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…

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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.

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