FAMILIES AND CLUBS – why, and why not?

The stereotypes on which private golf clubs were built almost don’t exist any longer except in a very small part of society. And traditional fee structures tend to discriminate against people who are still in the workforce, making it hard for many to justify a membership especially when there are alternatives. So, it is time for golf clubs to drastically change their models.

The obvious future for clubs lies right in front of every club’s nose, and it is families. If clubs were to invest in families, clubs and golf would prosper.

When I grew up at a suburban club that would have been considered third-tier, it, like every city club I knew, was built around working men who played Saturdays, their stay-at-home or part-time working wives who played on Wednesday, and retirees who played every day. Back then women were called associates or ladies rather than members and had no rights to play on Saturday which were for seven-day members only, a category for which only men and junior boys were eligible.

Sunday was open to all generally with a mixed competition and guests were also allowed; couples who played together generally were more senior in years as their kids had grown up. Monday was quiet for member play, usually men’s veterans groups and/or any corporate golf being held that day. Tuesday, there was a ball comp played mainly by retired golfers, members with flexible work hours and also associates, although they weren’t eligible for the ball comp as it was only for the players on the yellow markers.

Wednesday was ‘ladies’ day, with the main difference to other days of the week being a later hit-off time. Rather than first light to 9 am from both tees, it was 8am till 10am to allow women to do the school drop-off and get to golf. Many of the ladies who worked did jobs with flexible hours like nursing that made it possible to play midweek. As there were only enough women to fill the morning, men could also play social golf on a Wednesday after 1pm.

Thursday was the main midweek competition for men and the field was full all day; associates couldn’t play at all. The field was made up of retirees, members who ran their own business and those with flexible hours – for example, many doctors took Thursday afternoon off.

Friday, everyone could play with no official competition although the women tended to run their own small ball competition, This, however, was all handled from the ‘ladies’ locker room, where most of their organisation was done.

A very similar version of this still exists at the top three or four clubs in Melbourne and no doubt other states as well, where memberships are made up of predominantly high earning professionals. The level of wealth allows many of the families to be single income thus the traditional model still works, although it is pleasing that women are now referred to as members rather than associates in many clubs and most, if not all, clubs allow women to be seven-day members. However, outside of the top three or four clubs things are not like this and the traditional model is breaking down. There just aren’t enough single income families to prop up the number of clubs that built their financial and playing models around them.

With more and more women moving into professional jobs once dominated by males, the midweek main women’s competition is shrinking rapidly as working women simply can’t take regular days off to play golf. Walk into the clubhouse after the midweek women’s competition at second- and third-tier clubs and it for the most part it resembles the female version of the veterans groups.

Whilst every club seems to be promoting women’s golf, what they are really yearning for is new women members who can play midweek as there is less availability on the course on the weekend. If a professional woman does take to golf, there are still many issues facing her if she wants to compete in major competitions, as most of them are still held midweek including the higher handicap club championship events. This is changing and has been highlighted as part of the mission of Vision 2025 but change is slow and with men far out-numbering women at most clubs, golf is still very male-dominated.

Which bring us to the fee structure. Why should members who work all week and can only afford the time to play once a week pay the highest fees whilst retired members who can play midweek or six days pay less and play more? On this the numbers don’t lie. Clubs find it really hard to attract working members with school-aged children because more often than not, there is a commitment on the weekend which cuts their golfing opportunities down even further. It may have been an acceptable notion when courses were full all weekend but it’s becoming hard to swallow for many working people when there are vacancies.

Many clubs are already going down the track of flexible membership options with ideas like the more you pay, the earlier you get access to booking a tee time. Or lifestyle memberships where effectively you pay for each round of golf and the price is higher on premium days like Saturday. It also makes the quality pay-for-play courses very attractive, especially now you no longer have to be a member of a club to maintain a handicap. Businesses like Future Golf are capitalising on this with membership options that give access to not only public courses but private courses with vacancies for a fraction of the cost of being a member. It’s no surprise that Future Golf membership is dominated by working parents with school-aged kids, many of these parents having dropped traditional memberships.

Families are the future and always have been, with clubs being built around the introduction of new members through family and friends. It’s very unfortunate that golf clubs have lost relevance to families with young children right at a time when they have the opportunity to get the next generation involved. The idea of one parent staying home to look after the kids on any day while the other plays golf on a regular basis just doesn’t cut the mustard with the majority of modern families. And it shouldn’t be that way.

Golf is one sport where families can all play together or at the same time in different groups. But it’s the 10-12 year period when the kids are too young to get around the full course that seems to be the biggest stumbling block. What to do with the kids?

Rather than spending money on building childcare facilities, clubs spend millions building massive clubhouses with no facilities for children at all. They get away from their core business of golf in most cases to become a function venue for weddings, corporate events and 50th birthday parties, the majority of them for people who aren’t members. They sell it to the membership as a money-making venture which can offset membership fee increases, but this is almost always a failure as they are up against businesses that just do functions for a living. The clubs’ expensive buildings for the most part lie idle as a missed opportunity but do provide a nice income for the function managers they had to hire who probably have to book 20 functions a year just to cover staff cost, let alone interest on the buildings. Joint ventures with childcare providers just makes sense and also keeps families together at the club at a time when instead they have been turning away.

The other major benefit of having families together at a club is that gender equality will just happen rather than having to be designed. In modern families, decisions are joint and for the benefit of everyone in the family. Bringing this dynamic into golf clubs will have the same effect and the sooner it happens, the better off golf will be.