Long before the pandemic hit these shores golf was suffering a fall-off in membership throughout the country. It was a worrying trend that had been coming down the tracks for quiet some time and it has seen membership decreasing, alarmingly in some clubs, with few, if any escaping the decline.
Various and varied reasons were put forward for the fall-off such as the hectic pace of life; work constraints; changes in lifestyle; time available being a big factor while one of the major and worrying factors was/ is the age profile of many club members, along with the failure to attract young and in particular female, participants in big numbers.
In United States 9 hole golf is being promoted on a major scale and while that has not really caught on, as of yet, in this side of the world, one imagines it is only a matter of time before it does
And who knows once this pandemic is nothing but a horrible memory what will happen, not alone in the world of golf, but in lifestyles in all walks of life, falls into the unknown category.
Ironically if there was one sport that benefited from the original lockdown in Ireland it was golf.
As other sports went by the wayside, suspended with no indication when they would be allowed resume, many turned to golf.
In total some 20,000 new members signed up with clubs giving the sport a tremendous boost.
And while golf was included in the latest lockdown — crazy and all as that seems — it will be interesting to see once courses are allowed to re-open will those who turned to golf remain with it or return to their various pastimes in pre-pandemic times.
So what are golf clubs doing to ensure the majority of new members that joined in 2020 retain their membership 2021, and beyond?
And probably even more to the point what were they (clubs) doing, if anything, to halt the decline in membership prior to covid hitting us?
These topics, and many more, we discussed with Athy native, Gillian Burrell recently.
A mould-breaker is Gillian, the first female golf professional in the country, going on to become the first female Captain of the Professional Golfing Association (PGA).
In her youth, Gillian played a variety of sports, including pitch and putt and it was when she inveigled a family friend to take her out on the then 9 hole course in Athy, that the bug hit.
Within two to three years, not only had she joined her local club but she played for Leinster and Ireland and as she says herself “played an amount of amateur golf.”
However, while there was no denying the enjoyment she got from hitting the small ball, a combination of a back injury and an attraction to coaching the game saw her move into that area of the sport, big time.
At that time coaching was the preserve of club professionals – all male – but that did not deter this determined lady as she went about becoming a fully qualified golf professional.
So from playing amateur golf at both national (junior) and inter-provincial level, including participating in the British Amateur Open (won by Lillian Behan of the Curragh back in 1985) Gillian applied and was accepted on a 3/4 year course that saw her become the first female professional golfer in the country, training initially at Spawell in Lucan, before completing her apprenticeship at Newlands Golf Club.
Gillian speaks highly of her home club, Athy, which went from 9 to an 18 hole course in the 90s.
“Always in great condition with top class greens and the people there have worked hard over the years maintaining, refurbishing and increase membership” she said.
Geraldine was made an Honorary Life Member of Athy a few years ago, and while she admits over the last number of years has not availed of that as much as she would have liked, nevertheless she is fully aware and very grateful for the wonderful honour that the club bestowed on her.
“For nearly 20 years, I was coaching, everybody from the raw beginner all the way up to adult; with the ILGU; Leinster coach for years; acting and travelling coach for Ireland teams; coach to the European Cup winning team in 2010; spent all my time at that.”
Continuing her studies the Athy native gained more qualifications with the Professional Golfers Association and became a tutor and assessor for the University of Birmingham for the undergraduate and post graduate students; “something I still do” adding “all the new cohorts of professional golfers coming through this country I would see them all at some level whether I am assessing them, tutoring them or mentoring them.”
Over the past number of years Gillian cut back somewhat on her coaching end of things and moved into consultancy work.
“I would have been Training Consultant for Special Olympics Ireland; Euro/ Asia; Sport Northern Ireland; Federation of Golf in Ireland; it is all really in the training area.”
Then came 2020, the pandemic, lockdown and all that entailed but being a lady not content to sit back and await for things to open up again Gillian went about setting up a new company, as she explains:
“When the first lockdown came I could simply not do anything so I contacted an ex-colleague of mine and asked her if she would be interested in developing an idea I had; she worked for a company called Carr Golf, that I worked with for a while; and so we formed a consultancy company called Empower 360 which basically aims to help golf club management teams address fundamental aspects of club governance and revenue growth.”
Gillian explains that in her experience “many clubs, not just golf clubs, don't have the skills to put a proper business structure in place and therefore rely on a committee, whether it is good or not.
“What we do is look at the organisational structures; look at membership; help them to retain membership, try and give the club the tools to run their own business themselves rather than allowing a management company to come in, or having to get somebody to take over the club.
“It's a problem we are going to seen more and more in the next number of years.”
Golf got a great boost last year with the influx of thousands of new members across the country; people had nothing else to do, and this year just might be something very similar but, says Gillian , my worry would be that when the economy and the country opens up, people will return to their normal routine, playing various other sports; maybe the pub on a Wednesday night or whatever, instead of going out to play golf.
“So basically we engage with the club but get the club to do the work so they know exactly what needs to happen, year on year; there is no point in us coming in and doing it and then going away; I know a lot of clubs over the years have done that; they come in for six months or a year, give their recommendations, walk away and nothing ever happens.”
And that, says Gillian, is where our background and our training comes in.
