In May last year, the strangest thing happened. Young people started playing golf.
I’m not talking about junior golfers kitted out to follow in the footsteps of idols like Rory McIlroy or Leona Maguire. I’m talking about young, working professionals taking up the game of golf because they had nothing else to do.
Yes, after years of witnessing the great Brain Trust of golf butting heads in a bid to reduce the sport’s median age, a global pandemic achieved what countless get into golf campaigns could not, returning golf’s lost generation to the fairways, and in the nick of time, too.
If it wasn’t for working in golf, I’m sure I would’ve fallen the way of many of my friends who were pushed away from our great game. I’m thirty now, but when my generation was graduating from junior membership programmes to more expensive senior packages, the transition coincided with the great recession of 2008. Simply put, golf memberships were unaffordable for most young adults like me.
Back in those days, the golf industry mirrored that of a bubbling Irish economy that had lost the run of itself, a time where golf well and truly earned its elitist tag. Initial joining fees were unsustainable. Green fees were astronomical. Like the property market, nothing was worth the asking price. The bubble had to burst. It did.
As golf’s ivory tower came crashing down, so did its outer walls layered with pretentious dress codes and dated rules. The industry lay in rubble. There was nothing to stop the riff-raff coming in. An ensuing race to the bottom ensured golf was suddenly affordable, but even as it sat in ruin, its stuffy past pushed potential newcomers away.
In recent years, however, golf has made great strides in giving its wrinkly old image a face-lift. The game has embraced modernity and diversity, and increased its accessibility. We knew golf was for everyone before this pandemic hit but not everyone did. With the wider sporting world shut down with restrictions, the game has only now been given the injection of life it so desperately needed. Thanks to Covid-19 – if such words can be penned without scorn – people have finally been introduced, and reintroduced, to a game for life.
Which makes it so hilarious when I see keyboard warriors weighed down by that eternal chip on their shoulder, scalding golfers for their outspokenness during this latest lockdown. Our calls for golf to reopen were met in some quarters by claims that the Celtic Tiger had returned; another band of out of touch golfers playing their entitled tune. They obviously hadn’t seen my friends play.
With barely a golf ball between them, never mind a collared shirt, my generation descended on golf like wildfire last year. Working professionals with money in their pockets, conscious of trends in tech and fashion, and keen for a pint to boot, golf was energised by an influx of youth. The mission now is to keep it.
Which leads to a pertinent question we recently polled on social media; would golfers be renewing their subscription this year? For life-time members, this isn’t even up for debate. Your club is your club, you carry it in your heart through thick and thin. But for the lost generation of golfer, such loyalty doesn’t exist.
Out of about a thousand votes, there was a 50/50 split on whether fees would be paid. For many, they’ve already paid for a product that returned little value. Another investment given the uncertainty makes no sense. And I write this as a word of warning for golf clubs… while there is a breed of golfer who will renew without question, the new faces are a different ilk of consumer. When other sports return, golf will lose its position of privilege. Clubs should act now to ensure our sport remains the priority when choice is reintroduced.
From my bit of research amongst friends, they aren’t asking much. Many of them would only need clarity around their club’s current financial situation to commit to another year. They don’t know how much it costs to run a few mowers over winter, or the extent of work carried out to keep a course maintained. Educate them, and be honest.
We know it’s not the fault of golf clubs that play remains suspended through Covid-19, but inaction will be the downfall of many clubs if subscription renewals fall short of last year. Loyalty doesn’t have to be bought, but it has to be earned. Whether it’s a four-ball voucher, a lunch in the restaurant or a simple hello, staking a small amount of interest now could yield a massive return.