A century ago, private members’ clubs ruled the world of golf. As Rob Smith explains, the power base and ownership of the game’s finest courses has since diversified…
olf was conceived, born and nurtured throughout its golden age by the efforts, imagination, finances and love of a great many people. The majority of golf’s pioneers and evangelists were those who ran and jointly owned the courses that have become its greatest legacy – the Muirfields and Sunningdales, the Portrushes and Porthcawls. If there had been a Golf Monthly Top 100 when the magazine was founded in 1911, it is likely that just about every course would have belonged to a private club where the secretarial role would have been honorary, and the whole set-up would have been run for the sole and often short-term benefit of its members. Since then, the world has
Gchanged a great deal, and continues to do so at a pace. More than ever, private clubs are run as businesses. Arguably the biggest change in the DNA of golf, however, has been the emergence of the proprietary club, particularly in the last 50 years or so.
Whereas members’ clubs would have dominated the early rankings, a look at the latest Top 100 and Next 100 lists reveals that almost 40 per cent – evenly spread between the two groups – are not owned by the membership. This means that getting on for 80 of the best 200 courses in the UK and Ireland are run on different lines, with the type of organisation behind them varying enormously. There is a rainbow of business models among these clubs, which at one extreme is members only (such as Loch Lomond and Bearwood Lakes in the Top 100, and Centurion in the Next 100) and at the other extreme has no membership at all (Kingsbarns and The Grove, for example). Without exception, our newest premier league courses such as Trump International Golf Links, Scotland and Castle Stuart are all run independently.
Many of our most famous and iconic courses are closely linked to hotels, with Gleneagles, The Belfry, The K Club and Celtic Manor – all recent Ryder Cup venues – geared up to offer a special experience to the visiting golfer. Such venues have the wealth to invest heavily in their courses, with Donald Trump having already spent many millions at Turnberry and Doonbeg, too. Adare Manor is closed for 18 months, and many other leading proprietary courses such as Wentworth and Close House have embarked on ambitious and costly upgrades and additions. It is easy to see why some of our more traditional and perhaps hand-to-mouth clubs have struggled to keep pace.