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To Grow the Game Golf Needs to Change says R&A Chief Executive

by Maura Hutchinson

The R&A’s Chief Executive, Martin Slumbers, spoke out last week about what he feels the game of golf must do to not only survive, but thrive moving forward. Perhaps the most surprising (or not) revelation was Slumbers telling The Scotsman newspaper that golf clubs are potentially missing out on five million customers. 

It’s a conversation we have been dancing around for a while in golf – adapting to the modern needs of a younger generation in order to lure more participation. In most areas this means making the game more accessible in terms of time and money. But there are other “issues” that are stopping new golfers from fully integrating into the sport. Slumbers, it seems, is now ready to address these roadblocks.

“Grassroots is going to struggle unless the game changes. If you look at the traditional way of looking at the health of golf in GB&I, the traditional way is the number of golf club members. That’s about a million golfers,” explained Slumbers. “But, if you look at how many people consume golf, so 18-hole golf, 9-hole golf, driving ranges, par-3 courses, adventure golf, TopGolf, all of those aspects, that group of people is 10.2 million people in GB&I.”

Slumbers went on to explain that if you look at just half of that 10 million as those you actually believe they’re playing golf, the question arises why aren’t those five million people joining golf clubs.

He plainly states, “I would argue it’s because the golf clubs are not providing a product those five million people want to buy.”

So what does Slumbers believe is the answer to golf’s biggest threat?

“You go to clubs which deliver non-traditional forms of the game, they're busy. And I think that's a lesson for all of us who love this game.” Slumbers adds, “I think if you go into clubs that are very family orientated, have fitness, have creches, have coffee shops, have wi-fi, have no dress code, have a short par-3 golf course, have a short 9-hole golf course, pitch and putt, those are the ones that are going to succeed.”

Interestingly, American golfer Brooks Koepka also took aim at the golf club mentality in an article published in GQ last week. When referencing what he would change about the game, the 29-year-old didn’t hold back.

“One thing I’d change is maybe the stuffiness. Golf has always had this persona of the triple-pleated khaki pants, the button-up shirt, very country club atmosphere, where it doesn't always have to be that way. That’s part of the problem.”

The four-time major winner continued, “Everybody always says, ‘You need to grow the game.’ Well, why do you need to be so buttoned-up? ‘You have to take your hat off when you get in here.’ ‘You're not allowed in here unless you're a member—or unless the member's here.’ Really? I just never really liked the country club atmosphere. I know that drives a lot of people away from liking me. But just 'cause this golf club has such prestige and the members are all famous and have a lot of money…like, why can't I show up and just go play the golf course? Why do I have to sit in my car and wait for the member?”

It seems as if the conversation is coming to a head, but will this be the catalyst needed to make changes to a game steeped in history, and notoriously not so open to modernisation? Only time will tell, but with Slumbers taking notice, big players like Koepka speaking out and the Premier Golf League looking to shake things up in the professional world, golf could be in for some big changes ahead.