For some time the grey beards of the game have been anxious about certain developments in it. It is only in the last week that the cause of their concern has become clear in figures released by the English Golf Union. The majority may not perceive any great crisis in the great game; like those glued to the honeyed words of the pro game pundits on TV or the ridiculously overpriced glossy golf magazines; it is difficult to see beyond the largess. The reality, however, is altogether different.
What the EGU figures reveal is not restricted to England. Indeed, were the truth known, the situation in England is not as critical as it is elsewhere, and it flies in the face of all the projections and predictions of the last few years. Simply put, amateur golf is in apparently rapid decline and the rootstock of the game's fortunes are in a sad and sorry state.
The figures show that golf club membership is dwindling if not yet in free-fall. In England, 89% of clubs have membership vacancies and 75% of clubs are actively seeking new members, some actually advertising. In Scotland things are little better with the canny Scots continuing to play the game in the same numbers but fewer actually joining a club and having a bona fida handicap. Of the 12% of the Scots population purportedly playing the game only 5% are actually fully paid up members of a club, despite widespread membership vacancies.
But from the English figures the statistic which must be of greatest concern is that covering the under-25 age group. In 15 years the numbers in this category have fallen by one third. It is this age group that is the life force of the game. They are the future of club golf and therefore of the amateur game. But they are also the future of the pro game for it is they who will indirectly subscribe to the coffers and therefore to the wellbeing of all players and their multifarious hangers-on who make their living from it.
For those of us who have long expressed concern about the one-way flow of the game's resources, the EGU figures bring no satisfaction. Schadenfreude brings even less pleasure than the irony in these revelations at a time when the Walker and Ryder Cups have brought new buoyancy to the lovers of golf on this side of the Atlantic.
Like Alice's nose, the pro game has grown from a countenance unable to sustain itself and its presence is outgrowing the resources to maintain it. The indicators were posted in America some time ago when sponsors stopped queuing to host tournaments as TV viewing figures started to fall. US golf can accommodate a decrease in numbers because of scale. In Europe, the numbers are smaller and even a slight decrease in revenue becomes significant - and corporate interests are very quick to dissociate from sponsorship of a failing enterprise. If sponsors have now to be seduced to support pro golf with all of its hype and ballyhoo they are not likely to support the backwater of the amateur game.
The success of recent years' Walker cups has been due in no small part to the efforts of the national golf unions in developing young players. The National Lottery Fund, the Sports Council and various foundations have also helped financially and the game has benefited. That support and the efforts of unpaid officials cannot be taken for granted as those who have most benefited leave the amateur field for the lucre lure of the pro ranks. Amateur golf has always haemorrhaged to the pro ranks but younger talent is now sought to feed the demands of the pro events in a cynical attempt to make the game appear cool to the armchair pundits. Agents have been quick to paint pictures of plenty to the promising young players all too eager to pick up a slice of the succulent pro pie.
It matters not to these agencies that they may be ending a promising career for their risks are spread through a stable of players. For the individual, like Zane Scotland or Gordon Sherry for instance, it can be a life altering experience.
Ross Fisher, 23, Sam Osbourne, 22, and James Heath, 21, have all benefited from EGU input as well as Lottery support. They should have formed the nucleus of next year's Walker Cup team and led it to an unprecedented fourth consecutive win. Instead, they have turned professional and rendered themselves ineligible. Although their actions may be understandable, given what is on offer from the agencies and management companies, they are nevertheless reprehensible for they are jeopardising opportunities for those that follow. Sports Council and Lottery money cannot simply be assumed when the managers of these funds see how little an individual sport has benefited from its investment and how much the individual is selfishly deriving from its support. That is now how these funds are supposed to be used.
From the figures published by the EGU, it becomes clear that funding for its youth development programme must be under stress. Dwindling club memberships means a reduction in Union income - for part of every club member's annual subscription is passed on to the national Union - currently £3.15p in England. This money is, of course, used to mount national championships but the bulk goes into junior and youth development programmes. It is all very simple, the less money that comes in the less goes into the development pot and therefore the fewer will have the opportunity to shine.
The apparent indifference of Fisher, Osbourne and Heath, and more especially those who advise them, to the game that has nurtured them is merely the thin end of the wedge. There is some way to go yet as corporate business sponsors turn their back on the game. But amateur golf has survived the pro golf leech on its back for a long time and it will survive its vampire metamorphosis. It has to survive for it is the lifeblood of the game.
|| 7 - DECEMBER 2004