A struggling sport gets a pandemic boost.
The trick is to make it last.
EDINBURGH, Scotland – It’s the 16th green at a small golf club in Scotland’s capital city. To the right is a foursome midway through its round — but not much else. To the left are a handful of empty fairways and greens.
Such is the case at many clubs around Scotland, with membership numbers beginning to dip once again after getting a substantial boost during the pandemic shutdown.
Golf is, and has been, woven into Scotland’s life and image for centuries. With more than 550 courses scattered across a country roughly the size of South Carolina, it’s difficult to go far without seeing a bright green fairway, perhaps with a quartet of golfers out playing on a breezy day.
But it’s not all well and good in the home of golf. In fact, a visitor can get the sense that the sport is ebbing away in the very place where it was invented.
“I know at least three clubs (between Edinburgh and Glasgow), which were not going to get through the following year — that was pre-pandemic,” Garreth Pugh said. “Now they’re up and running again, but they’ve only bought themselves maybe four years — not more.”
Pugh is a secretary at Liberton Golf Club in Edinburgh, and is among those who’ve been following the trend of declining memberships.
There are two kinds of golfers in Scotland – tourists and Scots. Before the coronavirus, upward of 10,000 people a year flocked to Scotland to hit the links.
But the game was still hurting.
Over the decade span between 2007 and 2017, golf memberships at clubs across the country were plummeting. A report done by Scottish Golf showed a staggering 21% decrease in memberships, with nearly 47,000 members leaving clubs for one reason or another. By 2018, the number of registered golfers had dropped to about 180,000.
Smaller courses around Scotland were suffering the most, with some in danger of having to close their doors.
“I would say 2003-2004 in Scotland, golf clubs really got into financial trouble,” Pugh said. “There was a constant decline.”
That, of course, raises the question of how things got to that point. In 1991, the R&A, a golf support organization based in St. Andrews, released a report saying Scotland needed to build an additional 100 courses around the country, which happened over the next nine years — but that turned out to be an overestimate, and many of those courses could be in serious danger of closing their doors.
The initial report was based on the number of people on wait lists at clubs across Scotland, but that figure was misleading, as some people either joined other clubs or lost interest after being on a wait list for too long. Thus, the additional new courses created an oversupply of clubs relative to demand, which in turn led to a decline in memberships at many clubs.
On top of that, other activities have become more readily available to people as the years have gone on, whether it be soccer – an enormously popular sport in Scotland – the cinema, or shopping. That doesn’t even take into account the impact of streaming services, video games or the smartphone, staples of modern entertainment.
Edinburgh, the home of 21 courses, is the epitome of distractions. With a bustling cultural life, the Royal Mile alone boasts shops, pubs, restaurants and museums, along with sightseeing at the ancient volcano Arthur’s Seat. There’s simply no shortage of things to do off the golf course.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily the fault of golf clubs that have lost members,” Graham Barr, the club business officer for Scottish Golf said. “Sometimes there’s more that could have been done to keep members, but in general, I think the way the (of) world has just changed.”
No matter who was at fault, the fact of the matter was the numbers were declining headed into 2020 — and fast.
Enter the Coronavirus
While industries and business across the globe were crippled by COVID-19, some niche areas thrived once restrictions were eased a bit, and golf in Scotland was one of those areas.
Courses were flooded with people looking for a safe way to get out of the house. All of a sudden, that same 16th green that was once surrounded by nothing but empty fairways all around was now surrounded by golfers all around.
“Because of the nature of the sport — you’re outside all the time — it was deemed safer to be doing that,” said Lewis Fraser, a content creator for Bunkered Online, one of Scotland’s biggest golf publications.
With people eager to hit the links again, memberships took off and skyrocketed nationwide.
Barr, from Scottish Golf, also mentioned a club in the Glasgow area that brought in over 100 members in a two-month period in 2020, and then did the same in 2021 — unparalleled growth during COVID-19.
Golf was back.
Courses such as Duddingston Golf Club in Edinburgh limited play to members-only golf due to demand and the restrictions of only being allowed to have two people go out together at a time.
Stuart Wilson is the PGA head professional at Duddingston. He recalled the days of only allowing two golfers out at a time being “incredibly long days for the people involved,” with workers having to show up at sunup and stay until sundown to accommodate the increased demand to be on the links.
“Our two-ball restrictions meant that we went from first light to last light,” Wilson said. This in a country so far north that summer daylight often lasts 17 hours.
The spike was impressive. According to Scottish Golf, there was a 6% increase in memberships in 2020 and then jumped yet another 7% in 2021.
A sport that was seemingly fading in a place renowned for it was back on the rise in a big way and looking like it was heading back for national prominence.
COVID-19 has “definitely breathed a new life into the industry,” Barr said.
“It’s an artificial bump,” “They won’t sustain themselves.” Garreth Pugh
But the conditions that made golf so appealing to people who picked up the game during the pandemic didn’t last. Many people booking tee times and becoming members were either not working at all or were working from home due to COVID-19 restrictions, allowing for more time to hit the course during weekdays.
As cases have dwindled, though, life is beginning to return to normal — or a “new normal” — and the trend of memberships is once again becoming a bit bleak.
“It’s an artificial bump,” Pugh, of Liberton, said. “They won’t sustain themselves.”
The bigger, world-famous courses that sit along the picturesque shores of Scotland, such as Royal Troon and St. Andrews, aren’t nearly as impacted in terms of memberships as some other places simply due to the stature of their club.
They’ve still faced some challenges, though, due to the lack of tourism. However, those big-name courses will — more than likely — always be OK, golf analysts say.
Even when the wind is whipping off the water on a brisk day in mid-March, eager groups of four still make their way across the famous bridge on the 18th of the St. Andrews Old Course at roughly 15-minute intervals all day long.
The Old Course even holds a raffle to play on it, and in order to enter the raffle, a golfer has to play one of the other St. Andrews courses just for the chance to play the world-famous Old Course. And when they get the chance to tee off on the first hole, there’s palpable excitement, which is noticeable even to onlookers.
The smaller courses, though, won’t fare as kindly as the larger, world-famous courses.
Over at Duddingston, players ring a bell on their way to the 18th green to let others on the tee know the down-sloping fairway, that’s blind to the tee, is clear and anyone waiting can now play. These days, though, that bell doesn’t ring quite as often.
“I’ve seen (membership levels) already plateau, maybe even dip back to previous trends,” said Wilson, of Duddingston, who’s noticed a lot of players “drift back” to their former activities.
“We’re starting to see things leveling out, hopefully not dropping back down to the levels they were pre-pandemic, but nowhere near as crazy as they were post-lockdown.”
Some clubs are attempting to grow the game among youth, in hopes that once the older generation of members stops playing, the younger generation will help sustain it. Scottish Golf, for instance, has a National Junior framework, which features initiatives such as “Learn to Golf.”
The R&A is looking to grow the game with women in golf, too, starting the Women in Golf Charter in May 2018.
On top of that, clubs are embracing technology more than previously by holding member meetings over Zoom and doing more events virtually, which Barr mentioned was almost forced upon them due to COVID-19, but has certainly been a positive.
Ultimately, golf experts in Scotland believe the boost in memberships nationwide likely won’t be sustainable in future years, regardless of the interest of younger generations. And that may lead to the demise of at least some of those courses that were added in the ’90s.
It may not be the end of golf in Scotland, experts say, but enthusiasts of the sport will certainly see it contract.
“It’ll be worse. It’ll be a lot worse and it’ll happen a lot quicker,” Pugh said. “We’ve got to reduce nearly 100 courses across Scotland for demand to equal supply.”