Opinion: Moving with the times versus time-honoured traditions

How do you find the tricky balance between moving with the times and upholding time-honoured traditions? Three managers, whose clubs have all moved to modernise, discuss the issue…

Woking, West Surrey, St George’s Hill. Three neighbouring clubs known for their wonderful golf courses and their firm reputations as among Britain’s most traditional. Don’t think for a second, though, that these clubs are rooted in the past, content to bask in their glorious histories. They have made tweaks and changes to keep up with the constant shifts in society and have benefited from their modern approach. But how do you negotiate such a tricky path at institutions that can look back at a century of traditions? How do your members react when you unveil a different approach? Our three managers reveal all…

At Woking Richard, you’ve taken the step to go from a strictly twoball club to three and fourball trials on Tuesdays and Fridays. For your members, was that a difficult decision?

Richard Pennell: Yes. I think they found it a difficult concept. They are so used to twoball golf and it is a major part of the ethos of the club. It’s a valuable thing at Woking that you can play golf quickly and get back to lunch with the family, or whatever. But there was a financial imperative. We needed to raise more visitor revenue and the members are intelligent people.  When those facts were given to them, they understood and they could see that we needed to do something. We are doing this on a trial basis and they have been very accommodating. We have just started that trial and we’re already picking up some extra revenue as a result. The signs are good.

Have you all had your own instances where you have had to modify decades of tradition?

Gary Peddie: Just before I arrived at St George’s Hill, they had just gone through what was described as ‘sockgate’. It’s the classic (debate), but very important to the members of the club. Up until that point, you were only allowed to wear long hose as socks with shorts. They could be any colour but you couldn’t wear a short sock at all.

Now, St George’s Hill is a golf club of lineage. So it has grandsons, parents, grandparents, who absolutely cherish membership at St George’s Hill. But, of course,  the grandsons and sons, and daughters, wanted to play golf in clothing they were comfortable in for the modern day – where they could play elsewhere.

Experience of playing overseas, where they are used to wearing short ankle socks (meant) this went through a debacle of letters backwards and forwards to the then secretary. In the end, common sense prevailed. Now they allow a sock of any length as long as it’s white. If you choose to wear long hose, then it is the full length of sock.

Also since I’ve been there, in the restaurant of the club – dining in the restaurant – you had to wear a jacket and tie. We’ve removed the need for a tie, because it was starting to impinge upon corporate business. So it’s for exactly the same reasons that Richard is talking about. We had some of our clients paying significant amounts of money to be there for a day. They were saying to us ‘come on, we don’t wear ties at any time in the  business world. Why on earth do we need to here?’ I’ve had to work very hard to smooth that with our members, who are used to, and it was a taken, that the tie will be worn.

”You’ve got to embrace what your club is. But you do have to understand. We were born in 1910 and we’re not the same club that we were then” – Scott Patience

Scott Patience: There’s the social change that’s going on in the country, and golf clubs take time to catch up, but it starts to influence the financial things going on in your club. Our clubs are in strong positions, for various different reasons, but other clubs are not and they more are open to change. Woking is changing to fourballs from twoballs. It’s a big factor for the club, but it’s also a financial need. We had to drive membership. We’ve got a full membership so now we are limiting golf days, on certain days.

We are making Fridays exclusive for members, whereas we had golf days in those times. We needed the revenue. Now we’ve got a full membership, and we’ve a waiting list, we don’t need that pressure. We’ve got to recognise the balance with the membership.

Also, with the changes, we have introduced Ready Golf – which The R&A have been promoting and some clubs have been doing – as a pace of play (initiative) but not everyone wants to run round the golf course. You encourage different people into the game. They are learning the game and it’s not the easiest sport.

GP: That’s a really interesting concept. I think all three of our clubs are quite heavily laden with R&A members and, consequently, Ready Golf was an easy sell. When The R&A members went and played in the Spring Meeting, this year, they all came back with the policy and procedural guidelines behind Ready Golf. We put it in front of the members and all of them jumped on it straight away and said ‘fantastic’. It’s really made a difference to the way people get round a golf course. So I think there’s a willingness to accept modernisation but that willingness has to come from the right source.

