Will the R&A Flunk the Opportunity to Increase Participation?

Below we have laid out the importance of a handicap to a golfer in his or her development and why there must be a profound change in how the game is administered.

England Golf has just released a briefing document to usher in a greater understanding of the new World Handicap System. This new handicapping system will set golf back many years and the R&A and England Golf are both responsible for this most brazen act of stupidity. They have managed to make the new handicap system far more complex than it need be, and it will only be accessible through the England Golf website.

Golf is a sport that should be enjoyed, and getting a handicap should be an honour for any golfer. Getting a handicap should not be limited to those who are fortunate enough to have both the time and money to be able to join an affiliated golf club. But it seems that this is what the R&A are determined to do, as they fear they may upset the applecart at Woodhall Spa. This is a once in a generation opportunity to help more people get handicaps and get more people to sustain their interest in golf - bruising the feelings of an incompetent bunch of golf administrators should be the least of their concerns.

The Failings of England Golf
Over the last 15 years there has been a steady decline in the number of registered golfers. This has corresponded with a period during which England Golf have had more money than ever. The game grew very well when it was lightly administered and the English Golf Union was a very small body that did not interfere with the way golf was developed and played. The annual charge was just one shilling for every male golfer. Now England Golf wants to ensure that all golfers are paying well over £20 for their right to be registered and tethered to them. It would be fine if they took the money straight from the golfer, with a directly paid fee, but since many do not want to be affiliated, England Golf know they would not receive the same level of fees. Many golfers just want to play unencumbered by formality, intent merely on enjoying the game with their friends or family for its own sake.

England Golf is trying to justify their salaries and crazy overheads, and look with green eyes to the rest of Europe where the taxation of golfers is even more extreme. In the UK, golf works and it needs the lightest of regulation to continue to work well. This could be provided by the R&A, but at present it is England Golf and the other national organisations that are the alleged governing bodies for golf in the UK. This does not work because about half of the courses - and all of the golf ranges (where the important growth of the game comes from) - are owned by commercially-orientated businesses, yet England Golf is controlled by an ancient network of counties, whose representation is predominantly from private member-owned clubs. Almost all private, member-owned clubs are full of established golfers (admittance is denied until you can play to a reasonable standard). These established golfers do not, for the main part, understand the needs of new and emerging golfers and this lack of understanding is quite clearly running through England Golf. With over a hundred employed by England Golf, they have managed to master the art of being busy, but not of increasing the numbers of golfers playing.

Given that England Golf have got through over £50 million in the last ten years and golf participation has dropped by 500,000 in the same period, a business with a similar failure rate would go bust, its directors would be disgraced and a new way found. It seems that the less money given to the alleged governing body, the better the sport does. Interfering governance is not required.

In skiing, it is not a necessity for the average skier to clock into a downhill race and formalise their engagement with the mountain. Can you imagine if the millions of skiers were forced to participate in a race every month? Does it make any sense to ensure that all dog walkers are regularly checked for the commands they give their dog, how far they walk them or the type of stick they throw? Would the millions of keen and unregulated anglers who fish ever week in all weathers be better served if there was a bossy organisation telling them when and how they can enjoy their hobby. Ramblers and fell walkers can enjoy their recreation without the need to register with an association.

This is what is needed in golf.

Handicap Cheats
There is an assumption that the more detail there is in a new handicap system, the harder it is to fiddle. This is clearly rubbish and the only truth is that the cheating or fiddling will be harder to spot. If you think for one moment that a committed handicap cheat is going to be put off because of a new system, think again. He or she can still wilfully fiddle their handicap to a desired height, making it easier to win money and prizes in any format.

The worst part of all of this is that the R&A know that they are failing to rise to the challenge – a substantial number of well-informed and successful golf course owners and operators have written to them and expressed their fears for the future of golf. Make handicapping simpler and easier to understand was their collective call of reason. A golf handicap cements the participation of a golfer. It should not be difficult to get or keep a golf handicap. It does not matter if there are a few discrepancies – there will always be handicap cheats. The vital thing is that golfers are proud of their participation in the sport and holding a handicap is important to them.

The only conclusion is that a more complex system will make it harder to get a handicap and, therefore, there will be fewer golfers.

A few years ago at Wentworth, when it was still a thriving and buzzing golf club, a review of the handicaps of the members showed that about 80% of the men held lapsed handicaps and about 20% of the women held lapsed handicaps, with just 20% of the men sufficiently bothered to play regularly in medals, etc to keep their handicap current. The women were much more up to date and far keener to play in competitions. The cost of membership during this period was around the £4000-5000 per annum and it is quite telling that even when money is no object, many golfers do not necessarily want to be regulated.

A Golfer’s Journey
Golfers do not just emerge playing off 12, but come to the game in a variety of ways. Some start young, others much later, but the journey is similar.

1.  See golf on the television / express an interest in trying it out
2.  Golf range, pitch and putt, short course, putting, etc
3.  Helpful friends/family
4.  Lessons - PGA professionals and others
5.  Venture onto the golf course - mentored
6.  Venture onto the golf course - alone (very scary)
7.  Play more regularly
8.  Play some informal competitions
9.  Perhaps join a club or society
10.  Get a handicap
11.  Play more formal competitions
12.  Club matches and competitions
13.  County matches and competitions
14.  Advanced golf & beyond (less than 0.5%)

New golfers are delicate and can be lost to the sport if they do not receive the necessary encouragement in their formative months and years. They are particularly likely to quit if as they integrate with other existing golfers at around stage 6-8. Meeting a rude or insensitive golfer at the very time that they need encouragement and friendly assistance is a major reason why new, fledgling golfers turn away from the sport.  

Once a new golfer gets a handicap they are immediately more robust and quickly join in with great world of golf. The key to keeping more new golfers in the sport is getting them to the stage where they can get a handicap and then easily maintain one.
The R&A have a great chance to massively increase the opportunity for new golfers to get and maintain handicaps.

The main problem, though, is that golfers must be members of an affiliated golf club and the affiliation process involves them joining such a club on an annual basis. This brings them into contact with England Golf. As any regular reader of this magazine will understand, I am no great fan of England Golf, who seem thoroughly unsuited to running a sport that they do not understand.

The current handicapping system is laborious and packed full of nonsensical detail, but it should be kept in place until there is a simpler version available to all, which will help golf develop. People running golf centres, ranges and open access golf courses should be the main ones consulted to achieve a better handicapping system to the current dreary muddle. There has been no attempt to connect with those that own golf ranges and courses to get their views, other than through England Golf, who are, as ever, seeking to be important and crucial - when they have nothing to say.

The proposed new system is a complete dud and shows that the R&A and England Golf do not understand the needs of the emerging golfer.  The failure of England Golf is no surprise to me, but the failure of the R&A is much more worrying, as I had thought they knew what they were doing.