?Last September, NCG reported how England Golf were considering a proposal that would see them effectively become a virtual golf club: registering golfers, allocating handicaps and offering other benefits in exchange for a fee.
It caused uproar with some county unions, who feared it would allow independent golfers to have the benefits of an official handicap without having to be a member of a club.
Now this online canvass, which is being carried out on behalf of England Golf by Sports Marketing Surveys and forms part of its annual golf club survey, will have the aim of advancing the debate “to a point where a firm proposal on the ‘independent golfer’ can be put to counties and voting members”.
“There has been a drop in memberships of golf clubs in England over recent years – that is indisputable,” the survey’s introduction tells club managers and secretaries.
“It should not be considered inevitable or irreversible. However, golf cannot stand still and hope to improve simply by repeating the past.
“Presently, a number of commercial organisations offer unofficial handicap packages for independent golfers. In the future, England Golf could – with the approval of the clubs and counties – offer its own packages and ensure profits are redistributed within the game.”
It adds: “Golf clubs must adapt to the modern era and face up to two main challenges:
“1. How to minimise the number of members leaving clubs
“2. How to improve interaction with the independent golfer and encourage them to take up golf club membership.”
The survey explains that questions aim to shine a light on how clubs engage at the moment with independent golfers and how they would like to interact in the future.
“The end goal is simple – to boost golf club membership,” it says. “If proposals threatened to significantly undermine membership then it would be folly to continue. This is your club’s chance to have its say.”
Golfers may be able to obtain an official handicap without being a member of a club in a scheme being proposed by England Golf.
The governing body is considering an “independent golfer” project that would see it effectively become a virtual golf club: registering golfers, allocating handicaps and offering other benefits in exchange for a fee.
The scheme mirrors a New Zealand initiative brought in specifically for golfers who did not want to join a club.
But some county unions are opposing the proposal; with one secretary arguing it could “very quickly lead to an erosion of the trust in official handicapping”.
In New Zealand, Flexiclub sees golfers pay a monthly or annual fee to become an official member of New Zealand Golf.
Players get access to affiliated green fee rates and tee booking and also can gain an official NZG Handicap.
Why am I a member of a golf club?
Is it for competitions? Once upon a time, maybe, but my ever-rising scores over the years mean I am increasingly unlikely to get near the honours board.
Is it for the craic? Perhaps, but the large group I once congregated among has dwindled as life has got in the way.
Is it habit? To an extent – I’ve spent more than 13 years at my main club and a weekend without a visit feels oddly unsettling.
But when it comes down to it, the most compelling reason for me to be a member is access to an official handicap.
So when I first looked at England Golf’s discussion paper on the Independent Golfer, the scheme jumped right off the pages. It just sounded like something that would suit me.
And that’s the exact opposite of what is supposed to happen.
It’s obvious why England Golf are so keen to engage with the nomad golfer, who is happy to pay and play but doesn’t necessarily want to be a 7-day member.
There are around 630,000 players holding membership but there are a further two million in England who play up to twice a month.
That’s a lot of untapped resource and England Golf would love to be able to prove to Sport England, whose funding they are so dependent on, that these golfers really exist.
The scheme is designed to be a gateway for the casual golfer towards club membership. But it seems to me that the unintended consequence could be thousands people like me considering a move in the opposite direction.