Gentleman's relish opens up to the masses

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The Independent Online
For most people finding their feet in the game, the process of trying to join a golf club is about as pleasurable as having a tooth extracted.

Traditionally, men and women seeking club membership undergo a vetting process which lays bare their private lives and business dealings, as well as their golfing prowess, to the most intrusive scrutiny.

Throughout this ordeal, the impression is given that one word or gesture out of place is all it takes for your application to fail. Quite apart from the social stigma, rejection also means you are cast into golf's outer darkness of municipal driving ranges and pay-to-play courses.

There are, unfortunately, still too many instances of this scenario for golf to claim, truthfully, that it is a classless game. Channel 4's infamous Cutting Edge programme a few years ago gave a fly-on-the-wall insight at Northwood in Middlesex which confirmed many preconceptions about suburban golf clubs.

Of course, the burghers of Northwood were simply aping the small handful of clubs even further up the social ladder which regard themselves as existing exclusively for gentlemen.

However, any outsider who has been impertinent enough to try to get a game at, for instance, Muirfield, occasional venue of the Open Championship, home to the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers and, by self-appointment, Britain's poshest club, will know what it feels like when you attempt to rub shoulders with such gentlemen.

Despite this harsh attitude towards the great unwashed in certain quarters, golf's popularity is growing and the accessibility of the game has never been greater.

In the first half of this decade alone, 476 new courses have opened to increase the total number of outlets in the British Isles by almost 30 per cent. A pounds 1.5bn development boom was triggered in the late 1980s by Demand for Golf, a report from the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, which called for 700 new courses to cater for people who wished to take up the game (and an extra 200,000 names have been registered with the English Golf Union since then).

Inevitably, many of the resulting projects ran into financial problems. Either they cost too much to build at a time when the recession was biting and interest rates were high, or they were too far from the big population centres.

In the case of the former, not enough people could afford the joining fees, which at their highest exceeded pounds 30,000. And in the case of the latter, too many were located on set-aside farmland situated in obscure rural areas.

Ironically, this financial crisis has created a buyers' market for golf in Britain for the first time since the Second World War. The spectres of membership waiting lists, minimum handicap requirements and astronomic joining fees are demonstrably on the retreat.

"The new clubs are desperate for people to come and play their courses," said Colin Hegarty, the director of the Golf Research Group, which monitors golfing facilities in the British Isles. "As many as 83 per cent of them are in financial danger and they need more golfers, green-fee payers and members.

"Forty-five per cent of the adult population show an interest in golf, but only 5 per cent actually play the game. Nevertheless, that figure still means that more than two million people will venture on to a course or a driving range at least once a year."

This widespread interest in the game is in some ways a surprise. Despite the excitement generated by Europe's Ryder Cup triumph last September and Nick Faldo's dramatic eclipse of Greg Norman in the Masters, the circulation figures for Britain's four monthly golf magazines have dropped by almost a third over the last 18 months. And much of the tournament golf that used to appear regularly on terrestrial television has been banished to the inevitably smaller audiences serviced by satellite channels.

But while the media coverage may not currently appeal to golf's wider public, the game is set for a summer of feverish activity with so many clubs competing to recruit people whose activities to date have been confined to playing at the local pitch-and-putt.

"The average subscription at the newer clubs is pounds 466, a decline of 7 per cent on last year," Hegarty added. "And 36 per cent of new courses don't charge a joining fee for membership at all. Many of those who do pay a joining fee enjoy varying degrees of refundability and can invest in debentures as well."

Even though inflation is now almost as low as the England football team's goals-per-game average, many of the older clubs seem set in the milk-a- captive-audience mode, routinely hiking subscriptions by up to 10 per cent.

Only an uprising of poll-tax proportions is likely to upset this status quo at golf's more established homes, but the time could come when some members vote with their feet and defect to clubs which offer better value.

For newcomers who have yet to commit themselves to a particular club it, is a different story. "Green fees are also coming down," Hegarty said. "That gives players who don't belong to a club the opportunity to sample a variety of courses in their area. The consumer wants choice, not just over which club to join but whether to become a member at all or remain a green-fee player.

"More than half the people who play golf in this country do so fewer than 10 times a year. In those circumstances, it doesn't make financial sense to be a member of a club. Apart from the cost of taking up golf, the main deterrents for beginners and inexperienced players are the game's relative difficulty and the time it takes to play.

"In the first instance, it's important to receive tuition from a PGA professional. The time problem is easily solved if we overthrow the tyranny of the 18-hole round. There's no reason why we shouldn't play six or nine holes if we want to.

