By Donald Yellowley (Partner, Baird Lumsden)
Bob Dylan’s song might sigh wistfully about A Simple Twist of Fate, but for Scotland’s hundreds of world-class golf clubs, it must seem that the Fates are conspiring against them with a quite unnecessary degree of malevolence.
At last count, there were 587 clubs affiliated with national governing body Scottish Golf and, to a greater or lesser degree, they were all wrestling with the same well-documented dilemmas: changing lifestyles, an ageing demographic, declining membership numbers and questions of value for money.
The last thing they needed was the thunderbolt which hit them in March, along with the rest of the country, when they were forced to close their doors to members and guests in the face of the Covid-19 onslaught.
It was a brutal start to the year and it fuels justifiable speculation about where the sport goes from here and whether the business models which have become entwined in the game’s fabric over the years can remain relevant and sustainable.
Scotland may be the home of golf, but only a select few clubs have the “waiting list” that was de rigueur 15 years ago. Junior sections that once flourished are now barely managing to survive, and clubhouses that were previously bursting at the seams on competition days have gone far quieter with the evolution of the “car park member”.
Clubs fall broadly into three categories, the first being the destination resorts such as St Andrews, Gleneagles and Turnberry, which attract well-heeled visitors from around the world. At the other end of the spectrum are “holiday courses”, often of nine holes, and catering to visitors on a pay-and-play basis.
In the middle are the local private member’s clubs, which are coming under the greatest pressure in this changing landscape. Many have a significant proportion of older “lifetime members” paying a reduced or no membership fee.
And despite efforts such as the recent introduction of gender-neutral tees, the percentage of female members within the clubs remain stubbornly low – another hallmark of the sport as a whole.
A rather chilling illustration of the way enthusiasm for the game has waned is the fact that Feddinch farm, near the Duke’s Course at St Andrews, which sold for a spectacular price 10 years ago, is now back on the market and, despite planning consents for a golf course, is likely to fetch a much reduced figure and may remain as a farm.
The last few years have also seen the closure of high-profile courses such as Edinburgh’s Carrick Knowe and Brunston Castle in Ayrshire. 127-year-old Eastwood, on the Eaglesham Moor, has been bought by a developer who is land-banking it and it is now closed to golfers.
What are clubs to do?