
It is time to show golf is accessible and affordable for all – and a fun way to walk a few miles too.