Why focusing on quality over quantity is a sensible approach to golf course development in today’s cost-saving climate.

THE private golf club market in Australia is changing. For some time now, second and third tier clubs in metropolitan areas have been struggling to attract new members. With the corporate golf market appearing to have cooled as well, business has become increasingly difficult. Even some of the absolute elite, private clubs are finding it harder to attract members, or to maintain the sort of long waiting lists for prospective members they once enjoyed. Readers will be familiar with the recent mergers in Victoria of Peninsula Country Golf Club with Kingswood Golf Club, and of The National Golf Club with Long Island. Further consolidation Australia-wide is expected in coming years, as clubs battle to adapt to the changing conditions and endeavour to stay afloat.

The other growing trend in the private club market is relocation, highlighted by Eastern Golf Club’s recent move. Within weeks, members of this almost 120-year old suburban club will relocate to their new home at Yering in the Yarra Valley, a 30-minute drive further east of their current course. The new site is literally across the road from the Yering Meadows Golf Club, which was established in 2008 as the new base for the relocating Croydon Golf Club. The Croydon relocation was driven by a belief that to secure the long-term future of the club, they needed to liquidate their principal asset – the golf course land itself – and move somewhere with the space to offer an ‘improved’ golfing product. It’s essentially the same reason for the Eastern relocation.

For Croydon golfers, the move to Yering has proven problematic with the club currently operating under significant financial stress. Membership numbers have virtually halved from mid 2008, when the Ross Watson-designed course first opened for play. There are currently less than 620 members, an unsustainably low figure for any club, but particularly one with 27 holes to maintain. So dire is the situation at Yering Meadows now, the club recently asked members for permission to look at the feasibility of selling its freehold land. What this means for existing club members is unclear, but obviously the future of a 90-year-old golf club is in real danger.

The principal mistake the Croydon board made when choosing to relocate was to spend big and cram too much golf into a tight property, especially given every indicator seemed to suggest that a high-quality 18 holes would have sufficed. Not only would the cost savings have been considerable, the chances of the holes appealing to more members and potential members would have increased by a significant reduction in the narrow corridors and cramped, unfriendly fairways.

The Croydon experiment reflects a worrying attitude across the industry, one that needs to be carefully addressed as more of these relocation projects are explored. The simple fact of golf courses is that there is little correlation between the amount of money spent on a facility and its ultimate quality. The only thing an expensive build guarantees is expensive golf. In this increasingly competitive market, the risks of selling land and spending all (or nearly all) of the windfall on an expansive golf facility is fraught.

Which brings us to the latest two relocations, due to open within the coming months. Both the Eastern Golf Club and Horton Park Golf Club on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, announced plans to expand their golf offering to 27 holes when their relocation projects were first floated. Eastern is also planning to build an additional nine-hole, par-3 course. While both clubs are currently focused on opening their principal 18, the extra holes remain part of the longer-term plan.

Unlike Eastern, Horton Park’s relocation was forced by acquisition of its Maroochydore course for an urban expansion. They are also only moving a few kilometres from their previous base. It does seem reasonable, however, to question whether either club needs those additional holes. Both have existed to this point with just 18 holes, and both sets of members have plenty of other golf available nearby. Focusing on quality over quantity would always seem a sensible approach to development, particularly in these tough times when money can be saved not only on construction costs but also the expense of maintaining those extra turf areas.

As is the case with Yering Meadows, if a relocation turns sour, those additional holes can become a real burden. Sure they can be decommissioned, but the issue with not planning properly at the outset is that the remaining 18 holes may not have had the chance to reach their full potential. A poor 18-hole golf course is just as hard to promote as a poor 27-hole course.

Readers following the private club market closely may be interested in the latest announcement from Victoria: The 115-year-old Keysborough Golf Club has asked for member permission to investigate its own relocation. Keysborough is a growth suburb and the club is seeking to have its existing site re-designated for residential development, and to move onto nearby green wedge pasture land.

Keysborough has had its issues over the years, but this is a well-maintained, fun place to play and concerns over its viability would appear to have more to do with a general golfing downturn than any internal mismanagement. Membership fees are attractive and the club has a nice, social atmosphere. There is simply too much competition nearby, and fewer golfers willing to pay an annual subscription fee. There is also discussion around the possible relocation of the Rossdale Golf Club to Bangholme, which would only increase the competition and place more pressure on the likes of Keysborough, Southern and Spring Valley.

It would seem based on the evidence at hand, that relocations and mergers are here to stay and there will be more in the years ahead. We believe there are clubs in most major Australian cities currently looking at such options. While a sad indictment on the state of the game we all love, the modern realities are that memberships are harder to sell these days and clubs are wary of putting up fees for risk of losing more members. Some clearly feel they have a better chance of survival by selling up and moving to a new site with an enhanced amenity. Even if a club like Keysborough is unable to relocate, it seems inevitable that merger discussions with a neighbour would follow.

Unfortunately there are no easy answers here. We can only hope that the industry takes great care to avoid throwing money at new development on the misguided assumption that golfers prefer expensive facilities to fun, enjoyable ones. One of the reasons golf thrived in Australia for many decades was affordability.

In an ideal world, merging or relocating clubs would have the discipline to think longer-term and strive to create both quality golf as well as sustainable and attractive subscription rates.