Golf's handicap is the public's gain

Failed exclusive member schemes are boosting pay-and-play courses. James Cusick reports byline in here to grid strap Book locked top grid

The economic failure of most of England's expensive golf course developments over the past five years is forcing clubs to drop their exclusive prices to try and attract golf's traditionally most shunned group - the public.

A study by the London-based Golf Research Group estimates that 88 per cent of the 388 courses built since 1989 could be in need of financial intensive care. According to the group's report, 14 courses went into receivership last year.

Colin Hegarty, Golf Research Group's managing director, said : "The number of courses in Britain over the past five years has increased by 17 per cent. The growth followed the Royal and Ancient's 1989 report The Demand for Golf which highlighted the need for 700 more courses. But most developers seem to have ignored the R&A's crucial message."

The message was to build low-cost courses near areas of high population. It was supposed to herald the end of a class-ridden sport with clubs harder to enter than the Garrick. But the advice was ignored. "If the R&A's advice had been heeded," Mr Hegarty said, "most of the financial problems we are seeing could have been avoided."

Courses built in the wrong places, causing local over-supply near established clubs, or built miles from anywhere; courses conceived at the height of land prices in the late 1980s; courses with lavish clubhouses; all these factors, according to the report, have left many schemes badly over-extended .

It is estimated that 24 courses were sold last year for pounds 65m. But the developments would have cost pounds 100m-plus to build. Over the past two years American Golf has picked up seven course for pounds 10.5m. The previous owners had invested up to pounds 20m in the properties.

Yet alongside recent course failures, the English Golf Union has reported an increase of 200,000 players over the past five years. The figure is the biggest growth in the union's history.

The Kuwaiti-owned East Sussex National near Uckfield shows what went wrong. Mr Hegarty said: "They originally had a pounds 20,000 debenture membership scheme. It was supposed to be very exclusive. But they were making big losses. They had the courage to reposition their product. All debentures have been repaid and membership is pounds 1,500 joining fee with annual subscription of pounds 1,500 and they are doing well."

Most new clubs have had to abandon joining fees and most have had to reposition their dreams of exclusivity and drop the rise in subscriptions to below the rise in inflation.

With the growth of pay-and-play courses in Britain - now attracting the serious attention of American Golf, which operates 200 public courses in the US - still more course developments are being planned. So what does the fall from grace of the super-exclusive to not-quite exclusive mean for the average player?

Mr Hegarty, in a mood of prophesy, said: "Those players who were first attracted to the game in the 1980s, but who found the whole thing too expensive and just too elitist, were just put off. Now they should be advised to simply try again. It might be failure for the banks, but its good news for the ordinary players."

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