More than any other sport, what goes up in golf certainly must come down.
Australians are all too familiar with hangovers, yet golfers Down Under still weren’t prepared for the ‘morning after’ the Greg Norman era. Of all the areas of the game that suffered – course construction, residential golf development, participation – club memberships were hit the hardest. But it wasn’t just because the Great White Shark moved into new chapters of his career.
Work habits changed, and population growth created longer commutes and working hours. Then, the price of real estate and cost of living grew disproportionately to wage increases. Before we knew it, golfers could no longer justify spending several thousand dollars a year on a golf club membership if they were only getting out to play less than 10 rounds.
But like a cold sports drink to a hangover, social golf clubs nursed the industry and, suddenly, a coping mechanism was created. Networks began to pop up offering golfers a recognised handicap and a means to play competitive golf without having to hit the course twice a week to justify the financial outlay.
Matthew Pitt was at the forefront of the social golf club movement as it began to gain momentum in Australia, and witnessed firsthand the change to the membership landscape.
“It’s not that the sport became too expensive, or even that people couldn’t afford their memberships. It was the value and free time which declined,” says Pitt.
“The thing we hear most from people who had been members of clubs is, ‘I don’t have the time to play as much golf’ or ‘I’m paying $2,000 and I only got out for five games last year’. These golfers have kids and busy jobs – they barely see the family all week and the last thing they want to do on a Saturday is spend another six hours away from them.
“But they never wanted to stop playing golf. And if a mate called and asked them to play a corporate golf day they wanted to have a handicap ready to go.”
To its credit, Golf Australia recognised the demand and created the Golf Access Australia (GAA) program in 2004, with the aim of forging a pathway for social golfers to eventually convert into club members. It was operated on a state level, administered by GAA providers that had acquired the appropriate accreditation. Subsequently, social clubs such as Bushranger Golf and SGA grew quickly – Pitt registered 29 handicaps in 2007, 70 in 2008 and 130 the following year. Now, SGA is set to maintain 2,000 handicaps in 2016.
“But there was a lot of opposition from golf clubs in Australia,” says Pitt. “Perhaps they felt their traditional membership model was being undermined, even though Golf Australia reassured clubs the intention of GAA was not to target club members, but to create a pathway for social golfers to engage with clubs and access club memberships.”
Eventually, traditional clubs and Golf Australia reached an agreement – a moratorium on social golf clubs registering anyone who had been a member of a golf club in the previous two years. It was then cut down to 12 months. Still, the clubs opposed GAA and it was eventually scrapped by the national body in 2012.
That was despite the fact Golf Australia couldn’t find any data to suggest social golf providers were taking the traditional clubs’ share of the member market.
“There is no evidence that members of traditional clubs are leaving to join social clubs. Golf Australia monitors this closely,” says GA game development director Cameron Wade.
With clubs’ initial fears hosed down, it begs the question: can traditional clubs and social providers actually work together to grow the game of golf? Absolutely, Wade believes. “Social golf clubs are important in growing participation and providing an entry point into the game,” he says.
“They can be a pathway and a feeder into traditional club membership. In fact, evidence shows that members of social golf clubs have transitioned into joining a traditional club.”
The Qantas Golf Club is one party trying to bridge the gap between the two parties. How? By exposing golf to Qantas’ 10 million member-database. The airline’s research indicates almost 1.5 million of its members have an interest in golf, with a large proportion of them being social players.
Endorsed by Golf Australia and former world No.1 Greg Norman, Qantas Golf Club provides members with access to tee times at participating golf courses nationwide.
Incentivising golfers to play more rounds is a focus of the airline’s golf initiative, offering Qantas Points for rounds completed. Members receive invitations to attend Qantas Golf Club events and tournaments, while Premium members can maintain an official handicap.
Qantas Golf Club also encourages golf tourism by offering members a range of domestic and international golf travel packages.
Changing With The Tee Times
Social golf clubs have entered the industry to serve niche markets, to great effect. One of the pioneers of golf in the west has been Perth Golf Network, which was originally created in 2007 as the Miners Golf Club. It was designed for fly-in-fly-out (FIFO) workers who could not justify the cost of joining a private club because of their rosters. The Perth Golf Network (PGN) was launched three years later and has now grown to be the largest social club in Western Australia, with almost 20,000 competitive rounds played in 2015 under PGN. The club hosts 16 regular competitions each week at 14 different home courses. The success of PGN has grown interstate, with the recent launch of the Australian Golf Network in Queensland, offering seven home courses and a number of special events and tours.
Another social newcomer is SOGO Golf – a competition platform that enables golfers to compete anywhere, anytime without being bound by golf clubs’ strict competition tee times.
SOGO is delivered through a mobile app which allows users to play, compete and track their performance in real-time. Each round counts towards multiple competitions, including daily, monthly and annual leaderboards. Golfers can compete on separate leaderboards against their mates, or against the rest of their state and players nationwide.
“The platform allows golfers to connect and compete in a virtual community, meaning every round now becomes a competition round,” says Casey van Loo from SOGO Golf.
“Our vision is to work with golf clubs to grow the number of club members through assisting acquisition of new and retention of current members. Instead of providing a cheap alternative to club memberships, we want to increase the value the golfer gets from being a club member and therefore assist clubs to grow their numbers.”
The Perth Golf Network is a social golf club aimed at introducing social golfers into competitive golf through structured weekly competitions, special events and tours.
Formerly the Miners Golf Club, PGN has grown to be the largest social club in Western Australia. Last year almost 20,000 competitive rounds were played under the PGN, which hosts 16 regular competitions a week at 14 different home courses. In addition, PGN holds more than 20 special events, as well as local and international tours each year.
Social Golf Clubs Near You:
RACV Golf Membership
Social Golf Australia
Below the Pin
Qantas Golf Club
Australian Golf Network
GSM Golf Club
The Social Golf Club
Mornington Peninsula Classic
Mornington Peninsula Classic
Want to play four courses from the Australian Golf Digest Top 100 ranking in the country’s No.1 golf destination? Register to play the Seventh Annual Mornington Peninsula Golf Classic, held October 3–6. Golfers will experience graded tournament play on four Top 100 courses at Victoria’s stunning Mornington Peninsula: St Andrews Beach Golf Course (No.20), Moonah Links (Legends, No.29), Portsea (No.62) and Sorrento Golf Club (No.66).
The MP Golf Classic is an individual stableford tournament and is open to men and women.
The early bird entry fee is great value at only $595 if you register before June 20, 2016.
Don’t miss out on the opportunity to play these incredible courses on the Mornington Peninsula – with amazing restaurants and wineries just minutes away.