Uncertainty, not closure, the biggest concern for golf clubs

The myth throughout this pandemic is that the bigger clubs can ride it out and come out the other side barely scathed. But, as Steve Carroll found out, that’s simply not the case

“In October and November, I anticipate we will generate about eight per cent of what we normally would,” calculated Stuart Leech. “That’s huge.”

For Formby, the new lockdown in England hasn’t been the quick punch that threatened to floor some clubs. It was just another turn of the rack.

The venerable Southport layout has been in the grip of a slow squeeze, with Merseyside subjected to ever-tightening restrictions as Covid-19 cases have risen over the past couple of months.

First came Tier 3, which you might almost classify as ‘lockdown-lite’. Golf could still be played under those vice-like constraints, but not too much else around it.

“We had been picking up quite nicely, but Tier 3 wiped a significant amount of business,” said Leech, Formby’s secretary and manager.

“Visitors wouldn’t get the experience at that time of year that they normally would and, when you were in the clubhouse, you couldn’t order alcohol without food.

“So you couldn’t just arrive in the middle of the afternoon and have a pint after golf, which a lot of people do. We were effectively losing between 30 and 50 pints a day in revenue – just gone – straightaway.”

Then lockdown arrived once more and everything came to a complete halt yet again.

There’s been a myth persisting throughout this pandemic that the biggest clubs could sail through coronavirus unharmed – their sheer stature alone enough to ride the economic storm.

But Leech explained: “We were only OK after the first one because we put a lot of hard work in and took advantage of whatever we could from a business perspective to make sure we came out of it reasonably healthy.

“In Tier 3, we’ve been very much on minimal staffing, reducing opening hours and trying to be cute about everything we’ve done. Now we’ve gone into lockdown.

“We had just started holding fine dining on Saturday nights and Sunday lunches were going OK. We were doing as many covers as our room allows us to do in a Covid-friendly manner.

“We had adhered to all the guidelines very vigorously and we managed to get members coming and using it, which hopefully was going to be on a fairly regular basis.”

Having been through lockdown before has obviously helped Formby adapt to another closure, as did the five-day lead in after the Government announced the 28-day halt was on its way.

Being in Tier 3 also shaped that path, but what concerns Leech now is not what the next three weeks brings – that impact of that is already known – but what emerges behind it.

“It’s the uncertainty and not knowing that means we can’t really plan for anything,” he said. “We have no idea if we are opening again on the 2nd, or what kind of form that will take.

“It might be golf only and the clubhouse remains shut. It might be both but we are under the restrictions of Tier 3. It could be there is a Tier 4 by then. We may be back on Tier 2. We have got visitors on the books and we don’t quite know what to do.

“Do we cancel them? Do we move them? Do we leave them where we are? It’s very difficult to know what to do and that uncertainty and route forwards is probably the biggest challenge.”

Leech can still find positives. A multi-year renovation project continues and he believes the club will learn a lot from the pandemic that could help them improve in the future.

“We intend to come out of the other side, smarter and slicker in our operation,” he said. “We are working toward greater flexibility over the whole estate and with our prudent budget, if business starts to pick up, it will all be a bonus on where we have planned to be.

“This pandemic may have delayed some of the things we had planned to do, or caused us to think about things in a different way, but it has been an incredible learning experience for all involved, in many ways.” 

They are cautious, meanwhile, about spreading too much Christmas cheer at Farleigh. The North Surrey Downs countryside is “heavily reliant” on food and beverage, explained manager James Ibbetson, and the restrictions on hospitality have hit hard. There are no thoughts they’ll be lifted any time soon.

“That’s not just casual diners eating and golfers, that’s weddings, functions, birthday parties and all major events,” he said.

“We have planned for the worst – that we’re not going to be able to do any form of large function until April/May time, before ramping it up to some semblance of normality around the end of the summer.

“We’re quite lucky in the sense that we don’t have a massive team. We rely quite heavily on casual labour in front of house positions and food and beverage. I’m hopeful we are not going to have to make any difficult decisions and let people go. I don’t think anyone knows what’s going to happen.”

Farleigh lost more than 30 weddings this year. While most have rebooked into next year, and even into 2022, they’re taking up main weekend dates that mean the club can’t generate new income.

And the festive season is a concern on a whole different level.

“Christmas is normally huge for us,” Ibbetson added. “We do a lot of joining night parties which we’ve had to cancel and corporate events.

“For Christmas Day, on paper we are full and we are starting to fill up for Boxing Day. We don’t know how that’s going to look. If we go back to the rule of six in a restaurant setting we can operate, because we’ve got a lot of smaller tables booked for Christmas Day and Boxing Day.

“It means we can make the best out of the situation but, obviously, the joiner nights and the stand alone Christmas parties that we had booked in, or would have, are all gone.”

Despite those challenges, though, Ibbetson also finds causes for optimism – thanks to the continuation of the furlough scheme and a summer that brought golfers to the club in droves.

“We made some good headway, during the months we were allowed to open and obviously golf has experienced a boom. Provided it doesn’t go on for an extended period of time then we should be all right.”

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

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