Chris Boughton's golf column: Clubs flourishing since reopening their doors
It is just six weeks since the Government gave golf clubs the green light to open their courses again after being in lockdown for nearly two months.
Along with angling and tennis, golf was one of the first sports to be allowed to re-commence albeit with strict new rules to be followed by all, issued by England Golf the sport’s governing body and endorsed by the R&A.
Despite the gloomy outlook, golf clubs locally now find themselves with a small but significant success story following a big surge in new members.
Bury St Edmunds, Stowmarket, The Suffolk and Thetford Golf Clubs have signed up a combined net 277 new paying members in just six weeks.
Golf clubs have been struggling in recent years with memberships around the country steadily declining. But suddenly after the despair of the Corvid-19 shutdown there is now some long overdue good news for golf.
I caught up with local club managers Mike Verhelst (Bury St Edmunds), Trevor Golton (Stowmarket), Malcolm Grubb (Thetford) and Steve Hall (The Suffolk) last week for a brief look at how their clubs were being positively affected since the restart in mid-May.
Bury St Edmunds Golf Club manager Verhelst said: “If golf’s steady decline wasn’t hard enough, Covid-19 decided to add some more pressure on golf clubs.
“However, we must not underestimate our offering to the public. Not only is golf proven to be healthy, you can play golf whilst socially distancing.
“As with other local golf clubs we have seen an influx of new members throughout the spectrum, some who are new to golf and follow our pathway to golf, others are seasoned golfers who decided to come back to golf.
“There is no denying that tough times are still to come for all golf clubs, but Bury St Edmunds GC will keep investing to give all members fantastic facilities and courses to match.”
Stowmarket manager Golton reported to me: “Our membership renewal was 1st April so it was a very difficult time for us trying to encourage our members to pay for something that they couldn’t use and, of course, many were in difficult financial positions so could not afford to commit to renewing.
“However, since 1st May we have taken on 75 new members. A few are returning now that lockdown is easing, but they are mainly new to the club.”
It is also good news from Thetford GC with manager Grubb saying: “Thetford Golf Club has enjoyed a boost in membership since reopening after lockdown with more than 60 new members joining.
“The flexible Breckland membership has proved particularly popular and the club is going to have to impose a waiting list on new members in this category.
“It seems that after weeks of lockdown many people have had itchy hands. And while other sports are still inactive golf provides the perfect opportunity to enjoy fresh air, gentle exercise and social distancing.”
The director of golf at The Suffolk, Hall, said: “Our membership has increased by 25 per cent since reopening the course plus 97 NHS Corvid-19 frontline workers have taken up our new 12 month free Rainbow full membership offer.
“The new rules on playing are being strictly observed and we look forward to clubhouses hopefully being allowed to open up again soon”.
Like Stowmarket the Suffolk’s new members are also mostly under 40 years of age.
Talking to the local golf club managers last week it was clear that, despite the strict new playing rules, the clubs are currently all buzzing and the sudden increase in memberships is having a positive effect on members as well as the club’s finances.
Long may this continue for a sport that has certainly had to negotiate its way through some difficult times in recent years.
Angling also on the up
Much like golf, angling has also experienced a surge in participation both nationally and locally since its reintroduction in mid-May.
By mid-June the Bury St Edmunds Angling Club was more than 20 per cent ahead on sales of membership books compared to the same time last year.
The club’s treasurer Steve Bull told me: “Some are coming back to fishing after a break or have only done odd days around day ticket waters.
Many are off work and want to get out of the house, so they have turned to fishing.”
Angling clubs have suffered a steady decline in members now for the past 20 years with the Bury club struggling to survive.
Bull added: “The new members were impressed with the selection of waters that we offer.
“I hope that the returning members fall in love with angling again and continue for the future.” He also thanked Tackle Up in St John’s Street, Bury St Edmunds for providing a venue for him to sell memberships.
“If we hadn’t had that option, I am not sure where the club would have been now,” he said.