Despite what the doom-mongers may tell you, golf is still very big business. It contributes £3.4 billion a year to the UK economy. It is the fifth largest sport in the country. Every week, hundreds of thousands of golfers dedicate a large portion of their leisure time to the game.
But golf’s problems cannot – and should not – be ignored. The number of golf club members has been declining for a decade. Overall participation in the game has been on the slide since 2007. New golf club openings are a rarity, while closures are unfortunately all too common.
In January 2014, Garnant Golf Club, located on the western edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park, looked set to join the list of clubs forced to shut the gates for good.
“It was closing,” says new treasurer David Protheroe. “We turned up here and everything was gone. All the machinery had been taken away; the flags were gone; the televisions had been ripped out of the clubhouse. Even the honours boards had been taken. We had nothing left.”
Opened in 1998 on a reclaimed opencast coal mining site, the club was run by the council for 12 years. The course was named best new course of the year by the Golf Union of Wales, but behind the scenes, financial problems were brewing. Keeping the course afloat was costing the county council an estimated £150,000 a year. In 2011, under pressure from non-golfing residents not happy to be subsidising a course in which they had no interest, Carmarthenshire Council put the course up for tender, and agreed a 25-year lease with a private company which was expected to secure the club’s future. The company, Clays Golf, received £200,000 of public money to help it turn things around, but only two years later, went into liquidation. A statement posted on the club’s website by Clays Golf’s managing director Steve Williams read: “I am not going to try and explain myself with the complexity of the operation of the golf club, only that we tried all ways to keep the club operational but unfortunately ran out of cash.”
“We, as members, were facing losing everything,” says Protheroe. “We’d just paid our membership fees but it was looking like there would not be a club to be members of. We asked the council if they’d let us keep the club running while they decided what to do with it. From there, the idea grew that we could actually run the club for ourselves, long-term.”
Having been members for years, but with no experience of helping to run a golf club, Protheroe and a small band of ardent members decided to “take the bull by the horns” and offer to run the club.
“We put a business plan together that showed we could run the club without relying on hand-outs from the council. They looked at our plan, saw the appetite we had, and agreed to let us give it a go. We created a company limited by guarantee and were granted a 25-year lease.”
Today, strolling the well-maintained course before retiring to a busy clubhouse with a relaxed atmosphere, it’s hard to believe that the club was as good as gone until the members decided to save it.
“It would have been devastating for the members to lose the club,” he says. “There are other clubs around, but this place is the centre of all our social activities.”
While things are now looking good, the club isn’t out of the woods yet. “It’s far too early to say we’ve succeeded,” insists Protheroe. “We haven’t even been running for a full year yet. The first 11 months has exceeded our business plan, but things can change so quickly. The key period is going to be when membership renewals are due in April. The club had 220 members before it went into liquidation, but around 40 people left at that time. It’s completely understandable; they didn’t have any guarantee that we could make a go of it. We’re obviously very reliant on the money from membership fees, so we need to do everything we can to retain our existing members and attract new ones.
“We’re doing our best to keep all members informed of what’s going on. There was too much secrecy in the past; people didn’t know the club was in trouble until it was too late. We want our members to know exactly what is happening with the club, and how their money is being spent. Some of it they can see on the course and in the clubhouse, but some things you don’t see – like the greenkeeping machinery we’ve had to buy, and even new kitchen equipment. We’re constantly inviting feedback and suggestions, thoughts and approval. A good club should be run for its members.”
The other big challenge facing Garnant’s new, volunteeer management, is remnant distrust from local residents. “The amount of money that went into the club and never came out caused a lot of political unrest in the locality,” says Protheroe. “We’ve been doing everything we can to get people involved and get them back on-side. It’s a great course, located in a sporting area, and our dream is that lots of youngsters will benefit from the place over the next 25 years and beyond. That’s our intention. We want the clubhouse to be the centre of the community, far more than it has been in the past. The old image of a golf club – being private and exclusive – is what we are trying to change. We want everyone in the community to be able to use it. It’s going really well. We’ve run charity events this year and raised over £15,000 for various charities. It gets the local community involved, which is a big bonus.”
A crew of keen volunteers numbering 40 has dwindled to 10 as time has gone on. “It’s always the way with these things,” says Protheroe. “It takes a hell of a lot of time and effort. It’s more or less a full-time job. It takes about 30-40 hours a week. We’re retired, so we’re able to do it for the love of it. I enjoy the club so much more now. It’s great to be directly involved. And it’s such a different club now – it’s a real community club. It’s been a real success in that respect.”
So does Garnant’s example offer hope for other clubs facing the threat of closure? “If we can do it, then other people can do it,” says Protheroe. “All I would do is warn them that if you are going to volunteer to do it, you have to be really committed.”
If you fancy visiting Garnant GC, you’re unlikely to find a warmer welcome. £15 will get you 18 holes on a championship course with stunning views of the Black Mountains, and a priceless feeling that every penny is being used to help keep a great club alive.
Even if you never visit Garnant, perhaps take their story as a gentle reminder not to take your club for granted. How would you feel if next time you turned up at your club, the gates were locked for good? You might think that’s never going to happen, but that’s what the majority of Garnant members thought too. Whether it’s taking a guest or two over the summer, buying something from the pro shop or getting involved with helping to run things, doing your bit will give you a great feeling you are a part of the club, rather than just paying for the use of it.