Course Closed: Rain and Recession

31 March 2014

What can the lessons of history tell us about the economic future for golf?

Prospects for golf in Scotland over the next decade are schizophrenic.  SGU figures show a decline in golf club membership from 263,395 in 2005 to 235,019 in its 578 affiliated clubs in 2012 (-11%), likely to be worse by 2013, with predictions that 20% of the 597 golf courses in Scotland in 2011 will not exist by 2020. In Edinburgh, two of its two dozen courses have gone into liquidation, with part of one course being absorbed into a nearby club. Similar effects have been seen for golf in England. 

However, almost a third of clubs report an increase in membership and the Scottish tourist authorities predict a 30% increase in revenue between 2013-2020, with Scotland rated as the third best prospect for golf tourist development over the next decade, though this relies heavily on improvements in economic activity which have yet to materialize.

Scottish golf club membership in the 578 affiliated SGU clubs has declined by 11% from 263,395 in 2005 to 235,019 in 2012.

There are two main reasons for golf membership decline– the recession and the recent bad weather. The effects of the credit crunch are widely known, but they have coincided with rain and hurricane weather which rendered courses unplayable on many days, particularly in 2012. The weather was better in 2013, but 2014 has begun with more rain, cold and wind.

Even prestigious, historical clubs listed in Oldest Societies saw deaths and resignations in 2013 reach 10%, which were not filled by new members. Resignations in 2014 are running at half of 2013 and memberships are now expected to stabilise but at a lower level. This results in lower income, but it also means that clubs that had waiting lists of 5-8 years for full town memberships can now be joined as soon as the formalities are complete. The general consensus is that membership numbers are reduced, possibly permanently, but more likely until the recovery in income begins more strongly.

From all accounts this situation is representative of golf elsewhere.

We have faced worse in the past. Following the American War of Independence, the Napoleonic Wars 1793-1815 saw the public debt soar to 250% of GDP by 1820, far in excess of today. This period probably represented the greatest threat that Britain has ever faced economically and militarily, though you would never know it from reading Jane Austen.

Public debt following Napoleonic War was 250% of GDP. Half the 16 known golf clubs of 18th century ceased, but all recovered later, though two are now only nominally in existence.

Over the early decades of the 19th century, the social and industrial revolutions saw the golf clubs of the day suffer and three of the oldest ten continuous clubs went into abeyance for decades. Five others effectively disappeared to be restarted in the following century. However all clubs from 18th century for which we have a record of formation can be traced to present day successors, though the existence of two is nominal.

The Golfers Yearbook of 1866 lists 38 clubs playing 23 courses. Of these, 5 clubs (13%) are no more, which is quite a modest attrition rate. Throughout the 19th century, clubs waxed and waned but the overwhelming result, through the valiant efforts of individuals who kept the memories and memorabilia safe, as at Scotscraig, was that a stable future was created.

Only 5 of 38 clubs listed in 1866 are not active - Merchiston, St Leonards, Thistle, Wemyss and Hercules.

However, most of the oldest courses do not exist anymore and the old clubs were slow to grasp the significance of important developments, such as the 18-hole round of golf, apart form problems of urbanisation and industrialisation, such as at Montrose, which, though it survived, it would have dozens of courses on four different playing areas.  Of the 23 courses listed in 1866, 8 courses (35%) are no more, though of the oldest 18-hole Scottish courses only one, Dubbieside, is no longer playable in any form, and that was because the club moved.

Both the Great War 1914-1918 and the Second World War 1939-1946 seriously disrupted many golf clubs with courses turned into airfields or ploughed up for agriculture as Elie, Kingsbarns and Scotscraig had been a century earlier. They survived or returned to their courses, but others never recovered. However, after the wars, once again other facilities and arrangements were made.

Many historical Scottish golfing areas have disappeared including Aberdeen Old Links, Leith Links, Bruntsfield Links, Sauchope Crail, Glasgow Green, Burntisland, Ward Hill Cruden Bay, West Links Dunbar and East Links North Berwick. The same happened in Blackheath and Manchester.

Change may not produce a perfect outcome, and it is frequently opposed to no purpose, as it is broadly inevitable and necessary.  Most experts and commentators believe that the worst of the recent economic troubles are now behind us. Courses have come and gone, but golf clubs have survived and they will prosper again once the recession eases, though that is not to say they do not need to make changes to membership policy, dress and clubhouse arrangements to do so.

Whether they will be playing the links courses that we know is another matter. The greater threat to golf as we know it is the potential climate change effects on sea levels, if fresh frozen water on land is released. It would only take a 20% rise on the worst projections to flood all the world’s links courses. Though some may be saved in the manner of Abu Simbel and recreated on higher ground with recovered hallowed turf, this can only be a handful. The conclusion therefore is to play the great links now when you can.

Page updated 3rd November 2014

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