Kicking off a week of reports examining how English golf clubs are dealing with lockdown and beyond, two managers tell us how they’re trying to think positively about the enforced break
The surprise was as unexpected as lockdown – and much more welcome. When the doors re-opened in May, nearly two months after clubs were ordered to close, golfers arrived in numbers and managers found their desks swarming with membership applications.
“We’ve had, this year alone, over 200 new members,” explained Stephen Nicholson, business manager at Haydock Park. “At the time that demand was there, we kicked on. We marketed more, we got more, and we went after it.
“We’ve already capped some membership categories and we’re very close to waiting lists and filling the others. We benefited quite heavily from it.”
That wave of players also brought challenges. With tee sheets full and players determined to take advantage of a sport ideally suited to social distancing, Nicholson found time was in short supply.
No manager wants their club shut, as the Government have compelled in reintroducing stay at home measures that will be in place until at least December 2.
But with a situation entirely outside of his control, Nicholson is finding positives. He pointed to a course that’s had substantial play – “it’s taken a bit of a battering through the summer months” – and a break which allows the Merseyside club’s greenkeeping team to repair and get on with winter projects.
It’s also giving him a moment to take stock and begin planning for a day when the world’s no longer dominated by Covid-19.
“I’ve spent a lot of time, like a lot of managers have since we reopened, just engulfed in the operation, dealing with everything that bringing golf back and bringing clubhouses back [entailed] and then trying to keep up to date with all the legislation and all those changes.
“That has just been an ongoing thing, right throughout the summer. Now, actually, for the first time in six, eight, nine months, whatever it is, I can sit here and breathe.
“I think I can work on some of the areas of the business: refining the strategy, some of the back end stuff, the processes and procedures, the things we can do better and the legislation that we really need to keep on top of.
“And, obviously, start planning for reopening. We kind of know what that should look like, because we’ve been through it before.”
He added: “Even before this lockdown was mooted, we knew this winter was going to be tough. Our golf club has a large function room that can host dinners and events up to 160 people. We have a civil ceremony licence and Christmas is a very busy time for the golf club and all that is gone.
“We already knew we were coming into a time when it was going to be tricky and a struggle. We’ve been trying to plan and move forward with that. Yes, it’s going to impact us but, based on the performance we had over the summer months, it will not be as much as we thought it would at the time.
“We’re looking a bit further forward now. The decisions we make aren’t really going to affect us as a business within the next 12 months. We have got to look at that mid-term 12 to 36 months and see how it affects us there and the longer term obviously feeds off that.
“It’s still a little bit up in the air but it’s worked out quite nicely based on what we’ve done.”
Hundreds of miles away, at Puttenham, in Surrey, they are also approaching Lockdown 2.0 in a different frame of mind. There is not the fear, or the uncertainty, that marked the first closure.
“Traditionally, March and April is the big recruitment period for golf clubs. Everyone is whetting their appetite for the season to come,” explained Puttenham secretary and manager Gary Simmons.
“We were under a lot of strain then [during the first lockdown]. We are certainly not feeling that strain at this end of the year.
“In some respects for the golf club, having a closure at this end of the year is a lot easier to manage than just heading into a new season, when you are trying to get all of your competitions organised and all your open events published and promoted.
“We have got a little bit of pressure off in that respect.”
Like Haydock, Puttenham thrived in the summer. An influx of players meant the club closed membership at the end of August and established a waiting list for the first time in a decade.
“From a financial perspective, the club is actually relatively sound at the moment, albeit we’ve still got to manage what’s to come,” said Simmons. “The support we have had from our existing and recent members has been phenomenal.”
“I think we were better prepared for closure this time around, although it came at relatively short notice again. Because we’d been through the experience, we had a plan evolved from the first lockdown. It wasn’t as fearful an event as it was the first time around.”
But even after eking out those positives, Simmons, in a stance which will be echoed by many of his colleagues, still feels exasperated that Puttenham are in this situation at all.
“We all, as golf clubs, believe that golf has been very well managed throughout the Covid crisis and that generally golfers and members, especially, are very rule abiding.
“Therefore to be just kind of classified as the masses when I think our track record has been very good was very frustrating.”
How is your club dealing with the second coronavirus lockdown? Let me know in the comments, or tweet me.
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