We’d been in (a session at conference) with David Bancroft-Turner about the politics within clubs. That’s exactly what you have to do. That’s exactly what we’ve done. A little group of The R&A people have sown a seed, they are well-respected people in the club, and, all of a sudden, my job of selling Ready Golf has got very easy. That’s the way forward on any of these things. What’s really interesting to me is that the smallest point is often the one that creates the biggest emotive reaction. That, for me, is always understanding what those points are and making sure we work around them – or away from them. Because if they are small, then really, they are not that important in terms of the business.

SP: How have you found it, trying to make the change?

RP: It’s been fine, actually. We’ve taken lots of feedback from the members. We consulted with them and shared various bits of information with them and anything is a compromise in the club, isn’t it? The impression you get speaking to the members who come forward to give you their opinion, they are already firmly in one camp or the other. But as soon as you make the changes people provide a different kind of feedback. They say ‘that’s great. We’ll bring three clients down on a Friday afternoon’ or ‘I haven’t been able to do that. I’ve paid x number of thousand pounds to join this place’. As soon as we made the decision, some more positive feedback came back. It has been fascinating, actually.

GP: The point that you made Richard was the communication and that’s the key. You communicate and engage the members. Engaging is the tricky one, because you could get 500 different opinions. Actually, as we learned at Conference, when managing a golf club there are three sets of people that you need to talk to. One of them regards the governance of the club. We need to manage the governance of the club, whether that’s a board of directors, or a management committee. Get them on side and then look at how we are going to talk to the members and how we are going to deliver a statement to them that allows them the opportunity to engage with you back.

RP: At Woking, the impression I get is that they communicated very little with the members before I got there. I am doing more of that. I want to do more still but we’re giving them information about maintenance routines on the golf  course and things we are doing to improve the playing surfaces and so on. None of this is rocket science. They ought to have been sharing that communication before, perhaps, but the response to that has been very positive, which is fascinating. Members care about the place, they are proud to be members and they want to know it is being managed well and going in the right direction. They respond really well to that.

GP: If you look in the members’ bar on a Saturday afternoon, of the 40 to 70 people that are sat in the bar, 90 per cent of them have got their phone in front of them. It’s not on, in terms of being audible, but they are picking up messages and they are doing emails. It’s using that to take it forward.

Mobile phones are a really tricky subject. You’ve used it to your advantage Gary. Has that been the case throughout?

GP: It is now at St George’s Hill. If you’d gone back five years that would never have happened. But the world of technology moves at such a speed that we’ve got  to grab hold of it, otherwise we are going to get left behind. You certainly can’t take a call in the clubhouse. It’s always understood that you can in the locker room. You can in the car park. You can have your phone out on the golf course because there may be an incident where an emergency call needs to be made. There’s a whole health and safety route to take on that one.

Essentially, golf clubs that don’t move that way are going to be stuck. The next generation of golfers will walk with a phone in their hand and if we don’t engage with them we are in big trouble. But it is doing it properly.

SP: If you look at the members we deal with, they retired before the internet really took hold. It influences all our lives – in work and social – and we have to engage because it’s a huge change if you don’t. But the example of taking phone calls is intrusive. You’re part of a community and you have got to learn how to fit in to your club. If a member joins a club they are not just joining a golf course, they are joining a community. It’s how you balance that. Golf  clubs aren’t necessarily the market leaders in some of these things but they have to see what works in what forms. It’s there. We’re not going to get away from it.

GP: What’s interesting is that a lot of the people that come to St George’s Hill are chairmen of FTSE 100 companies, or the like, so they are market leaders in whatever they do. They are already using their phone, their iPad and their device. What would be any different in a golf club? It is managing it at the club and making it work for you. One of the things they (members at St George’s Hill) don’t like to do is player scoring. They don’t like putting their scores into a terminal after they have played a tournament. They will have myself, or my number two, or one of the professional staff, check the scores, manually input them and then create a leaderboard. The leaderboard is often manual and they love that. That’s a tradition of the club that they don’t want to lose. I understand that. Why on earth would I try and battle against that?

RP: But, at the same time, you are  using the technology – given that you are doing to do that for them and smoothing things. It is exactly the same at Woking. It still makes it a lot easier for us to do that, doesn’t it? It saves us time.

