As we consider the future of golf and in particular its administration, we must first have a look at the relevance of the various parties to those playing golf and those potentially taking up golf.
You will see in the illustration that when it comes to the relevance of golf, golfers are most interested in the facility at which they play. This may be a beautiful manicured private member owned golf club, or it could be a nine hole pitch and putt course with a well worn golf range. The facilities provide a welcoming environment for their customers and are very places to spend time. Their existence relies on repeat visits, so regardless of the type of course, club or range, customer care is vital. These are the places where golf occurs and these are the places that are the most relevant to any golfer.
Once people start to become convinced of the importance of their own body, association, union or organisation, it is easy to forget this simple truth that no golf courses means no golf. No golf and no golfers is obviously very bad news for our industry.
In recent years, there has been a decline in the number of registered, affiliated golfers. This has been a sharp decline, and attempts to address it have failed comprehensively. If golfers and golf course owners are forced to register and pay money merely to prop up a body, such as England Golf, they will do so providing that they get value for money from this fee and don’t feel that they are being taken for granted.
At the present point, England Golf are providing poor value for money and that is why golfers and golf course owners and operators are providing them with fewer funds via affiliation fees. There have been numerous clumsy, contrived and badly planned ideas to force through a higher number of affiliation paying facilities. In recent years, courses and clubs are regularly threatened with de-affiliation if they do not pay up for all possible annual course users, regardless of whether many of their casual golfers have no interest in competing or even holding a handicap. Currently holding an official handicap is only possible if you play at an affiliated club, so the threat of de-affiliation is economic blackmail.
If these tactics continue, then England Golf will become even less relevant and people that own golf courses will decide that their customers are entitled to a handicap and provide one of many alternative systems that are available. This is not ideal, but it will be forced upon golf course owners if England Golf continues to threaten them in this manner. It is morally offensive, rude and wrong.
Any governing body should seek to honour the key stakeholders in the sport that they serve. Unfortunately, England Golf only wish to honour their stakeholders, which are the county golf unions, whose relevance to golf is limited to a small percentage of better players.
The future for England Golf could indeed be bright, but it must have a comprehensive shakeup of its priorities. As I highlighted in my pitch for the job of chief executive of England Golf in last month’s magazine, handicaps must be provided for all who want them, not made progressively harder to attain and only sold to those that have an annual club membership. There should be no requirement to join a golf club to get a handicap. This is a central point of golf’s future, as many county unions think that this is a major reason to join a golf club. It’s NOT. Times are a changing and people wish to play golf, but not always at the same place and not as frequently as annual membership demands. Failure to recognise and respond appropriately towards this well flagged trend is at the heart of the problems for our governing body.
England Golf has just considered an excellent paper on the independent golfer, which outlined the opportunity for those independent golfers to get a handicap. The counties have not blocked it yet, but if they do, they will be ruining the growth of the game. The county unions can still play an important part in golf events and with elite golfers, but they must give up their current control.
Can you imagine the disastrous effect on the skiing industry if on reaching the top of the chairlift, you are asked to produce your handicap certificate. I ski regularly with my family and delight in free styling, perhaps with little elegance, but I love it and so do my family. We are happy to pay for use of the mountain and we are happy to pay insurance, but we do not want to be organised, handicapped and regimented. Skiing recognises that people wish to ski in their own style, according to their own timeframe and the true joy is actually enjoying the mountains. Golfers hugely enjoy playing golf together and enjoying the beautiful scenery; it is an opportunity to socialise, exercise and relax. Some want to take the golfing skills to a highest possible level, others - and these are the majority - are fairly happy and content to play ordinary standard golf, with the excitement of small improvements and informal competition.
An England Golf that focused on county and national events could genuinely encourage our country to churn out more brilliant golfers. If England Golf allows handicaps to be adopted by any golfer, then they will have my backing and the game will develop properly in the 21st Century. Until they do this, they are preventing the growth of golf and they should be held to account for this disastrous course of action.