After years of expansion, the golf business finds itself in the rough.
MOST sports-involving, as they do, grown men and women kicking and throwing balls or each other-are basically preposterous. Golf is especially preposterous, since it consumes so much time and land (and therefore money). But because of these expenses, the popularity of golf says something about a country’s lifestyle and aspirations. In Britain, golf courses occupy more land than ever; but Britons are not spending as much time and money on them as developers had hoped.
As Mark Twain would see it, in the early 1990’s more and more good walks were spoiled. New golf courses were built across Britain, and, indeed, much of the rest of the world-in response, says, Colin Hegarty, of the Golf Research Group, to the ravenous golfing appetite aroused by television. The boom in the number of players in Britain in the 1980’s was also driven, Mr Hegarty says, by the success of the country’s golf idols in major tournaments. Most of the new British courses were commercial ventures, which compete both with the council-owned municipal courses (designed to bring golf to the masses) and the old-fashioned, membersonly clubs (designed to keep them out).
At the top end, the new commercial market looks secure. At Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire, facilities include an 18th century manor house, a posh restaurant, and two courses; on one of them players take a ferry to the last green. New members currently have to lay Out £14,000 ($20,000); their stake can be sold if they leave (only to the right sort, of course). The manager isn’t sweating.
But, with total numbers flatlining, there are not enough new golfers to fill all the new fairways. Some less swanky developments, often the work of entrepreneurial farmers, have gone bust, to be snapped up by multinationals (though they too are feeling the pinch: Clubhaus, a listed company which owns courses in four countries, including 13 in Britain, is threatened by insolvency after writing-down its assets).
The number of rounds played at municipal courses has declined dramatically. Not far from Brocket Hall, at the less rarefied Stevenage municipal course (green fees: £16 at the weekend), the brewery that once ran the club-house has pulled out-though after several years of decline, says the manager, there has recently been an upturn.
The supply of new members to the older clubs has also begun to dry up. At a typical private members club nearby, the waiting list is shrinking. Other traditional clubs in the area have scrapped their joining fee altogether, just as, at many new ones, they are falling or disappearing.
Golf’s problems are due partly to the sport’s migration from terrestrial to satellite television: the audiences are smaller. And while Tiger Woods is photogenic, he is less of a draw for Britons than the homegrown champions of yore. Other explanations cited include the laziness of the young, the growing enthusiasm of the middle-aged for DIY and gardening, and low-cost airlines, which offer cheap access to Mediterranean courses.
Longer-term factors also explain why golf is becoming one of the many sports Britain has invented, exported, and now loses at. Block leisure time is sparse in a country that works such long hours. Men, who make up an especially high proportion of British golfers, are becoming less inclined (or allowed) to spend time away from their families.
And golf may not be quite the aspirational pursuit it used to be. Wray Vamplew, an expert on the history of golf at the University of Stirling, says that it was once the preserve of the upper-middle classes, who established their private clubs around the turn of the last century when land was cheap. In the yuppie boom of the 1980’s golf was one form of conspicuous consumption that appealed to the upwardly mobile. Now they are finding other ways to tell the world and themselves that they have arrived.