QUICK TAKE: Supporters Address Golf’s Ailing State In Scotland

EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND | A picture of the Titanic on the big screen played its part in startling the 511 supporters of Scottish golf who chose to attend a conference Saturday at Edinburgh’s International Conference Centre instead of heading for the links. At a stage when 90 golfers each week are giving up their club memberships, the conference was all about what needs to happen if the so-called Home of Golf is to move forward.

“There’s no time to lose,” said Stewart Darling, a non-executive director of Scottish Golf – the country’s governing body for the amateur game – whose everyday job it is to turn ailing businesses around. Having made plain that the first step in his line of work is “to confront the brutal facts of where you are at the moment,” he duly launched forth.


His spate of alarming statistics included how an average of 5,000 club members are giving up on their memberships each year and how, in keeping with this figure, there are 50,000 club members fewer than there were 10 years ago. (And that in spite of the anticipated boost which should have come with the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles in 2014.)

Putting things another way, Darling noted that where, in 2004, your average club member needed to play no more than 20 rounds of golf to get his money’s worth out of his annual subscription, he must now play forty times.

In proffering a few explanations, the expert made much of how millennials behave altogether differently from their elders. “They look at the situation in golf clubs and it’s not what they want. They expect liberalism and equality and that’s not what they see.”

Rather more than men, women in this category are struggling to see golf’s appeal. In a recent survey, 50 percent of their number said they felt intimidated by the golf club environment and complained of a less-than-warm welcome for themselves and their children.

Golfers as a community, said Darling, are making a big mistake in failing to acknowledge the importance of new technology. Here, he mentioned the “fast and brutal” nature of feedback on social media. “If one person has a bad experience in a golf club and shares it with seven people, it could only take an hour for two billion people to know about it.”

In expanding on the social media theme, he wondered if golf clubs were sufficiently aware of how more women than ever before are using Facebook. It was blatantly obvious to him, for instance, that “a proper Facebook campaign” would be a whole lot more effective in the recruitment of women and children than putting an advert in a local paper.

“If we keep going as we are now,” he continued, “the game is not going to be here for our kids and our communities.” A fitting quote from Charles Darwin went up on the screen at much the same time: “It’s not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.”

Malcolm Kpedekpo, the financial expert among Scottish Golf’s board members, supplied some salutary statistics on the subject of Scottish Golf funding. The £11.50 per capita fee paid by the dwindling number of club members still accounts for 51 percent of the body’s annual income, while sportscotland, the national agency for sport, furnish 27 percent even as their contributions are on the way down rather than up. In 2017, the sportscotland grant to golf was £1.3 million; this coming year it will be down to £770,000.

There were those in favour of asking for a tax from nomadic golfers to whom membership of a club is either too expensive or simply does not make good financial sense.  However, there was nothing to make more of an impact than the news that a meagre 6 percent of Scottish Golf funding comes via the commercial world.

“Far too small,” said Kpedekpo.

“Disgraceful,” said a man in the audience.

On a day of nothing but the truth, a spokesperson from Bunkered magazine saw fit to pass on a merciless message. He told how a would-be sponsor with a seven-figure sum to spend had approached his magazine rather than Scottish Golf for ideas. Why? Because he felt that the official body was all about men of 55 and older and therefore failed to marry with the image he sought.

Plenty of excellent ideas were aired during the course of the five-hour conference, with few striking more of a chord than a call for the powers-that-be to ensure that the 2019 Solheim Cup at Gleneagles leaves a better legacy than the Ryder Cup. Also, there was the well-meaning if probably unworkable thought that golf clubs should appoint volunteers to meet and greet visitors.

It was in this latter department, incidentally, that Scottish Golf set the right example at the weekend. Though those who arrived at Saturday’s conference without the appropriate credentials expected to be sent packing, quite the reverse applied. They were greeted by any number of smiling faces ahead of a conference which, overall, seemed to achieve its aim in encouraging people to play their part in the game’s recovery. “It’s going to be a challenge,” said Darling, “and I hope every golfer in Scotland is up for it.”

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