Kids golf in Surrey
Golf club membership is in decline. But some clubs are finally doing more to attract the young. Samantha Laurie gets the hole truth
No jeans. No trainers. No mobile phones. No larking around. In some cases, even no girls. It’s difficult to imagine a sport less calculated to appeal to youngsters than golf.
But times have changed. They’ve had to. Over the past five years, golfing membership in the UK has waned, as a new wave of 20- and 30-year-olds struggles to find the time and money to play regularly.
Even at Surrey’s most exclusive clubs, waiting lists have dried up. Instead, players have become more nomadic, preferring to pay green fees than become members at a single place. Many clubs have been forced to reduce fees or offer flexible membership deals to draw in new players.
But the only real way out of the rough is to attract a new cohort of enthusiastic juniors – and that means changes not just in content, but in image, outlook, attitude and sheer volume of fun.
In Surrey, a county blessed with more top courses than any other – and more land dedicated to golf courses than to houses – it’s easy to spot the clubs working hardest at this. Burhill Golf Club Juniors won the Surrey Captains Cup last year – and the previous. And the Hersham club’s website shows why: school holiday golf camps (three mornings for 5-12 year olds at £60 – £90), a Sunday morning academy, free coaching sessions for girls and a junior development programme funded directly by a voluntary levy on members.
Juniors join the club for a fraction of the cost of adult fees (£355, as against £2,800), while the club takes a “relaxed approach” to footwear and dress, explains head pro Michael Evans. But there’s still a long way to go. Burhill has 17 junior girls, more than any other club in the land, but still an absurdly low proportion in a club of 1400 members.
Girls, indeed, remain a rare sight on a golf course. Overall, women account for just 15% of UK club memberships, even though golf is one of the few sports that the sexes can play equally well. It has many of the elements known to appeal to girls – a strong social aspect, for example, and good aerobic fitness – yet has failed to overcome a reputation for ingrained sexism.
Hardly surprising, perhaps, when famous clubs such as Muirfield – home to The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, and one of the oldest clubs in the world – still won’t admit women at all. And the English Women’s Golf Association (EWGA) believes that the barrier is not simply one of perception – the idea that clubs are all sexist, stuffy and full of middle-aged men – but a lack of awareness that opportunities exist. This spring West Byfleet Golf Club (01932 343433) launched four scholarships for 11-16 year old girls, with the backing of former club member and world number one, Laura Davies. All four places remain unfilled.
Windlesham Golf Club, at Bagshot, is a newish club with girls at the heart of its plan. It offers eight scholarships for girl juniors, each of which includes two years’ free tuition and membership.
“We need to get more girls playing if we want them to stay,” says General Manager, Steward Judd. “It’s about critical mass. No girl wants to be the only one.”
In countries where female golf participation is far higher, like Sweden, clubs offer year-round fitness programmes and family golf is at the heart of the club. Windlesham is keen to embrace this more relaxed model. Juniors need short courses, lots of matches, structured academy coaching and, perhaps, even changes to the game itself – such as larger holes.
Above all, however, they need the right atmosphere.“We are not going to get hung up over the colour of someone’s socks,” says Judd. “We’ve even taken on the most sacred of rules by allowing mobiles into the clubhouse.” Indeed, technology may provide some of the answers. Smart phone apps that track performance and provide GPS (global positioning system) measuring and digital scoring promise a more interactive experience. Indoor golf centres, with floor-to-ceiling simulator screens and video swing analysis, are proving a hit with younger golfers. And the new Guildford Golf School offers juniors scholarships and two-for-one deals.
Another good sign is the rain- and seemingly recession-proof popularity of crazy golf. Pirate Adventure Island at Hoebridge, near Woking, is rarely empty, even in winter; Jungle Island at Epsom’s Horton Park club is enjoying its first summer; and Jurassic Encounter at World of Golf, New Malden, is also full of families playing into the evening.
Fun, relaxed, challenging to a degree, inter-generational: these courses have much to teach Surrey clubs that might promise a more secure future.