Inside Lockdown: ‘The pandemic has been good to golf’

Even in the midst of a second English shutdown, there are clubs who are thriving. Steve Carroll spoke to a couple of them

It’s uncomfortable to admit – like the very admission is in some way disrespectful of the suffering. We’ve been through a year that’s seen coronavirus claim more than 50,000 UK lives and over a million worldwide. It’s a pandemic that’s devastated economies and jobs.

So to celebrate success, to claim you’re actually thriving in the midst of so much misery, is awkward.

Yet many golf clubs are doing well. As the sport experienced that unlikely boom after restrictions eased first time around, there are plenty much better equipped to handle what’s thrown at them now then they were back in March.

“We’re in a stronger position than we were last time,” says Alan Key, director of Burstwick Country Golf in Hull.

They gained scores of members in the summer and saw visitor revenues soar – up some 50 per cent year-on-year over a three-month period.

Burstwick recouped all the cash lost between March and May – “and then some” – and responded by investing into the course and club.

Key thinks that trend will only continue whenever the sport is allowed to resume once again. “Yes, it’s disappointing,” he adds of the second lockdown. “But, if I am being completely honest, this whole pandemic has been good fortune to golf, and I mean that in the least disrespectful way possible.

“Basically, It has given people a reason to come and play golf. The full industry has seen a massive uptake. We’ve seen 80 more members join since the first lockdown.”

He continues: “I actually think, maybe I am being overly positive, the same is going to happen again. We’re going to come back out of lockdown, whether it’s after four weeks, six weeks, eight weeks, or whatever, and other sports are still going to struggle.

“People aren’t going to be going to watch their football teams, people aren’t going to watch Hull City or Leeds United, so they are still going to want to do something on a weekend.

“I think golf, again, could continue to push on. Other things could happen – mass redundancies, and things like that, are all going to affect how much money people have. But I think, as a whole, I’m less anxious than I was with the first lockdown.

“I feel like golf is in a stronger position and we may well see a repeat of that little boost of people coming into the sport.”

Sand Moor were already unusual among clubs before the initial lockdown struck. They already had a waiting list for seven-day members, and it has grown significantly over the last few months.

But there are other indicators at the Leeds club, believes club manager Alistair Cook, that reveal they continues to flourish even in the wake of this latest enforced closure.

“We’ve had lots of applications from people who want to be seven-day members but we are offering them five and six-day membership and they have now gone onto a waiting list,” he explains. “Our seven-day waiting list is now almost 50, which I doubt we will actually be able to offer all of those people places next year.

“Certainly indications are that we are not getting our normal resignation rate. We tend to get enough people who actually resign from the golf club, they change categories because of age or other commitments.

“But early indications are that we are not seeing our normal churn on membership for next year, either. We are in a very strong position on membership.

“We lost green fees, mainly societies who were booked in from March through to September.

“We lost an awful lot of income but actually reclaimed all of that – business just went through the roof. We’ve been incredibly busy. Our bar income has been up, despite all the restrictions, and just the general usage in the club has never been busier from May through to yesterday [last week].”

Sand Moor were canny, putting restrictions on capital expenditure spending in place and saving revenue earlier in the year when the prospects of a national lockdown still seemed preposterous.

And Cook adds: “We’ve found that a lot members who are joining are actually younger. The general feeling is people think that membership is something they should hold on to.

“Whatever restrictions we come back to on December 2 or 3, the assumption is that golf is one of the first things that will return. People are holding onto that membership in the hope it is something they can do when the lockdown is lifted.”

Even in this enforced closure, Sand Moor can still find positives as their Dr Alister MacKenzie-designed course gets a chance to breathe after a summer of almost relentless play.

“We’re actually in a financially stronger position than we were at the start of lockdown.

“November and December are generally quiet months anyway but by being closed now, as long as we do reopen, this won’t necessarily affect us massively financially.

“It does have the benefit that it gives the golf course a rest. It has had a hammering with all the increased traffic.

“The ideal situation, of course, is that we want to be open, and we want to see our members playing golf.

“But we’re doing much needed aeration and overseeding work and, hopefully, we will get some recovery and have got a good conditioned golf course for when the members and visitors do return.”

How is your club dealing with the second coronavirus lockdown? Let me know in the comments, or tweet me.

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