High green fees

High green-fees and leadership.


FineGolf has no doubt that high green fees, now around £200 at the finest running-golf courses, are driven by Clubs becoming money-making-machines and a sort of Parkinson’s Law kicks-in whereby as income increases so does expenditure.

Many secretaries of golf clubs are now called general managers suggesting a focus on business and they become terrified in case the visitor numbers should falter.

It would be naïve to think this will change; the level of green fee is a status issue and defines the market and indeed is partly to reduce visitor traffic so there is a balance with membership play.

Nevertheless, a key problem with these high green-fees is that the punters, having forked out such large fees, there is then felt a level of guilt that they should expect perfect greens and an overly manicured course. In addition courses like Carnoustie have enormously high traffic of around 45,000 rounds per annum and their visitors provide some 80% of total income. The result? An increased stress on the greenkeepers, as this makes it more difficult to manage and implement the definition of good GB&I greenkeeping which is :-

“the never ending battle to change from annual weed grass to perennial fine grasses”.

Sensible people know that golf has to catch-up, after a period of 30/40 years of greenkeeping profligacy, with the Society-at-large’s expectations contained in conservationism and reduction in chemicals. There is, nevertheless, a ‘progressive’ and conservationist future for recreational golf,  with the use of natural traditional greenkeeping techniques.

FineGolf throws out three ideas to the finest clubs to help their greenkeepers cope.

  • 1) The top ‘target-golf’ hotel courses try to offer a manicured, virtually artificial, all one colour-green, lush, two-dimensional, target-golf product. Of course, the chemical supply companies love them and it seems to fit the corporate golf world view.

But for GB&I golf to rely on this part of the market for future leadership would be disastrous.

There is no doubt that to give a three-dimensional product, the running-golf courses need to improve the texture of their aprons and run-offs as much as their greens but why, oh why, do they feel the need to manicure everything and think a golf course needs to look ‘pretty’? Some rough natural edges to bunkers, some sandy wastes, with not all areas pristinely turfed over, should be part of the beauty of playing within a natural environment.

Is the issue of manicuring being used to try to justify the two-dimensional ‘target-golf ’ product in that it requires more maintenance and therefore more investment and cost, while creating an image that is ‘pristine and pretty’?

If so, the three-dimensional ‘running-game’ product being justified through being part of the natural environment with lower costs, should surely reject over-manicuring, with its aspirational image being:

‘beauty through a wildness tamed’


  • 2)   No business wants customers to go away unsatisfied because the greens have been aerated, over-seeded or top-dressed with playability temporairily lowered but rather would like them to return and tell others of their enjoyment and the good value. FineGolf would like to ask whether all of this might not be accommodated by simply giving green-fee rebates on a daily basis dependent on the status of the course that day, decided by the greenkeeper? The affordable Greenstester machine, developed by Nick Park and Fintan Brennan and used in conjunction with The R&A’s ‘Holing out Test’ would help to provide objective judgment on the speed and reliability of greens.

The downside to this idea may be that the practicalities of such a measure might only add to pressure on the course manager if he has to conduct regular assessments on the rebate amount, let alone the administrative issues. These practicalities have upsides that the course manager would have regular objective measurements of greens performance to help in maintenance decisions. Nevertheless, the most obvious dislike from the finance director will be the reduced income. Actually some clubs already implement this idea and I remember getting a free round at Sunningdale because the greens had been top-dressed that morning.

  • 3)  So the third idea to aid stability for practical purposes whilst implementing a corrective sward programme,  a maintenance morning is well worth considering where aeration, overseeding, top dressing etc, can be completed and the course restored to playability prior to opening thereafter. Carnoustie implemented this procedure successfully in the past on a Monday morning, April through to October. Alternative maintenance practices in addition are needed to be substituted when there is unsuitable weather. Ian Kinley at Royal Porthcawl mentions over-seeding four greens every monday in his over-seeding article published in 2010. With ever improving over-seeding equipment the disruption to playability immediately after is minimal. Objective measurement of putting reliability, through use of the greenstester, can be publicised to help reduce any criticism. An extra thought is that because over-seeding has to be done when its dry, early holes can be fitted in of an evening after the golfers have gone through.

These ideas, though perhaps, reducing income in the short term, recognises the need for a correct balance with the long term quality of surfaces, which will in the end increase income.

Actually these clubs are fairly financially secure with membership waiting lists staying full so long as the ‘social status’ of joining them is maintained.

Part of that social status needs to be that the club has the courage to be different from the parkland competition down the road that has very fast Poa annua shaved greens during the summer. It is usually the low handicap members, who are infected with Augusta Syndrome Disease (ASD), who need to be re-educated. This requires leadership and visionary communication to get the Club membership on-side for change.

Perhaps a part of the problem also lies in the relatively low esteem with which golfers and clubs view their green staff? In turn many greenkeepers lack the business confidence and communication skills to call the tune and demand better conditions of work in order to drive through grass species change. The growth of mutual respect between golfers and greenkeepers is a vital part of gaining successful change.

This is a conservationist issue for the leadership within Clubs.

We all know that each golf club has an elite clique who run it, which is generally self-perpetuating. Being honorary roles officials should be commended for giving their time, particularly when their motivation is for the betterment of the Club rather than the status of their own egos. The latter can be the case and is often the most likely reason for the blocking of progressive conservationist ideas that by their very existence tend to be critical of what has gone before. Egos do not like any idea that something might be wrong and needs changing.

FineGolf recognises that this is a complex subject but hopes the asking of some difficult questions will help the Clubs grasp this conservationist nettle themselves if they wish to continue to give the ‘joy-to-be-alive’ feeling and keep their positions at the top of the recreational ‘running-golf’ course market.

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