Covid-19: Top English clubs find hope as golf tees up recovery effort

Very little about our world feels normal these days. Spending a few hours walking the fairways of your local golf club with friends is, let’s face it, about as close as it gets. 

This Covid-19 pandemic is not a disaster in a traditional sense, even if the trauma is comparable. It is not an event confined by time and space like a hurricane or a terrorist attack. No, there is a growing realisation that even if golf represents a rare escape from our current troubles, it may be some time yet before we fully return to anything close to normal. We should be thankful, of course, that the wide-open spaces of a golf course, staggered and organised tee-times and natural social distancing meant golf was one of the first activities to return after lockdowns were eased across the world. But although the sport, thankfully, can go on, golf has not escaped the impact of this pandemic. 

Golf is adjusting to the new normal.

Some clubs have benefited, having seen a vast influx of new members. Others are facing a huge revenue deficit with overseas visitors unable to fulfil bookings, leaving clubs struggling with significant deficits. International golf travel has been decimated.  

At the very top of the game, The Open Championship has been cancelled, the Ryder Cup, which famously thrives on the vociferous support of fans on both sides, postponed and the remaining majors scattered across an unfamiliar golfing calendar and played with no fans or grandstands in sight. Nothing in life feels quite as it should. 

The Wandering Golfer has examined how golf is coping with the pandemic and this the first in a series of articles looking at England, Scotland, Ireland, US and the rest of the world. 

We begin by looking at England.

Formby Golf Club is one of UK’s top links courses and is situated on England’s golf coast. Credit: Formby GC

Formby Golf Club sits on England’s spectacular golf coast, holding its own alongside the likes of Royal Birkdale, Hillside as well as Royal Lytham and Royal Liverpool a few miles along the coast. It is a championship links with a rich and fascinating history and a reputation which draws visitors from all over the world. Stuart Leech is secretary of the club: “The year began so well. The bookings we had taken, particularly from overseas had put us on track for what would have been another record year to follow on from what was a record year in 2019,” he tells The Wandering Golfer.  “And then Covid hit and suddenly we were facing a new reality for which none of us had a blueprint. We had to close the clubhouse. Lockdown was a difficult time. Coming into the club was eerie. It was just me and a reduced green-keeping team going about their work on the course.”

It was an uncertain time. Some 65% of Formby’s visitor revenue comes from the many thousands of visitors, primarily from the US and Europe, who visit each year. The club was forced to refund more than £40,000 in bookings, but such is the allure of the course that many groups chose to delay their visits rather than cancelling them altogether. 

“We have had a monumental rise in the number of visitors asking to play … there is hope.”

Stuart Leech, Secretary of Formby Golf Club

In difficult circumstances, Stuart and Formby found strength and with it purpose. There was togetherness and communication between clubs on how to overcome the many challenges and, when the time was right, how to welcome golfers back. “We wanted to use that time to learn and to lead to some extent,” Stuart says. “We are a club others look to and we wanted to set an example on the right way to come back. I was frequently on zoom calls with golf course managers both here in the UK and overseas to discuss and agree on policy so there was agree of uniformity about how we did things.”

Stuart Leech, secretary of Formby Golf Club.

When golf did return, it did so with gusto. “It was incredible,” Stuart adds. “We’ve never had so much demand for tee times. In June, we did triple the amount of member rounds that we’ve ever done. And when we brought competitions back, we found that where we normally have between 140 and 160 members entering, we were up at around 220 – which is unheard of. And that has been reflected in enquiries from elsewhere – we have had a monumental rise in the number of visitors asking to play, particularly from outside the area. And because we have had to push so many of our overseas visitors into 2021, we have more on the books for next year that we’ve ever done. So, there is hope.”

Covid has forced a number of changes at clubs, designed to minimise the risk, which range from raised holes, no bunker rakes, no touching the flag and online bookings, to name but a few. At Formby they’ve gone a step further. “Scorecards are, at least for now, a thing of the past,” Stuart adds. “Our app means that our members can enter scores digitally as they go around, which is not only safer but also easier for us as a club to process. We have also made pin position sheets available online so that members can print them out before they arrive at the club. These are small changes, but it is all the tiny details that can make a difference and help to keep all of our members safe.”

