Most mornings David Roy drives to Crail Golfing Society in the East Neuk of Fife where he steers his car into its designated parking space. Then he walks briskly towards his office in the clubhouse perched on a crag overlooking the North Sea, settles at his desk and begins another day at work. Not now though. Not since late March when the UK government instituted a lockdown, requiring citizens to remain at home except for essential reasons such as medical and food. No sport meant no golf. Not even walking on a golf course.
Roy is the secretary/manager of Crail Golfing Society, the club and its two courses just along from St Andrews, and for the past six weeks he and golf club officials throughout the United Kingdom have been in charge of what was hitherto a popular and often pretty recreational facility covering as many as a couple of hundred acres but is now deserted as part of the government’s attempt to deal with COVID-19.
A golf course with no players on it is an eerie sight. A clubhouse with no members is strange. No laughter, no conversation, no rattling glasses, no clinking of cutlery in the dining room, no cars in the car park. The eeriness is heightened by the recent good weather in the UK.
We have often thought about the work that greenkeepers at golf clubs can do and are doing during the lockdown. We have thought about the club professionals, their shops pristine and stocked with equipment but no one able to enter the shop. But have we thought about the directors of golf, the secretaries, the chief executives, the managers, the people who have ultimate control for most if not all of the more than 2000 golf clubs and courses in the UK? How have their working lives changed since they had to lock the doors, and sometimes the gates, of their golf clubs on 24 March?
One obvious way is that they no longer need to go to the club every day. Some have set up branches of their offices at home, and diverted the club telephone to their mobile phones so that while doing club administration they can field any telephone calls. Some clubs have been able to afford to buy laptop computers for some key staff to work from home. What about the club’s security? One club has solved this problem by forming a rota of members who live within walking distance and asking them to go and look at the club’s premises regularly.
Another issue that those in charge of golf clubs have faced is deciding how many of the club’s staff to furlough and how many to keep on. And what work those that are retained should be doing and how to keep the spirits up of those who have been furloughed. “I didn’t enjoy having to do that,” one club secretary said. Most clubs have halved their staff numbers. Some clubs have enough money to make up the salaries to previous levels of those being furloughed but many simply do not have the financial resources.
“We had to get staff members to have remote access to our PCs. I had to divert all calls to the club to my mobile. Imagine how many calls I had?” – John Peters, director of golf at Southerndown Golf Club
Then there is the way of communicating with members and club staff. “It’s different now,” Roy said. “It’s all remote and electronic now rather than meeting people in the clubhouse or bumping into them on the first tee. A five-minute conversation in the past, along the lines of ‘Oh did you remember that the Smith party are looking for breakfast tomorrow morning?’ doesn’t cut it any more.
“These days it would be more like ‘Who is taking the meter readings?’ Something as simple as that involves a WhatsApp group message to find out who is likely to be in the office or whether it needs someone to make a special journey to go and do it. Some pretty mundane jobs are now taking a lot longer and are a bit more complicated to organise.”
“At first it was manic,” John Peters, director of golf at Southerndown Golf Club in South Wales, said. “We had to get staff members to have remote access to our PCs. I had to divert all calls to the club to my mobile. Imagine how many calls I had? All the golf trade organisations calling want to cancel their bookings. We had to organise meetings with the club executive. That was challenging helping some get themselves set up. Then we had to institute a protocol because nine or 10 people in a remote meeting can be quite a handful.
“Now we can plan the day better (when there is no play). Imagine when 150 golfers come to the club there are questions, queries, everybody wants a bit of my time. I don’t have that now. It’s nice to be able to set out the day and complete the tasks you have set yourself.”
There is no lack of guidance as to what to do in this very unusual time for club officials. The British and International Golf and Greenkeepers’ Association, the Club Managers’ Association of Europe, and the PGA, which has thousands of members, all come into their own at times like this. Officials in the UK have benefited from the fact that countries such as Sweden, for example, have opened their golf courses a little sooner and are happy to dispense their knowledge of what that involves.
