As spotlight shines on ‘Home of Golf,’ participation issues loom in Scotland

From his office atop the R&A Clubhouse behind the Old Course’s first tee at St. Andrews, Scotland, Peter Dawson can survey the hordes of golfers who flock to the “Home of Golf.” Dawson, who retires later this year as the R&A’s chief executive, has much to be proud of during his 16-year tenure: golf’s return to the Olympics and female members being accepted to the Royal & Ancient Golf Club among them.

Golf participation in the United Kingdom, however, is not one of them.

Professional golf visits Scotland for two weeks, beginning with this week’s Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open at Gullane Golf Club, followed by the Open Championship at St. Andrews’ Old Course. An international television audience will see the game’s greatest players competing on two of the world’s top links courses. Those images will belie fundamental participation issues at the game’s ancestral home. Recent figures released by KPMG show the number of registered Scottish golfers (golf-club members) has fallen by 4.8 percent this year. There are 199,764 golf-club members in Scotland, down 10,048 annually.

Further data from the Scottish Golf Union underscores the trend. From 2003 to 2013, golf-club membership dropped by 17.52 percent, from 264,712 to 218,326. That means lost revenue for the SGU because every club member pays a levy, currently £11 (about $17), to the SGU.

Whether those lost club members have quit the game or become “nomadic golfers” – those without a home club – is unclear. In 2012, the SGU estimated there were fewer than 130,000 nomadic golfers, based on a Scottish Household Survey.

“We’re slightly frustrated with media hysteria about how bad things are because things aren’t that bad,” said Andy Salmon, the SGU’s deputy chief executive and the man in charge of developing the game in Scotland. “We still have the highest rate of participation per head population in Europe, about 7 percent of the population. There is an issue with golf-club membership, which has been falling steadily for 10 years, as it has in the rest of the U.K.”

The SGU uses the money it gains from club members to help clubs grow, primarily through marketing and better business practices. But clearly it hasn’t done enough to encourage golfers to join clubs, or stop existing members from leaving. That’s a source of frustration for many within the game.

“There have been millions and millions and millions pounds thrown at all sorts of participation programs in the U.K. over the years, but it clearly hasn’t achieved the results that we’re all seeking,” Dawson conceded. “I think we have to have a blue-sky look at this with all the bodies in golf in the U.K., really get behind it, put the financial resources behind it and see if we can get this thing turned.”

Martin Slumbers, the R&A’s incoming chief executive, will be responsible for getting numbers back up in Scotland and the rest of the British Isles. “There is going to be no single magic bullet to this,” Slumbers said. “We have to get back to grass roots. We have to find something that appeals to different generations. The R&A can help. We want to help the unions, the PGA, do everything we can, use the benefits of the commercial success of the Open, and really work together to find a series of solutions to get people to want to play this game.”

Exactly what Slumbers has in mind remains to be seen, but it needs to be drastic or Scotland might be in danger of losing its claim to being the Home of Golf.

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