"Apart from rival clubs, courses now face competition from 600 driving ranges in Britain as well. Whatever anyone might say, the power definitely resides with the consumer at the moment."

One suspects that not too many of Muirfield's Honourable Company will visit their local driving range or join one of the newer clubs this summer, but that should mean more room for the rest of us.

10 dos and don'ts

You've finally cracked it. The secretary has written to confirm your application to join the club. But as a new member you are on probation, at least for your first 10 years. If you thought the interview was gruelling, imagine how tough life will be now you are under the microscope of the entire membership. This check list of dos and don'ts may at least help to ease the embarrassment of those first few visits.

1 Even if you're a rock star and have a clothing contract with Levi-Strauss, under no circumstances should you wear jeans. If you're in France, though, you will probably not be allowed to play unless you are in jeans.

2 Never wear a T-shirt without a collar. The secretary likes to have something to grab when he decides to frogmarch you off the premises for conduct unbecoming.

3 Never wear trainers. They are far too comfortable. Spiked golf shoes that make your feet sore on hard ground are de rigueur, although some courses now favour rubber soles which are gentler on the greens.

4Never wear ankle-length socks if you are in shorts. The socks should go up to your knees, and your shirt should go down to your knees. You're not there for a suntan.

5Never tuck your trousers inside your socks when the ground is muddy. This deprives the pro of an opportunity to sell you one of those ludicrous Plus-Fours he's had in stock since Rodger Davis made them briefly fashionable in the 1970s.

6 Always have your own bag of clubs. Sharing clubs is strictly not allowed. It's also a bit silly if one of you is left-handed.

7Never leave your bag on the green when putting. Never leave it in front of the green or on the wrong side either, otherwise the captain playing behind you will have a ready-made excuse for mishitting his next shot. You will be blamed.

8 Never use a motorised buggy even if the temperature is pushing 90F unless you can prove you are the victim of a medical condition. Check first that your doctor isn't a member of the club.

9 Always read the club notice board at every opportunity in case the committee have rewritten the Rules of Golf overnight.

10 Always address everybody with deference regardless of appearance. At some clubs, the chairman of the greens committee often likes to spend a morning raking the bunkers. He still expects to be treated like a god, though, when he returns to the clubhouse.


Royal Porthcawl, Mid Glamorgan

Opened: 1891

Owned by: Membership

Membership: 800

Waiting list: None (membership granted by invitation only)

Joining fee: Double the annual subscription

Annual subscription: A private matter between the club and its members

Green Fee: pounds 45 a day, pounds 50 at weekends (very restricted)

Facilities: One 18-hole course which has staged five Amateur Championships and last year's Walker Cup

Forest Pines, Lincolnshire

Opened: 18-hole course designed by John Morgan opens next week

Owned by: Private company

Membership: Halfway to target of 450

Waiting list: None

Joining fee: pounds 750 plus VAT

Annual subscription: pounds 550 plus VAT.

Green fees: pounds 25 a round, pounds 30 a day

Facilities: 27 holes, a 50-bedroom hotel, 17-bay floodlit driving range, and a leisure complex to be completed next year

Muswell Hill, North London

Opened: 1892

Owned by: Membership

Membership: 570

Waiting list: Three months to get in, usually starting with a five-day membership

Joining fee: pounds 1,050

Annual subscription: pounds 598

Green fees: pounds 23 a round, pounds 30 a day (weekends restricted)

Facilities: 18-hole course

Bathgate, West Lothian,Scotland

Opened: 1892

Owned by: Membership

Membership: nearly 800

Waiting list: 120, could be as long as five years

Joining fee: pounds 440

Annual subscription: pounds 220

Green fees:pounds 15 a round, pounds 20 a day; pounds 30 a round at weekends (restricted)

Facilities: 18 hole course

Carlyon Bay, St Austell, Cornwall

Opened: 1926

Owned by: Hotel group

Membership: 550

Waiting list: 15, delay no more than six months

Joining fee: pounds 320 plus VAT

Annual subscription: pounds 320 plus VAT

Green fees: pounds 25 a round

Facilities: 18 hole course, adjoining four-star hotel

The London, near Brands Hatch, Kent

Opened: 1993

Owned by: Private company

Membership: 350

Waiting list: None

Joining fee: pounds 20,000 (share in the club), plus pounds 1,000 (debenture), plus pounds 4,000 joining fee, plus VAT

Annual subscription: pounds 1,350 plus VAT

Green fees: None (members' guests only)

Facilities: Two Jack Nicklaus-designed 18 hole courses, luxury club house including sunken Japanese bath. Plans to build third course (an 18-hole pay and play)