Posh clubs stay the course in hard times
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It is supposedly the elderly gent in the golf club lounge who splutters into his gin and tonic whenever a British institution totters or topples: the empire …the monarchy …Margaret Thatcher …the golf club.
The golf club? Oh yes, the golf club. The crisis first emerged the other week with a report in The Scotsman newspaper to the effect that many long-established Scottish clubs, accustomed to long waiting lists, were finding themselves desperately short of new blood.
It turns out this is happening all over Britain. Golf clubs have tens of thousands of vacancies. Clubs that used to pick and choose their members are having to resort to the welcome mat, or even (deep breath) marketing.
The past 20 years have seen an explosion in golf. But there has also been an explosion in golf courses. In 1989, the Royal & Ancient issued a report saying Britain needed 700 new ones, and it more or less got them. The number has gone from about 2,000 to nearer 3,000.
The green belt around London is now a green-fairway- and-rough belt. In a tiny sliver of Surrey, around Caterham, seven courses were built in the mid-1990s alone. Struggling farmers were dazzled by £ signs when they contemplated the possibilities. And the demand was there: the success of European golfers such as Nick Faldo and Sevvy Ballesteros encouraged would-be imitators; and even economic hard times fuelled the flame - the early 90s recession meant there were suddenly thousands of retired people in their 50s with little to do other than play golf.
Some of the new ventures struggled but there is no reported case of any reverting to pasture (mind you, some are still more suited to cows). But they were run mostly as businesses rather than members' clubs, and long-established courses nearby found themselves jostled by the competition.
Though there were perhaps 1m new British golfers, they didn't fit easily into the old clubhouses and the attitudes that went with them. Almost every British town had a club like it: don't park there …jacket and tie …the captain must play through …minorities and children wholly unwelcome …Ladies Allowed on Alternate Tuesdays in February Provided They Look Pretty and Don't Offer Opinions. Joining such clubs used to be a social requisite for middle-class men in provincial Britain, whether or not they liked golf.
But there are more choices these days. And the new generation of players is very un-that. There is, after all, a new magazine called GolfPunk, which is a mixture of traditional glossy publication, a fanzine for the fancy-trousered young pro Ian Poulter, and a raunchy lads' mag, where interestingly worded readers' queries ("If my ball is buried in the rough what happens if I have trouble identifying it?") are placed alongside pictures of bikini-clad babes.
Even non-punks shy away from old-style clubs, which expect hefty joining fees to subsidise existing members. It is far cheaper to join a golf society, which can negotiate deals and offer the chance to play many different courses - or just turn up and pay the green fees.
So this seemed like a historic opportunity. And I rang some of the best-known Home Counties golf clubs to assess my chances of being admitted and giving my CV a new cachet. "Sunningdale doesn't comment on its members or its membership," said Stephen Toone, the secretary. This did not sound like a man who was desperate for new recruits, though it was possible that he had seen me play.
John Smith of Rye Golf Club was more affable, but no more encouraging. He was aware of the problem, but assured me it had not affected Rye: "The waiting list still runs into years."
At Swinley Forest ("A dukedom doesn't impress people there much," a friend told me, "and an earldom not in the slightest"), the waiting list is indeed falling, but that's because the list has been closed since 2000. "It was a 15-year wait," explained Ian Pearce, the secretary. "We're trying to get it down to five."
There are famous clubs you can join at once, but these are the more corporate ones. A cheque close to five figures will cover entry fee and five-day membership at Wentworth, or full rights at Skibo, the Highland resort where you have to stay to play. Neither has a waiting list, but neither has noticed a fall in demand either.
For the posh places, the old criteria apply. You need friends, money or patience, or a mixture of all three. Golfing ability desirable, but not essential. "I don't like to use the word but it's the ordinary golf club that may be losing out," said Paul Baxter of the English Golf Union. "There are some of them that may be stuffy. But these days it's not the norm. They're very much more welcoming." They have to be.
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