It was the radio that first alerted me. The little rectangular box with its knobs and buttons and its flashing time signals often is the primary source of information. With radio, the mind clasps to a notion, an item, and concentrates intently with none of the inherent distractions present when watching television. Even in an age of the highest definition TV, when colour on a screen is so good it is often indistinguishable from the colours in your own garden, television does not offer what radio does.
And so it was on an early morning sports bulletin on the radio the other morning. A famous former cricketer was concerned at a trend he had noticed in the area where he lived and in the town where he had grown up. He was saying the cricket clubs were losing members because the lockdown was preventing games from being played and having noticed how many cricketers were joining golf clubs to get their exercise he was worried that not all would return.
That begged the question: Was this a trend or just a geographical blip? If it is the former then perhaps there is a silver lining for golf in the midst of the worst pandemic seen for a century? The answer to that is yes, it is a trend. Golf clubs report increased applications for membership and manufacturers have noted significant increases in demand for equipment and clothing.
“Who’d have thunk it? ” as EB White said. A sport that its detractors like to portray as being old fashioned and slow moving has responded well to the pandemic and proved light on its feet. A welcome surprise.
For example, a Callaway sales representative said a couple of retailers in his area had sold 23 percent of their annual quantity of Warbird sets in one week; and another salesman of the same firm reported retailers who had sold 15 percent of their annual forecast sales of the X2 Hot packaged sets for newcomers in seven days.
“Committed golfers have been playing more, lapsed golfers have been inspired to revisit the sport and we have also seen, through a significant increase in sales of our packaged sets, in particular, that golf is attracting new players,” Neil Howie, managing director and president of Callaway Golf Europe, said.
And Ping? “If we say that 12 weeks ago we were wondering – and fearing – what the rest of the year would be like, then now we can say it is significantly better than we feared,” John Clark, managing director for Ping Europe, said. “Year-on-year comparisons may not be very good but our activity now compared to the same time last year is significantly better. Our May/June sales are way beyond our expectations. Irons, woods, hybrids, putters and apparel are all selling very briskly as people come back to golf.”
And Wilson? “Both our package sets and super game improvement Launch Pad range have been in high demand, while our customisable D7 range has also seen spiked levels of interest for people who are looking for a premium set without the premium price tag,” Lee Farrar, head of golf for Wilson in the UK and Ireland, said.
And Motocaddy? “The interest in purchasing new electric trolleys has been almost overwhelming in recent weeks … , ” John Helas, chief executive officer at the top-selling trolley brand based in the UK, said.
And Titleist and FootJoy? “There has been a sense of cautious optimism surrounding the UK & Ireland golf industry since playing restrictions were lifted ... and ... initial caution has been replaced with more optimism throughout June with significant demand across all of our brands” Matthew Johnson, general manager of Titleist and FootJoy Europe, said. "Golf balls, gloves, shoes and clubs have been particularly strong ... and ... demand for our custom clubs is very high.”
Clark nailed the reason for this surge in interest when he said: “Golf as related to other sports like football, cricket, rugby is a bit of a winner. It’s competitive, socially acceptable, played in the fresh air.”
Clark’s is a good name at what was the Gainsborough Golf Club when it was bought by the Solheim family in 1986 and has now been renamed Thonock Park. Clark reports that the club has had “close to 20” new members recently and of those the majority are not returning members but new members.
This is occurring at clubs all over the United Kingdom. At Royal Mid-Surrey Golf Club in Richmond, of southwest London, 40 new members in all categories have joined the club. “We have never seen interest and reaction like this,” Chris Holt, the club chairman, said. “In the month after the lockdown was introduced we received in excess of 200 enquiries asking about joining the club and are now back to the wait-list position that we were fortunate enough to enjoy before the pandemic.”
At Welwyn Garden City Golf Club, 25 miles north of London, more than 20 of the 60 members who resigned at the start of the pandemic have rejoined. At Orchardleigh, a club in Somerset, golfers are allowed to become members for £1 so long as they paid the full green fee for every round they played. Members also were offered the chance to pay an initial fee of £400 or £600 and that gave them a 33-percent or 50-percent discount on green fees.
At West Lothian Golf Club in Scotland, 53 members joined in the first week of June, a time when normally only a handful would be doing so. Though some of the 53 are returning members, some are new. Kirkistown Castle Golf Club in Northern Ireland received more than 80 membership applications the week the lockdown eased. “We have been blown away by the reception we have received from those wanting to join our club,” Tracey McDowell, the general manager, told Golf Business.
Who’d have thought it, eh? In March when the lockdown was announced and clubs were wringing their hands, who’d have thought this would be the situation three months later?
A further hurdle awaits. When the UK government’s furlough scheme ends in October, clubs will have to assess how many members of their former staff they can afford to re-employ. They will be doing this at a time when they have probably lost some membership revenue and a great deal of green fee income. In short, 2020 is likely to be a tough year for golf clubs. The point is however, the signs are now that it isn’t quite as disastrous as it seemed it would be three months ago.