‘There are a lot of people desperate to get back out on the course’

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As golf gets ready to return to Scotland, we spoke to clubs about lockdown and their hopes as members prepare to tee it up once more

The phone at Gourock has been ringing off the hook.

They knew there would be demand – it will be 67 days since lockdown struck when the Inverclyde club hope to reopen their doors on Friday – but the scale has taken them by surprise.

Gordon Crae had watched memberships surge when English clubs reopened and the match and handicap convenor crossed his fingers for the same.

But 40 new applications were beyond anyone’s expectations, and no one’s even hit a shot yet.

At Braes Golf Centre, near Falkirk, they’ve added 44 new faces in the last couple of weeks. The nine-holer was only saved at the 11th hour at the end of last year, the new club rising from the ashes of the ‘untenable’ Polmont Golf Course.

They started again with around 80 members. Now they’ve got more than 170.

As clubs all over Scotland prepare to restart on Friday, subject to the green light from the government on Thursday, these are stories being repeated across the country.

“The people who were nomadic and just going round and playing tee times now see the value in being a member,” explained Crae of the rush to join.

It’s the same ten miles down the road from Gourock at Kilmacolm. “The nomad golfer is having to commit because the scarce commodity we have is the golf course,” said club committee member Rene Kleyweg.

“People’s habits are changing. They’ve been exercising for weeks without going to a gym. Is the choice signing up for gym membership again, or continuing for a run and joining the golf club because you can now afford it?

“Some people have job security issues but there are other people who are coming out of this in a reasonably fortunate position financially, with more time on their hands, and are looking at golf and saying ‘I want to get back into it’.”

That these clubs can start to look forward with something approaching optimism reveals a lot about how golf may be able to grasp a new position in a socially distanced world.

It’s a place that might just have radically reversed a decade-and-a-half trend of decline in the space of just a few weeks.

Gourock went into their membership period wary about what the effects of lockdown and uncertainties over employment would have on their renewals.

Crae said: “If we’d lost too many member subscriptions, we would have been in trouble. Luckily, we only have 12 people who didn’t pay out of the 400 active golfers we have got at the club.

“With the government grants and the like, it was just a matter of trying to keep members informed and ready for the start of golf opening again.”

Now their membership numbers are up. And with every day that has passed under lockdown, so has the pent up urge to play again only risen – particularly as the Scottish Government started to diverge from the rest of the UK on easing their restrictions.

“There was an initial period where people were accepting of golf being restricted, that led to frustration about the logic behind it and then, with the situation in England, that created the next wave of pent up demand,” added Kleyweg.

“We were fortunate, from a membership point of view, that we had our subs in January but there has been a lot of hand holding and communication and ensuring that we are staying engaged with any members who are struggling.

“In terms of communicating and understanding, it’s making sure it’s appreciated that current members have lost out of a significant part of the golf season and managing that going forward.

“All clubs are looking for new members at all times and how do you, in the short term, manage that and ensure people don’t feel they are being disadvantaged?

“We have a significant amount of payments through direct debits and that’s also been a concern – people continuing those payments despite not getting access to the golf club.

“It has been very encouraging to see the community spirit element – with people keeping up payments and accepting of the current situation.”

Significant challenges still need to be overcome. Gourock spent more than £200,000 investing in a swing studio that’s lain empty, while the assumption at Kilmacolm is that any visitor revenue they might have pulled in for the year will just disappear.

Kleyweg explained: “[Visitor income] is about 15 per cent of our annual revenues. A lot of that is corporate visits or group outings in bigger sizes.

“Depending on how things unwind, we might pick up some of that business in August or September but our assumption is we’ve lost most of that revenue for this year.”

Now as the release of the starting gates approach – and work goes on apace to structure courses to adhere to government regulations and Scottish Golf guidelines – what both Gourock and Kilmacolm now really want is for players to follow the rules.

“There’s a pent up demand,” concluded Crae. “My biggest fear over the first few days is that we’re going to have to be very careful that we adhere to the public health guidelines when everyone is rushing to get a game of golf, especially with Friday looking as if the weather is going to be okay.

“We’re going to marshal and put the main committee in marshalling the course, making sure the practice in the car park is followed, we do the right routing and keep the social distancing.

“There’s a bit of work for the committee to do in the early days to bed in the new norm. So it’s kind of pensive from our point of view but there are a lot of people desperate to get back out on the course.”

Are you looking forward to getting back to golf in Scotland? Let me know where you’ll be playing in the comments, or tweet me.

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