Golf has taken a hit, no question, but whether there are challenges, Stuart also believes there is opportunity. “Grass roots golf has seen an influx of new people coming into the game. That, in itself, is something that we have all wanted to see for many years. The challenge now is to keep them. I hope we are able to capitalise on that as a sport. “

The Wisley has a reputation for being a favourite retreat of tour professionals. Credit: The Wisley

If Formby is one of the north’s great clubs, The Wisley is one of the south’s most exclusive private member clubs. The 27-hole layout, which borders the gardens of the Royal Horticultural Society, is like Formby, consistently ranked amongst the best courses in England and is known for being a firm favourite with tour pros and celebrities alike. John Glendinning is the club’s CEO, having spent a decade at Close House previously. 

“Closing the club down when we did, was one of the hardest decisions I have ever had to take,” John tells The Wandering Golfer. “We’d been forced to close the clubhouse in early March because a staff member had displayed symptoms of Coronavirus and the safety of our members and our staff was always paramount in our thinking. But as we watched Covid spread in the way it did, we realised we had to go a step further. 

“It wasn’t straightforward because we were conscious that some members wanted to continue to play, what was, and is, essentially a very safe sport. But we just felt that it was impossible to guarantee anyone’s safety at that point and on March 23rd, a few hours before the Prime Minister brought lockdown into effect, we sent an email to our members closing The Wisley down. At that time, we were in touch with a number of other clubs, but none were quite ready to close down in the way we did on that day.

“Our members were wonderful. And I got a number of messages from them which basically acknowledged that golf is, ultimately, a luxury and that our health has to come above that. It was wonderful that in many cases, our members’ biggest concern was the safety of the staff at The Wisley and actually not putting them in harm’s way.”

John Glendinning, Chief Executive of The Wisley

Lockdown meant John working from home like many millions around the country. And like Stuart at Formby, he was on two weekly conference calls with other clubs – one with other top clubs in the UK and the other with clubs from around the world. “The conversation was focused on what reopening might look like and we were fortunate that clubs in Germany and Denmark reopened ahead of us which helped us foresee the challenges that we might face and ask them what they would do differently if they had the chance to start again. The key for us as managers, secretaries and executives was to take a uniform approach. Our members are often members of a number of different clubs and we didn’t want them to go elsewhere and find a different set of rules.”

As with Formby, when the The Wisley did reopen the demand was off the scale. “During May and June, there was an incredible appetite for golf from our members,” John adds. “In June we did double the number of rounds than we saw in June 2019. And that has been matched by the membership enquiries – which have gone through the roof. We have been absolutely inundated. And that is despite it being £40,000 to buy a share in The Wisley – all our members are shareholders – and then £6,500 a year in fees.”

We have read much about how habits have changed during Covid and that has been reflected at The Wisley. “Many of our members work in the financial sector and have traditionally commuted into the city – that has now stopped because of this pandemic.

“I think it’s fair to say that lockdown has led many of them to re-evaluate their lives and their lifestyles. Having spent more time away from work, there is a greater appreciation of their life away from the office, their time off and exercise. Traditionally we would have expected the morning to be busy at our club and the afternoon to be quieter. But with many of our members working from home, they are starting work earlier than ever but also finishing earlier and then coming down to the club to play a round in the afternoon.”

Habits are changing, golf is adapting but the game, thankfully, will continue and recover. And with a national push now underway to promote regular exercise and healthy living, golf may continue to benefit with recent studies suggesting that golfers can walk up to 69% further than the scorecard yardage during a single round. The demand for the sport has never been higher and while it is wonderful to feel something close to the world as it was, as we stride down the fairways, what is certain is that none of us will ever take this wonderful sport for granted ever again.  

The next part of the series will focus on golf in Scotland. 

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