The true impact of Covid-19 on golf clubs in the UK & Ireland in 2020


With the return of golf in sight, BRS Golf highlights the true impact of Covid-19 on golf clubs in the UK & Ireland in 2020.

Membership revenue was up among 80% of respondents in 2020, with membership retention being the number one priority for 2021

Despite the majority of clubs being closed to visitors for more than three months, 40% reported an increase in green fee revenue

55% of all respondents saw double digit growth in rounds, with 33% reporting that rounds were up significantly in 2020

Technology plays a vital role for golf club managers as clubs report a huge jump in online bookings and payments

The date is set for golf’s return in England and golfers and golf clubs alike are looking forward to 29 March. But what has the true impact of Covid-19 been on club operations and golfer behaviour? The results of a comprehensive survey of golf clubs in the UK and Ireland by technology provider BRS Golf by GolfNow highlights the effects of Covid-19 on revenue, membership and attitudes to technology among golf club managers.

Membership momentum
Despite a challenging and volatile year, golf club operators are optimistic about what lies ahead. Membership was by far the biggest growth area in 2020, with 80% of respondents reporting their membership revenues are up, and 35% reporting it has increased dramatically. In fact, 11% said they had surpassed their membership capacity and had to introduce a waiting list.

The adult male category made up 66% of all new members last year, while adult women were the third largest segment (13%). Clubs also reported increases among junior, juvenile, student and flexible/lifestyle members, together making up 21% of new memberships.

Clubs say the renewed interest in golf and club membership from new and returning golfers in 2020 following the spring lockdown is a huge opportunity for the game to diversify and appeal to young people and women.

When asked about critical elements in 2021 to ensure sustainability, the majority of clubs cited new membership retention as the number one priority. Many comments referenced the importance of member engagement in 2021, especially as life returns to normal and pre-Covid team sports participants decide where to spend their time and money.

A member-owned club in Midlothian, Scotland, said their key priority for 2021 was:
“Maintaining membership of new members in 2020 who started golfing at the expense of football, rugby and other team games.”

The summer surge
A summer surge in membership revenue and member and visitor rounds followed a spring golf season that will go down in history as the worst ever experienced in the UK & Ireland.

Among respondents 60% of clubs reported being closed to members for three months or more, 84% were closed to visitors three months or more and 86% were closed to members’ guests three months or more.

Most clubs in Wales and Scotland reported courses only being closed 1-2 months, while in Ireland and Northern Ireland 83% of facilities were closed for more than three months.

Despite these closures 40% of clubs reported an increase in visitor green fee revenue last year. 55% of all respondents saw double digit growth in rounds across all golfer types, with 33% reporting that rounds were up significantly in 2020. Countries benefitting the most with double-digit growth in rounds are those in England (+57%), Scotland (+72%) and Northern Ireland ( +50%). Wales (+37%) and Ireland (+45%) saw some recovery after the first four months, but at a lower rate. This is doubtless due to additional lockdown closures in Wales and Ireland.

The move online
The move to digital happened at light speed. It required generations of golfers to embrace online technologies and with it the benefit of knowing their next round was booked in a safe and convenient way.

It was the bottom 25% of courses who previously had the lowest usage of online bookings that made the biggest leaps into technology adoption. The lowest quartile of clubs saw just 6% of their 2019 rounds booked online – this leapt to 60% of rounds by autumn 2020.

The technologically proficient, or highest quartile clubs who were already fully committed to online booking pre-Covid, only saw slight changes in booking behaviours.

The vast majority, 76% of respondents, are anticipating pre-round contactless transactions are here to stay after Covid-19 has passed. The necessity of online booking has created a massive change in culture, moving mainly from walk-in bookings and cash/card payments to primarily online. This was a sea-change not only for the golfers, but for the staff as well.

The number of clubs placing a ‘very high priority’ or ‘high priority’ on technology almost doubled from just 37% in 2019 to 67% in 2020.

Hardest hit areas
Unsurprisingly the wedding and events business, society and competitions and food & beverage segments were deemed hardest hit by respondents.

81% said clubhouse F&B was down dramatically, while 70% reported a dramatic decline in weddings and events and 64% said society and open competitions were down significantly over last year.

Clubs with a higher reliance on corporate and society business reported total revenues were down from June through to September. 16% of respondents had more than 100 bookings cancelled. 69% of clubs that reported total revenues up in peak summer (June-September) had less than 50 bookings cancelled.

The return of travel?
Only 26% of all clubs reported that travel and overseas visitors are moderately to extremely important to their club. Travel-focused courses that would traditionally see a larger income from overseas visitors are, understandably, not yet optimistic about the return of visitor rounds in the first half of 2021. Only 16% stated they were extremely or very optimistic that the travel business would return soon.

Future opportunities
Working remotely received the highest agreement among golf club managers, with 71% identifying this as a key opportunity for the industry. Fewer days (if any) commuting to the office and no worries about sneaking past the boss when leaving early offer new-found flexibility for the office workforce.

“Golf in England has been handed a get out of jail free card- it is up to all of us to use it wisely and ensure that the benefits of Golf: Exercise, Activity, Camaraderie, Competitiveness are promoted heavily by the Governing bodies, Courses and Members. It is a fantastic opportunity for Golf to shed its stuffy image and embrace change to maximise the interest in Younger Members and Women in general. The stale, male & pale image could be a thing of the past within 5 years if we get it right.” – Operator from Privately-owned course in England

Meanwhile 67% highly agreed that future investments in technology will help courses capitalise on the consumer’s adoption of making pre-payments. If it is easy and convenient to get to the golf course, then golfer participation patterns will become more ingrained with new-found freedom.

Other critical elements for success in the coming year for club managers were: member retention, course maintenance, the delivery of the vaccine and the ability to open the club house safely. 87% of respondents reported that all or part of the clubhouse has been closed and for revenues to bounce back, food & beverage offerings are key.

Who was surveyed?
The 2020 Golf Operation Impact survey was fielded to the BRS Golf Business database of customers and prospects from 10-20 December 2020. The survey invitation was sent to over 2,237 golf course operators and managers, 1,160 viewed the survey and 217 participants completed the 15–19-minute, 30 question survey.