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Dwindling membership and club closures a sad reality these days

IT was Geoffrey Chaucer who scribbled the phrase "all good things must come to an end" with his feather quill back in 1374.

Bitter times . . . membership has plummeted to the extent that many clubs are having to close their doors
Bitter times . . . membership has plummeted to the extent that many clubs are having to close their doors

Funnily enough, that was about the same year as Cliff Richard released his first calendar, an elaborate series of self-portraits carved into wood which whipped the women of the day into a frightful state of swooning and lightened up the fusty walls of those dour, humble dwellings of the Middle Ages.

At the weekend, the Peter Pan of Pop stunned a reeling nation when he announced that he won't be posing for any more racy photo-shoots. The first day of each month just won't be the same. Chaucer was right. Those good things do end. It's been a bit like this for golf clubs in recent years. From those times of plenty, when potential members were queuing at the gates to join up and the accounts were as pleasing on the eye as a glossy Sir Cliff calendar (so I'm told), there are now a series of storms to weather . . . and the weather is just one of them.

This Royal & Ancient game may be a fabric of life in this part of the world but there are plenty of frayed edges. A couple of months ago, Lothianburn on the outskirts of Edinburgh, closed its doors after its membership plunged from 800 to below 300 in three years. Nearby Torphin Hill is set to go the same way while the Inchmarlo centre near Aberdeen went into receivership earlier in the year and Whitemoss in Perthshire shut down in November 2011.

"I think there will be more closures," admitted Hamish Grey, the chief executive of the Scottish Golf Union in an end of year address. "I'd be very surprised if there aren't more."

In the mainstream media, we tend to focus on the fluctuating fortunes of our emerging players coming through the ranks. We all want to see the next wave developing, flourishing and carrying the saltire on to the European stage and beyond. There are far more pressing issues, of course. The SGU spends some £900,000 annually on performance and coaching - France throws a whopping £2.5m into the same sector - but that counts for just 27% of the total outlay. Nearly half the overall budget is directed into participation and supporting clubs and that should always be the chief focus. They are the lifeblood of the game, after all.

Without thriving clubs, you can't create a new wave of talent. Clubgolf, the national junior initiative, is showing encouraging signs on the membership front. Some 50% of boy members and 61% of girl members came through the introductory programme. "The reality is that I think we'd be in a much worse position without Clubgolf," suggested Grey.

Scotland has one course for every 9800 people. The nearest to that figure in Europe is in England where it's one per 28,000. It terms of variety and opportunity, the home of golf is, well, just that. For the nomadic golfer, who can feast on green fee savers and pay-as-you-play offers, this is a time of plunder. For club memberships, though, the saturated market and varying consumer patterns, have brought considerable challenges. The times they are a-changing and clubs have to respond.

"There's no doubt in my mind, where we are now is not where we need to be in 20 years' time, and that's how far we are looking ahead," added Grey, who noted that 60% of the SGU's 578 affiliated clubs have engaged with the governing body's development officers to seek advice on fresh approaches and new strategies regarding membership. "If we continue to offer what we would all recognise as traditional memberships, as a take it or leave approach, then more and more golfers are going to say 'no' to that. They'll not take it.

"I think clubs are aware of the symptoms and understand change is needed. They understand what will work for them and if we can help them help themselves then I'll be much happier than I am now. I think there are elements we are facing now that aren't bad for the game. Clubs are now having to ask themselves 'how can we run ourselves better?' Maybe it was a case in golf when clubs had long waiting lists that they were too relaxed and didn't feel as though they should be worried about the future."

What the future holds for the SGU is still being tossed around the debating table. The rocky road towards amalgamation with the Scottish Ladies Golfing Association, an issue that seems to have been around longer than Sir Cliff, continues to make for a bumpy journey.

"I know it is easy for people to sit back and say it should have been done by now but it's not as easy as people believe," Grey said.

"There is a lot of passion there and we are making sure that everyone has a chance to input into this internally."

The sooner that is resolved the better. In these challenging times for clubs, Scottish golf needs to be moving forward as one.

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