“I like to empower the people who are already there and create a structure; in many of the clubs we have been involved with, there is hardly a document or a piece of paper to support anything that is done; it happens because of the volunteers but then when some of these people step-away, as will inevitably happen, there is then no one to take up the slack; no communications, no plans in place, rarely anything concrete.
“But what it really needs is for every club to see what can be done and needs to see what they are at, where they are going, and most importantly, how they are going to get there.
“I am not necessarily talking here about a massive strategy; I am talking about simple plans that can be implemented because what I have often seen is golf clubs employing people to do big strategic plans than inevitably are put in a drawer and nothing every done with them.”
How many clubs just repeat year-in year-out competitions; Tuesday is Ladies Day; weekend competitions are repeated ad nauseam and while I don't think we need to throw everything out I do think we need to balance things, freshen up things, standing still is simply not an option.”
Gillian's partner in this venture is an accountant so she does the financial side of things but she also is a specialist for putting processes in place so she looks after all the budget management and all that that entails while Gillian herself looks at membership; communication strategies and then adds the training programmes that actually trains members to manage and look after the club.
Only in operation since last April, Embrace 360 has worked with clubs in and around the Dublin area along some clubs in the West of Ireland and what they are looking for are clubs that have, or want, to have a changed mindset.
“I have been this business for close on 30 years and I know what is coming down the track and I am not sure if all clubs out there know, or realise, what is coming; it will the survival of the fittest and while we have only lost a few clubs countrywide up to know, I could well see another 20 clubs, at least, going under in the not too distant future” says Gillian.
Admitting that golf was losing members prior to the pandemic the Athy native points the finger here firmly at golf clubs themselves.
“We can change, we can adapt this sport; we can play nine holes; we can play more social golf; but basically the existing members in a vast majority of clubs are mostly close to if not over 60 years of age, and they want to retain the status quo; want to do what they always did.”
While admitting most of the bigger clubs will survive, others will not as they simply won't have enough members to sustain them.
“Any club that has not got in or around 350 members will find themselves in trouble” insists Gillian, adding “it would be challenging to have money set aside to do the necessary on the golf course, but at the same time what we find is that while clubs are great at spending money on the clubhouse and on the course, but very little money on actually perfectionalising their business organisation.
“I know, I am in business, I have to hand over money for people's expertise but there are so many golf clubs out there who simply don't want to change and the reality is that if we don't change; if they don't adapt, they we die; simple.”
Gillian admits that changes have been made and continue to be made; the one that comes to mind immediately is getting more females into the game; something that has been done in recent times but ultimately you will still find it difficult to properly integrate new members into clubs and that is vital. People might think they are being welcoming to new members but for that to succeed you need everyone in the club to be welcoming; absolutely everybody from the pro shop to the restaurant; to the bar and of course the members themselves, everybody must buy into the idea of welcoming.
In a very interesting point Gillian emphasises that “the whole golf business has to take on a new structure; a business structure; remember members are not simply members they are in fact customers, golf club customers and at the end of the day it may cost something between five and 20 times to get a new customer than to retain one; so spending more time around the people they have is absolutely vital.”
Clubs have to show their members/ customers that the club is actually worthwhile paying for but if you only get a competition at weekend; get into your car and go home; you will have less emotional involvement with your club; less likely to partake in volunteering; so the first financial problem that comes your way, you say, ‘not playing much golf this year, I'll skip it and I'd be better off paying green fees’ that member is then gone.
While admitting many of the bigger clubs have full time managers and management committees, Gillian insists “not every club can afford to have a full time manager in place and that is where we come in; for a relatively small fee we can put in place a structure that can help to run the club in a more business-like fashion without the cost of a full time club manager.”
In 2018 Geraldine Burrell broke new ground when she became the first ever captain of the PGA, something she said she really enjoyed.
“A great experience, one of the biggest things for me was meeting a lot of the people I worked with over the years, trained with but hadn't seen for ages; I would only see the various coaches at European coaching conferences, so it was nice to see exactly what was happening on the ground but what did occur to me was that things hadn't changed or evolved and that brought it home to me that for instance a Pro-Am event now is probably not much different than what it was say 25 years ago” adding “and how relevant is that.”
Presently Chairperson of the Southern Branch of the PGA she says they are looking at changing that a little bit and trying to improve it; a lot of Pro-Ams planned; but it's like everything else, if you are doing the same thing you have been doing for 20, 30, 40 years but things need to change, need to evolve.
A very interesting point that Geraldine Burrell makes concerns a club she worked with that got a great boost attracting some 200 new members when offering a special deal in 2020; so she enquired what was the club doing to ensure they retain them the following year.
She was told they were all sent an e-mail but a mere 13 per cent rejoined, which, she says, emphasised one thing, that being, e-mails don't work.
So it was decided to form a small committee and go through each and every one of the 200 new members that got that special deal; pick up the phone, talk to them and encourage them to rejoin.
That 13 per cent turned into 70 per cent, brining in an extra €60,000 in renewed membership.
“That” says Gillian “is the kind of impact that can be made if people understand what personal touch, personal contact can mean; there is a lesson there for every club, big club, small club, it matters little; it is all about retention planning; how to keep people engaged and how to make sure this happens (phone contact) year after year after year.
“That is the kind of approach golf clubs need to adapt if they are to survive.”