CAN you believe it’s two years since the first lockdown kicked in and we were all forced into the kind of isolation usually adopted by a cave hermit playing hide-and-seek with his own shadow?

When the ‘stay at home’ message echoed through the land with all the jovial optimism of the Four Minute Warning, those in the golf business braced themselves for Armageddon.

Many feared some clubs, already eking out a hand-to-mouth existence, would never re-open while others would simply wither on the vine. The opposite happened, of course. 

When restrictions were lifted, golf, a perfect pursuit for the physically distanced times that were foisted upon us, thrived and clubs got the kind of boost you’d get with a shot of the Covid vaccine.

The Royal & Ancient game became the pandemic pastime. Participation surged, memberships rocketed and tee-times were gobbled up in a stampede of fevered enthusiasm.

“When golf was permitted in Scotland again, clubs had a monopoly on the supply of fun for a while and to many it really felt like they had won some kind of Covid lottery,” reflected Kevin Fish, one of the leading authorities on golf club management. “People diverted their new disposable income and their enforced disposable time, on a club membership. We have seen the number of clubs with a waiting list return to levels that we have not experienced since the last century.

“The boom in play is most welcome, and is the biggest spike in this country in living memory, but once that monopoly on fun is truly over, we will find out whether the new, typically younger club members, have been made to feel welcome enough by the old guard to continue to make this their sport for life."

Golf found a silver lining in the bleak clouds of Covid. Something of a gold rush then followed but resting on the laurels is not an option. In turbulent times, when the economic forecast should come with regular red warning alerts from the Met Office, there remain challenges.

“The pandemic helped most clubs, but not all, to get themselves on an even footing, and encouraged them to review their economic model,” added Fish, who runs the North Berwick-based Contemporary Club Leadership. “Most clubs now see the benefits of actually having a strategy, rather than just hoping for the best. The clubs who have become dependent on the drug that is visitor green fees have had a wake-up call and some brave treasurers will have had to spell out that many golfers in Scotland have been playing heavily subsidised golf for a very long time, and they may need a rethink.

“Their financial models are reliant on two main sources of profit, which are basically members wallets and visitors wallets. If there is one thing I am disappointed at, it is that the steep price increases tend to have been pushed on to visitors, rather than members. I know that turkeys don’t like to vote for Christmas, but we know from our deep financial analysis of golf in Scotland that subscription fees are so cheap that they simply cannot sustain the overheads of most clubs. They certainly don’t allow for putting money aside to replace or improve the assets of the business on which so much depends.

“There are still worries out there, in particular the drift of members back to whatever it was they were doing before they rode this wave. A recession will dictate whether people consider golf to be a non-essential purchase in their lives or, as we hope, they treat it like their broadband; they simply can’t live without it.”

Amid the merciless ravages elsewhere, the unlikely fillip golf was afforded has, according to Fish, made members appreciate what they have. They are custodians of something which should be cherished, after all.

“When golfers were robbed of their game and the deep camaraderie that goes with it, it helped them realise how important their club is to them,” he said. “They have done whatever is necessary to keep their club alive, not just for now, but for the next generation. As long as we make that next generation feel welcome, clubs have created the conveyor belt of memberships that for a while had ground to a halt. We can’t let this huge change in the attitudes of people to golf just slip by.”