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  • Alistair Tait

Is the “Golf Club” past its sell by date?

I’m a big fan of Golf at Goodwood even though I’ve never been there. Whoever came up with the brilliant idea to drop the words “golf club” from its title deserves honorary life membership.

R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers recently highlighted Goodwood (pictured) and Royal Norwich as thriving establishments in an era when many clubs are struggling. Slumbers specifically made a point of Goodwood’s decision to drop the words “golf club.” Slumbers said:

“That golf facility, which is called Goodwood Golf – it doesn't have the word ‘club’ in there, it's just Goodwood Golf – has a points system. It's the first one in the south to have a points system, and it's got a waiting list.”

(It’s actually Golf at Goodwood, but let’s cut Slumbers some slack on this one.)

Goodwood made the decision to drop the word’s “golf club” from its title back in 2006. General manager Gary Beves emailed me to tell me that was when Goodwood became “revolutionised.” It switched from a traditional membership model to a flexible membership that caters more to contemporary life than traditional membership structures. Maybe other golf clubs wouldn’t be struggling if they’d copied Goodwood’s example

The term “golf club” comes with so many loaded connotations from an age when membership seemed to be determined by where you went to school, what religion you were, and what sex you marked on your passport. It suggests a place with rules and regulations, dress codes and rooms certain people couldn’t enter because they weren’t old enough or weren’t dressed properly. It suggests an inclusive world for the privileged to the exclusion of the many.

Indeed, in the not too distant past many were for the privileged. Some still are.

True story: About 20 years ago, a friend of mine decided her husband was getting a bit tubby and couch bound and could do with some exercise. She suggested golf which he agreed to. So she rang one of the clubs in the town where we lived to enquire about membership. She was flabbergasted when the club literally suggested she and her husband lived on the wrong side of the tracks, and suggested she call the other golf club.

She didn’t. She decided there had to be a more inclusive sport than golf. She asked me if all golf clubs were like the one she’d spoke to. I said no, but I did admit the attitudes of many were still stuck in the dark ages.

Before I get complaints that I’m tarring all golf clubs with the same brush, I’m not. There are many well run, progressive, inclusive clubs In Great Britain. I count my own club Woburn as one. Yes, there are things Woburn could do better, just as I’m sure Goodwood will have flaws too.

I'm not saying all golf clubs should revolutionise either. There are still many who successfully operate a traditional style membership and should be able to do so for as long as they want because they are aspirational clubs golfers want to join. Those that aren't aspirational, those that are struggling to retain members because they've stuck with the old style model should seriously think about moving with the times and giving their customers memberships that fit their lifestyles, as Goodwood has done.

I had a twitter exchange with three-time European Tour winner Richie Ramsay about golf clubs being stuck in the past and he said there were excellent clubs in Scotland. He singled out Kingsfield Golf & Leisure in Linlithgow as an example of an establishment catering to modern life. He tweeted:

“Some are bucking the trend, @kingsfieldgolf Mearns Castle seem to be on a good model for ranges, short course, diverse business, easy parking.”

Notice it’s another golf facility that doesn’t call itself a “golf club.” Maybe Kingsfield and Goodwood have the answer. Maybe many “golf clubs” are past their sell by date. Maybe memberships at many wouldn’t have fallen if they had moved with the times and offered modern, flexible memberships rather than the same old format that’s been in operation forever.

Maybe the focus should have been, and should be, on playing golf rather than establishing golf clubs.

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