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Centurion Club marches against the tide

Membership at golf clubs in England are 20% down on the 2006 figures. What an amazing statistic! It is not that there are fewer players – it is just that there are fewer members. It is obvious, then, that a large number of golfers are finding that the membership products available no longer meet their requirements. Easy enough up until now.

So what is a golf club to do? Well, at its most basic, it has to give golfers what they want. I think the main difference nowadays is that people have so much more choice in their leisure activities that time is at an all-time premium. The world has become a smaller place and available activities are greater and more varied. Exotic pursuits and home-based leisure distractions alike have now become genuine competition to golf. It used to be other sports but it is now a much wider list of choices.

In giving broader options to players clubs will have to have more products and a more flexible membership structure than before. The traditional joining fee and annual subs model will not entirely disappear but more flexible packages will need to be on offer – and indeed already are at forward- thinking clubs up and down the country. In short, more golf clubs will have to have a ‘looser’ relationship with more players rather than the very tight one that traditionally has existed between a club and its core members.

Clubs will continue to try to attract green fee paying visitors during quiet times and fill the starting sheet efficiently. Usually, this will mean there will be more rounds played on a course and these rounds will, on average, be cheaper than they currently are.

There are many implications to all of this – not least the pressures on course maintenance as more rounds are played. I also think that there is going to be a slightly counter-intuitive reaction, too. There are many golfers who enjoy the privilege and privacy that membership to a golf club has traditionally given. As other clubs race for the commercial solutions, I believe that the clubs that continue to offer such a model will prosper. It will not be cheap; the economics do not allow it to be. It is also true that standards at clubs will have to rise because there will be competition to attract the traditional market.

When we all had our heads in our hands post 2008 it seemed that we would never see the need for new courses of merit to be built in the UK. We had over-supply, we were told. Well, of course, there was a huge amount of common sense applied by those who issued such warnings but there is always room for quality. I recently paid a visit to the Centurion Club, a fabulous new course just outside the M25 in Hertfordshire, and had it proved to me that it was still possible to do things properly and to reach for excellence.

The course and project is the brainchild of Scott Evans, a Scottish professional golfer who has worked throughout the world in golf operations and at some of the most prestigious venues on the planet. He has seen it all, or at least most of it, and he has as strong a grip on the realities of the golf market as anyone I have met.

The Centurion Club is located just off the M1 near St Albans, easily accessible and within close proximity to a huge population – vital to any venture pitching at this end of the market. The course is open for play and it is quite spectacular. It compares with the best new courses anywhere in the world. It is jointly designed by Simon Gidman, a former President of the Europe Institute of Golf Course Architects, and Evans himself. It has been done properly. 30,000 trees have been planted, gorse woven in, too, and the natural woodland present on site has been blended skilfully into the course. The result is stunning.

It appeals to the top end of the game, of course. But this end exists – indeed prospers when well executed – and will continue to prosper. Just as there will always be those who want a Ferrari, or a holiday in the Bahamas, or a home in Knightsbridge, there will always be those who want the very best and the most private experience at their golf club. The race for commercial survival at other clubs will make the elite ever more attractive.

Rory McIlroy is back in the news. After a very poor 2013, he is now making news because he is competing well for titles – so that is a real positive. I have the feeling that he will do well in 2014. He will never be endlessly consistent, that is not his way, but if his form coincides with the right event then it could be a great year.

He is one of those who attracts publicity, though. In Abu Dhabi it was his criticism of “golf’s stupid rules”. Last year it was his personal relationships. He does tend to fuel some of these stories a little by his candid responses. I, for one, do not mind at all. Rather we have someone of interest giving candid views then the tight-lipped functional response of so many – Tiger Woods being the ultimate example.

As always, though, isn’t it great to get immersed in the start of a new season? The anticipation is there both for your own game but also as an observer of the elite game. Is Tiger on the wane? Is Rory going to come back at the big events?

There seem to be so many good young players like Jordan Spieth, Victor Dubuisson, Stephen Gallacher, Matteo Manassero and others who might break through, or will the experience of Adam Scott, Justin Rose, Phil Mickelson and/or Sergio Garcia peak in 2014?

Personally, I cannot wait, but I have the feeling that it might be a young man’s year. I think that, very quietly, it is becoming a young man’s game. It is more physical than before and the youngsters come into the game better professionals than before, and consequently have so much early success. I would not bet against Woods having a bit of a comeback, though.

Issue 122


Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine


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