High street takes to the fairways

Tim Glover finds the local golf pro could be a threatened species

In a radical development that could have far-reaching consequences for the game, JJB, the sports retailers, are spreading from the high street into golf clubs via the pro shop, traditionally the domain of the club professional.

In a radical development that could have far-reaching consequences for the game, JJB, the sports retailers, are spreading from the high street into golf clubs via the pro shop, traditionally the domain of the club professional.

"We've had requests right, left and centre from clubs to take over the running of their shops," a spokesman for JJB said. "If they are viable, we'll go ahead. We'd be interested as long as they're making money. That's what the company are all about. We're looking at the best of the bunch. A lot of people are struggling and it's a tough industry to be involved in." JJB's first acquisition is the shop at Eastwood GC near Glasgow.

By introducing their own cut-price stock it would appear JJB are endangering the future of the club professional, who makes a living by providing a service that includes the supplying of equipment, clothing and accessories. However, Alan Walker, the captain of the Professional Golfers' Association, sees nothing wrong in selling out to a retail chain - he is planning to do precisely that.

Walker, the proprietor of the Warren Park golf course in Essex, is in negotiations with JJB to sell the freehold of his driving range and shop. "It's a changing world in retailing and golf's got to move with the times," said Walker, who also has an interest in Hainault Forest GC and has served on the PGA's executive and board. "As captain of the PGA I have to be careful what I say, but I think it could be good for everybody. Players like Tiger Woods have helped the game to expand and it's becoming more of a lifestyle thing. I have been a pro for 26 years and have made a great living, but it's time to move on and hang up my retail gloves."

Since the appearance of discount stores, particularly from America, selling cut-price sports goods, the club pro - not to be confused with the tournament professional, whose prize money can amount to millions - has found his profit margins steadily eroded. With the exploits of Woods having a Pied Piper effect, the sport is enjoying an upsurge in interest, and it is understood that supermarkets like Wal-Mart and Tesco may also target the golf market.

Sandy Jones, chief executive of the PGA, does not see it as the thin end of the wedge for his members. "I understand JJB's ambition is to become a major player in golf, and some see this as an end for the club pro. My view is that when a big company comes in it is evidence of a vibrant industry with a strong future. This is another challenge to the pro, but there's still room for his traditional role. Marks & Spencer tried to move in a few years ago and failed. What the club pro can offer is a personal service, and that's something a conglomerate can never match."

The PGA have 6,500 members, a third of whom are attached to club shops. "Our membership has grown not declined," Jones added. "Their training covers not just the game but business management. The pro is on hand from early morning to late at night. It is estimated that we have only 20 per cent of the retail trade, but my figures show it is nearer 60 per cent. Golf is a different animal and the pro has stood the test of time. Even if JJB established a foothold I could see them using some of our members."

This is the case at Eastwood, where the professional, Alan McGinness, is still employed. "The club owned the building and I got use of the shop and was responsible for stocking it," he said, "but it was getting harder and harder competing against the big boys. I made a decision that rather than fight them I would join them."

JJB provide the stock and McGinness receives a commission. "I'm happy with the arrangement and I think JJB enjoy the credibility of belonging to a golf club."

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