We Reap What We Sow

Gullane Golf Club Children's Course
Gullane Golf Club Children's Course
Gullane Golf Club Children’s Course

In pockets across the world golf is not simply surviving, it is thriving.

Pundits may not believe it but it is the truth.  The common theme is that something is being done to keep the game vibrant, nobody is sitting on their hands.

Even in Scotland, where golf seems fundamental to life, there have some of the same challenges as the rest of the world. Some spots just have a different approach to dealing with it.

Like has been felt in North America, economic woes affect disposable income and when the choice is to take care of personal debt versus play some more golf, except for the hardcore player, golf (and other recreational pursuits) falls to the wayside.

To counteract this golf has to broaden it’s appeal. Depending on the same customers and expecting others to follow in their footsteps without some sort of incentive is a fool’s pursuit. There are entry barriers that keep people from playing the game and we need to do as much as possible to help people find a way past them.  That does not necessarily mean gimmicky type solutions because golf is already an appealing sport.  It would have vanished centuries ago if that was not the case.

We hear about many efforts being made to promote golf to a new generation in Canada.  Most are very well intentioned and admirable.  These should not simply be for optics, they need results.

I applaud the members of the National Golf Course Owners Association and programs like their Take A Kid to The Course week but even some of their leadership has shared with me that they know it is not enough. Many courses have expanded the program on their own – exactly what is necessary. But will enough of them take it as far as they need to go?

The reality of the situation for many golf businesses (course, ranges, manufacturers, even golf media) that they have put themselves in a situation where they need golfers – NOW.  It’s not going to happen. It’s an unrealistic expectation.  They needed to be worrying about those golfers they need today a long time ago.  Unfortunately some people got into the golf business looking to make a quick buck.  It’s didn’t happen and it only muddied the playing field (in the form of greater competition) for those long-invested in the business.

We can’t guarantee there will be enough golfers to ensure every current golf business will thrive – in a niche sport that may be far too industrious goal. But we can look to develop the sport as much as possible and see how the cards play out, adjusting corporate expectations to match.

However, that takes time, a key ingredient in the recipe of cultural changes.  A leading golf industry executive recently told me that within companies it takes at least 2-3 years to affect real cultural change. 100 day plans be damned.  Turnarounds don’t happen overnight.

But they can start there.

On a magical day this past July, during a family vacation, I drove into the East Lothian region of Scotland. Long respected as one of the cradles of golf, this area, just southeast of Edinburgh, is littered with golf.  More than 20 courses dot the coast and countryside.

The game has been played there for hundred of years.  It has survived plagues, wars, and economic woes of catastrophic proportions.  But at no time has money alone kept people from taking to the golf course.  It is their outlet, their passion, their common bond.

Just minutes down the road from the world-renowned Muirfield Golf Club sits a course less known to North American audiences but respected enough to be chosen as the host for the 2015 Scottish Open.

On Gullane Hill, overlooking Aberlady Bay, the Gullane Golf Club welcomes members and guests to their 54 holes of regulation play.  Golfers densely cover the links most days of the year, to the tune of guest fees at a level that would make any other golf venture drool with envy.

They never seem short of members in Gullane despite a village population of less than 4,000 and so many other golf courses in the region they must compete with.

There are many things that can be done more proactively to encourage golf (it’s a big topic) but Gullane Golf Club has pinned down one of them perfectly.

The one secret to their success?  Their golf incubator – a children’s course.  The “course” is not much more than a field with six small greens cut semi-regularly.  On an average day it is swarming with kids playing one endless loop after another.  It inspired similar short “learning courses” at nearby places like North Berwick West Links and Craigielaw Golf Club.

It’s part of a long term strategy to attract youngsters to the sport by eliminating barriers.

These small courses help insulate golf’s future from a lack of players. It’s a process that has to be looked at not just as a marketing effort but as a necessity to ensure there are golfers, not now, but twenty years from now.  It’s great to see clubs like this figure it out and embrace it.

The price to play the Gullane Children’s Course?  It’s free.  It always has been.  The rest of the operation subsidizes the limited costs necessary to make it exist.

Gullane thrives because they reap what they have sown – knowing it takes time to grow a “crop” of golfers. Linking people to the game emotionally takes time.  This is slow cooking at it’s finest, 30 seconds in the microwave just won’t make it taste as good as it needs to be.

While the Gullane Golf Club Children’s Course may appear to be a modern effort to help during the new era of the golf business that is hardly the case.

It opened in 1910.

Sometimes if takes foresight, and a little bit of patience, to be rewarded.