15 February 2006

The importance of the 19th Hole

B elieve it or not, golf is struggling to maintain its credibility as one of the world's most popular participation sports. There are fundamental problems on different levels, with the most acute issue at the playing level being pace of play. Other problems with potentially material consequences are undoubtedly too many ill-educated (in a golfing sense) novices, the wide perception of golf as a business not a game and too few children of elementary school age given properly supervised access.

There is no immediate solution to golf's woes for the simple reason that a significant majority of golf facilities in the modern era are 'pay-and-play' in one form or another. Admittedly, easier access to the game for a greater number of people, which is occasionally the underlying premise of developers, is an admirable contention. Unfortunately, most of these facilities and their promoters miss golf's basic ingredient - social intercourse with friends and kindred spirits which encourages repeat visits.

In other words, too many courses are built that promote cart hire and discourage walking, palatial buildings are too often erected that are fit for a wedding or presidential banquet but sorely deficient in terms of atmosphere, intimacy and ambience, myriad of ways are worked out to maximise revenue which lead to customer irritation and tee sheets are packed to ensure five hour rounds and plenty of F&B stops around the course. Indeed, in Japan it is the norm for a break of an hour or more to be taken after nine holes for the sole purpose of enforcing an F&B spend in the clubhouse.

The most famous and familiar venue in golf is St. Andrews, most particularly, perhaps, the view from the 18th tee of the Old Course back towards the town with the clubhouse of The Royal and Ancient Golf Club ("the R&A") to the left of the eighteenth green and immediately behind the first tee. What many people fail to appreciate is that the R&A does not own any of the courses at St. Andrews, all being protected for public use by Act of Parliament. However, the R&A's clubhouse is home to a private golf club* and a golfing institution that began operations in 1754 and recently celebrated its 250th anniversary.

The members of the R&A enjoy playing privileges on the St. Andrews courses, but that is certainly not what makes the club one of the world's finest. The clubhouse is where members gather to dine and partake of a modest beverage or two; it is also the refuge in which kindred spirits enjoy companionship. Playing of the game may be the catalyst and excuse for any gathering of members, but the social element is the key to the club's endurance and existence. And when golf clubs were being formed throughout the British Isles and beyond in the late 19th century and first half of the 20th century it was to St. Andrews, and the R&A, that they looked for guidance. Needless to say, the clubhouses they built were rarely as grand as the one at St. Andrews but that was never the desire. What mattered was to create an unpretentious environment in which friends could meet and enjoy each other's company as an extension of the fun experienced during the eighteen holes that preceded it; hence, the "19th Hole".

The food served was generally simple fayre, priced, as were the drinks, to please the membership not the relevant revenue service. In many clubhouses, it was the norm, if not a requirement, to change into jacket and tie for lunch or dinner. Social customs changed, of course, and now few clubs require jacket and tie to be worn, though the unique intimacy of a properly conceived and operated '19th Hole' remains largely intact in private members' clubs.

The '19th Hole' should also be a place for peer review, a forum to determine whose behaviour or etiquette fails to meet the club's requirements or to identify the 'snails' and dismiss them to the back of the draw sheet in club competitions or to expose the 'handicap bandits' and ensure that their dishonesty does not go unpunished. One solution to these potential problems at many private clubs in Britain is to admit children to a special category of membership from their tenth or twelfth birthday. As paid-up 'junior members' in their own name, they absorb and learn etiquette, enjoy restricted playing privileges which demand prompt play and aspire to full membership in the fullness of time by when they understand what the game is all about.

At 'pay and play' facilities and at all too many new quasi-private member clubs in Asia, there are no such opportunities. The creation costs have been exorbitant and profit objectives prevail; you pay your fee or subscription and (generally) regardless of ability or knowledge can be let loose to run amok. Peer review is non-existent and buildings devoid of intimacy or ambience serve unknown 'customers' who rarely return. Sadly, it is not unknown for the list of payment 'delinquents' at new golf clubs in the region to represent the majority of the membership.

Failure to appreciate that club golf was originally devised as a game of nineteen holes is a fundamental error and one that adversely affects everyone's enjoyment. Impossible, of course, at a public venue to create the circumstances where one walks into the '19th Hole' to be greeted as a familiar spirit by staff and fellow golfers alike, it should not, however, be beyond the scope of any developer or operator to attract desirable repeat customers by enforcing four hour rounds, organising regular 'loyalty program' competitions, presenting a well-designed and intimate clubhouse interior and creating a junior membership category (even if the facility is 'pay and play') to teach and welcome the next generation of golfers and loyal customers.

Golf needs these creative thinkers and pioneers because as presented today the game is a turn-off for the instantly gratified technology driven generation and for many already engaged the annual corporate outing may be all they have time for. And as most of us know only too well, that amounts to expense deductible business conducted at funereal pace devoid of normal rules of engagement and not the game of golf that would inspire anyone to return on a regular self-paying basis.

*Note: Since January 2004, all of the club's former commercial, championship and Rules' responsibilities have been transferred to a group of companies called "The R&A", which is quite distinct from the private member's club though often, and understandably, still confused with it.

© Gordon G. Simmonds, February 2006

Previous Issues
  • Desperately seeking heroes »

  • The Power of Language »

  • The Sociable Art of Putting »

  • September 04 »

  • June 04 »

  • About Gordon
    Gordon G. Simmonds is the author of the best-selling history of the Walker Cup, The Walker Cup, 1922-1999, To accompany his book, Gordon has also established a web site dedicated to Walker Cup history -- www.walkercuphistory.com.

    Besides creating and producing the ALL A-Round Golf television series and now DVD (for more, see below), Gordon is the founder and managing director of a successful sports marketing consultancy business, advising a number of international corporate clients on the marketing of their products and services through golf.

    As a golfer, Gordon has played the game competitively and socially all over the world from a low single figure handicap. A great enthusiast of the amateur game, and the amateur ideal, he is a member of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, Royal County Down, Gullane and Woking.

    Gordon was born in Scotland in 1961, and graduated from the University of Aberdeen in 1982. A Scots and English qualified lawyer, he has worked in Edinburgh, London, Hanoi, Singapore and Tokyo, where he now lives.

    Contact Gordon »