SP: That particular element makes very little difference to the Woking members, or St George’s Hill, but you are still looking after them and the technology – and keeping your eye on technology – can save us all time in the background.

GP: When I am managing one of these competitions, I am probably – as I’m looking back through the bar, taking the cards, marking the scores up – engaging with more of  those members in those two hours than I do at any other time in the week. You learn more about what they are thinking, about the golf course and the state of the club, what they’d like to see, what they don’t like. It’s amazing. How do you encourage members towards the objective you are looking for?

SP: You would draw them in. We talked earlier about how you influence, and the politics, but  you do it before you ever have a meeting. You know the people that are going to be vocal – who will say things that you want them to say or not want them to say. Sometimes you actually want them to say the wrong thing because then you know that everyone else will then say ‘well, we don’t agree with that’. It’s getting that balance but you are doing it in advance of when you are actually going to make the decision. The Government do it all the time, don’t they? They leak things out and some things they do, and some things they don’t, to see what the opinion  is. I guess we do that as well – depending on what it is and if it’s going to be a tough decision.

GP: There are key influencers in every club and I think what you have to do is sound them out and listen to them. You have to understand where they are coming from as you understand some of these guys will make it difficult if you go against them. You gain their confidence, which I think you do by managing the club in a very authoritative way  but also a very informal way. It’s not dictatorial, so everyone is taking a role and actually engaging in conversation with me about various topics. Then, when you start to talk to these key people, you very quickly understand that, actually, it’s not that important to them so we can talk to other key influencers.

RP: The long term health of the club they love is more important to them than socks or mobile phone use. At Woking, we had a handful of absolute twoball advocates who thought it was the end of the world, regardless of the financial implication of not changing and  allowing some more visitors. When confronted with the facts, and sat down quietly to talk through what other options there were, they’ve ended up almost being the strongest positive influences because their minds have been changed. They see that there is common  sense behind this – it’s not a knee- jerk reaction by a new committee  or secretary and they’ve ended up being more vocal in support than some of the people who began  in a very positive frame of mind. They’ve completely turned around and are going out supporting your cause or the things you want to do among the rest of the membership. It’s fascinating to watch, actually.

SP: That’s important as well. It’s all well and good talking about these decisions in advance but, actually, when you make the decision and you’ve communicated it – whether it’s to the board or sub-committee or even the membership – you need them to promote it in a positive light so you see it through. (Otherwise) You undermine the very position you’ve taken. I don’t just mean as a manager. I mean as a board or membership. Traditions are still important to all your clubs. ..

SP: When I was at Sunningdale recently, and at St George’s Hill, you go and they have embraced all their history. You are just fascinated by different pictures, or stories, like the (Sunningdale) Cadets playing at Baltusrol. The juniors have played a match there. How does that work? You are intrigued by the  history of the club. It’s very tasteful. It’s not in your face. Sunningdale is obviously one of the best courses in the UK, if not the world, and you’ve got to embrace what your club is. But you do have to understand. We were born in 1910 and we’re not the same club that we were then.

GP: I think tradition and business really work together. I think the average member probably wouldn’t like to hear the word business mentioned too often about their golf club. But it is a small business. Tradition is one  of the key characteristics that sits behind what the club is. We are very proud of our history at St George’s Hill. It’s all over the place when you walk into the club and you immediately think ‘this is an exceptionally traditional club’. I think a number of people find that very daunting, when they have visitors to the club. But then when they meet the staff, they are made to feel exceptionally welcome and so that façade that was initially built up is immediately broken down. They then love the environs of the traditional clubhouse and the sight but also understand that it comes at a price and it has to work.

RP: I love the way lots of clubs – and I want to do more of this – are using technology to shout about their history and tradition. It’s so easy to do these days with online archives of aerial photos from the 1890s, and lovely old pictures of the golf course. It’s very easy to share those via Twitter or other forms of media. It’s a very modern way of sharing it but just reinforcing the traditional thing. It’s a nice balance.  ”You’ve got to embrace what your club is. But you do have to understand. We were born in 1910 and we’re not the same club that we were then” – Scott Patience

By Marie Taylor

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