Golf clubs see biggest swings in pandemic as Stoke-by-Nayland and others hope for new big bounce back from third Covid-19 lockdown
A rollercoaster year of extremes.
That is how Stoke-by-Nayland’s director of golf Karl Hepple describes the Covid-19 pandemic’s impact on the area’s clubs.
The latest lockdown has come at a time when society and golf day bookings – usually accountable for 40 per cent of the family-owned venue’s business – would normally be at their highest.
At the same time, the club’s current 770-strong membership is out for renewal and having put on 160 members with London commuters working from home and people having been on furlough, there is more uncertainty about the financial impacts of Covid-19 in 2021.
But like the previous two occasions they have had to shut their two championship courses, Hepple is hopeful of another big bounce back when the restrictions on their sport being played is lifted again.
“If you look at 2020 in terms of a calendar year, from a golf club point of view the chances are you’ve gone through your worst ever month as an operating golf club and you’ve probably gone through your busiest month ever - I know we certainly have,” he said.
“Looking at the period from mid-May to the end of October we had just under 10,000 tee times in 2019 at 9,934, compared to 18,887 in 2020. The growth is 90 per cent, year-on-year, so pretty much twice as many rounds of golf than the year before.
“Now that is pretty impressive when you consider Stoke-by-Nayland as a venue.
“It is not difficult to grow your golf by 90 per cent if you were playing 50 rounds a day but Stoke-by-Nayland is a busy venue to start with. We are going from already busy to just absolutely crazy.”
He said members were questioning the impact of visitors on their ability to tee off, but broken down figures show their rounds accounted for 6,771 in 2019, compared to 14,282 in 2020 – 111 per cent growth.
“I was turning around to people saying ‘believe me this is not visitors, this is you guys as members just playing more than double the amount that you ever have’,” Hepple said.
“Interesting enough we did have growth in visitor times but it was 45 per cent year on year. It was a lot but was not anywhere close to what we saw with the growth with members’ tee times.”
The financial impact of the first lockdown meant a skeleton staff was still operating when they reopened on May 13, making what was to come even more challenging.
Hepple, who joined the Keeper’s Lane venue in November 2018, said: “I remember in mid-March I was watching a webinar hosted by the PGA and this guy who was the CEO of the Scandinavian side was saying that they were about four weeks ahead of us in terms of having locked down and then returning to golf.
“I remember him saying ‘you are not going to believe the demand you are going to have when you are opening up your golf course’.
“I remember thinking ‘yeah right’, so we might get a bit extra, but how wrong I was because he absolutely hit the nail on the head in terms of saying how our operational issues would be just magnified hugely.”
Indeed, the golf operations team, which runs the pro shop, driving range and golf course went from its usual summer level of five to just one, in Hepple himself. Meanwhile, the green keepers team had to be split into separate groups in case one side had a Covid case with the rest then required to isolate.
“Operationally it was just awful, it really was. Having spoken to people in the industry as well I know I am definitely not alone when I say that,” he said.
“I went for a period of nearly 50 days without a day off because the finances just did not allow for more staff at that point.”
With still taking money from members they also continued to do what they could to provide some value for it.
Hepple said: “Through lockdowns we do weekly zoom meetings for members with varying content. We might do some coaching content on there or some equipment content, I was doing a survey presentation the other Tuesday.”
Club keeps courses open for walking
While some other clubs have shut off their courses, Stoke has actively promoted the benefits of walking it for anyone to take advantage of.
"We've opened up a golf club walking route," explained Hepple. "You don't necessarily have to be a member to do that. And from our point of view as a golf club if you close you take way the views of the Constable Country and that is just something we have been trying to give back to the community.
"A lot of golf clubs have done the absolute opposite and have said we are shutting our whole venues, absolutely no walking over us, you might damage our tee boxes. That is a really short-sighted view in my opinion.
"Golf clubs need to evolve as a general view and they need to become a lot more community-friendly and basically a community hub."
On the latest lockdown Hepple is confident they can better swing back into action when given the green light to.
“This will be the third time we have come out of a lockdown, so I’d like to think we know what we’re doing this time,” he said.
“I think what will be really interesting is, and it is more about the type of business Stoke is, is that our real booking window is January so at the minute we are just monitoringwhat impact that has.”
Like others in the area, Stoke-by-Nayland is still open for new memberships. Contact the clubs direct for details.