One of the things it involves is reorganising the clubhouse for the day when the lockdown ends. “I have to make sure that the correct doors are locked so that if we are giving members even limited access to the toilet facilities they don’t get access to the rest of the public areas,” Roy said. “I don’t want to turn up one day when we are open and find a dozen people sitting having coffee together in the lounge. If it’s single players or two-balls from the same household playing at 10-minute intervals, there’s not a lot of people going to be around the place. Hopefully we can get people to turn up 10 or 15 minutes before their tee time, so it’s not as if we’ll have the standard milling about of several dozen members at a time. Even when using toilet facilities you’re talking one or two people at a time.”
Then there’s staff morale. Most clubs have retained a number of staff while furloughing others. The morale of all have to be considered. “I sent some beer out to the greenkeepers the other day,” John Edwards, secretary at Royal Porthcawl in south Wales, said. “Mental health issues are very important. We have regular quizzes. In fact, I am the quizmaster tomorrow night.”
Without any green fees and no bar income, even the richest clubs are struggling. “Our income will reduce by at least 40 percent,” Roy said. “So I am having to keep a very close eye on the finances and try and figure out how we are going to adjust the budget to reflect a pretty significant and hefty drop in income.
“For example: we have a really well-established and extremely effective greenkeeper machinery replacement programme. When a greens mower gets to 2,000 hours, which is roughly three years, it gets replaced. A fairway mower might be four years, a tractor 10 years. We have this plan in place and it is all programmed for the next five, six, seven years. However, to be able to write a cheque for £100,000 or £120,000 is not easy now so the course manager and I are trying to figure out how we change the course setup in terms of the width of the fairways, the semi rough, the frequency of cutting of all areas and trying to figure out if we can get the big expensive pieces of mowing equipment to last longer. We are looking to try and get another year out of them.
Golf in a week, perhaps? Golf in two weeks, surely? But that, too, while a welcome return to the status quo, poses problems.
“I then have to come up with a plan, take that to the greens convenor or chairman and he’ll discuss it remotely or through a Zoom meeting and that’ll have go to the main committee to try and figure out if that is the right way of working and then of course we have to try and warm up the members and explain to them what we are doing and why we are doing it. A process that would be an hour sitting in a room together figuring something out is becoming quite cumbersome when you’re working remotely. I am spending a great deal of my time on the phone, which doesn’t feel very productive but in reality, it is the only way you can work.”
Or as Peters put it: “You can imagine how many flow sheets we have gone through since all this started.”
Friday 8 May is a national holiday in the UK. It was also VE Day, the day the war ended in Europe in May 1945, hence VE (victory in Europe). And on that day there were firm expectations that the UK government would announce an imminent easing of the lockdown. The expectations were that golf clubs would be allowed to reopen but under strict conditions. Golf in a week, perhaps? Golf in two weeks, surely? But that, too, while a welcome return to the status quo, poses problems.
“I have a motto and that is ‘Be prepared for tomorrow,’ ” Peters said. “Members are desperate to play. We have to set up a system whereby they can ring the pro’s shop and book a time. We expect they will be limited to two-balls. But we have to know when they are going to arrive and the tee time they have booked. We have to mark the route to the first tee, organise a starter to make sure they keep to the right times. We have to put signs on the course reminding members of their social distancing responsibilities and we have to designate an exit route from the club.
“If it was manic at the start of this lockdown it is going to be manic when it is lifted. We have to be very careful. We have to remember that ultimately the most important thing is to keep everyone safe. Get something wrong in the first few days back and we’ll struggle later on. If members or guests are not confident of our arrangements to keep them safe then they won’t want to come up here. It is going to be a challenge.”
A “course closed” sign is pictured at Dyke Golf Club, north of Brighton, in southern England. Photo: Glyn Kirk, AFP via Getty Images
We are sorry that this post was not useful for you!
Tell us how we can improve this post?