The key issues golf clubs must start thinking about now before lockdowns end

As Charles Dickens wrote in his opening line of a Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

There’s no denying that golf has been one of the major beneficiaries out of the COVID-19 pandemic. Participation has spiked, global equipment sales are in the billions and tee-times at many clubs have become as scarce as an albatross. 

Yet here in Australia, state government lockdowns have created havoc for golf clubs, particularly in Victoria and New South Wales. The upside to these lockdowns, of course, is that they will come to an end. When this occurs, two major questions will be posed of our clubs, questions that will require the most complex of answers from those in charge.

Firstly, clubs will have a decision to make about mixing vaccinated with unvaccinated members and guests. Policy will need to be determined and boards will have to make the difficult decisions on how to handle the situation. This may require additional resources to handle the policing of such new policies and it will be challenging with golf clubhouses’ multiple entrances, a distant first and 10th tee, practice facilities and separate golf shop.

Of course, the law and government legislation will be the premise for the board to establish its policies but until vaccination rates reach a minimum level, navigating our way around this will prove difficult. 

With ageing memberships – the average age of members is often above 60 with nearly two-thirds older than 55 – do clubs want to expose vaccinated members to unvaccinated members and risk the potential spread of COVID-19? As a minimum we certainly envisage security measures in and around club facilities being increased dramatically, not just to ensure members and guests are complying with COVID-safe procedures but to enforce rules on entry to the clubhouse, practice facilities and the course. 

The second touchy subject clubs will encounter is how they compensate members for their enforced time away from the course. Some members will be inclined, if they haven’t already, to ask to be reimbursed a portion of their membership fees. 

‘Do clubs want to expose vaccinated members to unvaccinated members?’

For those members that do ask, “Where is my refund?” the answer should almost certainly be: there won’t be one. For most clubs, without taking a large hit to reserves, they can simply not afford to refund members as the operating cost base has not fallen. In my discussions to date, general managers have mixed views on what the long-term future model will look like for their club. Some, particularly in the private-club space, are concerned that their model has been thrown out of balance with the steep increase in rounds and associated pressure on the operation, but not commensurate revenue to offset this with additional resources. For example, a golf operation that was putting out, wiping down and packing away 120 sets of clubs a day, is now having to do 180 sets with the same number of staff. This diminishes time for staff and member interaction and has changed the whole club dynamic. 

The reality is that until lockdowns lift, decisions on ‘giving back’ cannot be finalised. It is only when the lockdowns lift that clubs can assess the final economic impact and determine the scope of what can be given back to the members that have been paying the subscription fees but missing out. The message here is that if you are looking at ways to help your members stay engaged and feel that you care, let them know!

But spare a thought for those in charge of running your club. These are not normal times. Directors didn’t sign up for this ‘new world’ and club general managers certainly never saw this in their job descriptions. In an act of desperation, it has been disturbing for us to learn that members are not only challenging the policies of the government but also now club boards on a daily basis. Many general managers are in a no-win situation. With staff on the frontline of member calls, some are fielding some very unfriendly conversations while they enact government and board directives, adding to the stress levels. Many general managers (as well as other staff) are volunteering annual leave to keep costs down. 

A bigger philosophical issue was building in our conversations. Has the surge in golf reinforced Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory? Put simply, are our basic needs for physical and mental health, fresh air and nature more important than our psychological needs like status, recognition, friendships, competition, a sense of belonging and connection (all normal attributes of club membership)? Are we OK to give up the sense of exclusivity and community for the more basic need to walk the ground and play this game called golf? 

Has ‘rack ’em and stack ’em’ replaced the value proposition of prestige and exclusivity? Members are saying, “I don’t care about all the other stuff, just get me a game!” 

In these times can the more exclusive, higher-priced clubs uphold the value proposition elements of easy access and well-presented golf courses? Or does this give way to packed timesheets and divot-riddled tees and fairways? 

Irrespective of the outcome, the game of golf and all facilities that host the game are in for a busy ride. 

David Burton is a consultant for Golf Business Advisory Services (GBAS) as well as principal advisor for EnvoyGolf, an Australian recruitment and resourcing advisory company connecting skills with needs for golf clubs. He served as general manager of New South Wales Golf Club for 24 years and is a life member of Golf Management Australia.