Chris Spencer had one of the most sought after management jobs in golf – secretary at North Berwick. But he made the move to another historic venue, Glasgow Golf Club, to become general manager. He tells us why he’s embracing a new challenge…
You’ve been in post for just over six months. How have you found it?
I’m enjoying it very much. It’s a very different challenge but that was part of the attraction of taking the role. It’s one of the oldest clubs in
the world – the 9th oldest – so there’s a lot of history and tradition that goes with that.
But they are facing some significant challenges ahead if they
want to continue being one of the premier clubs on the west coast. I suppose you’ve been asked by a lot of people why you moved from North Berwick?
It wasn’t an easy decision to make but there were a number of factors which played a part, one of which was to move nearer to our children and grandchildren. I’d been at North Berwick for nearly 11 years and there was the realisation ‘had I done as much as I could and would a new challenge be what I was looking for?’
I think North Berwick has achieved a huge amount – not only in the time I was there but also leading up to that – which has
firmly established its place in the top 100 in the world. I am very proud of what I achieved but the time was right to move up and do more work at a strategic level.
Glasgow Golf Club gives me that. I enjoyed getting my hands dirty but I felt it was time to move to another prestigious golf club and to do things at that strategic level. People think ‘I must be bonkers. Why leave?’ but I left North Berwick with my head held high, proud of what I achieved, and I still have a huge amount of feeling for the place. It’s nice to be able to have run two very old, and prestigious, golf clubs.
Glasgow consists of two clubs – Gailes and Killermont – and it seems they serve very different markets?
They are two very distinct clubs. Gailes is a club within a club. There
is no requirement at Gailes to wear a jacket and tie and we take visitors.
Killermont is members and guests only. There is still a jacket and tie
culture and it’s very traditional. At Gailes, you are surrounded by Western Gailes, Troon and Prestwick to name just three.
Our research has shown we are in the top 40 golf courses in Scotland but we’re only the 7th best course in Ayrshire.
When you look at that from an overseas perspective, and especially a North American perspective, we’re not going to attract huge amounts of those golfers unless they happen to have heard about the place.
We have found that 75 per cent of our market comes from the UK, 20 per cent from Europe and five per cent from America. Whether that would improve if we went up the course rankings and got into the top 30, and maybe 5th in Ayrshire, only time will tell. That’s the long-term view. We want to make sure that, wherever people come from, they enjoy their experience and are well looked after.
Is there a temptation, with two courses with two very different memberships, to treat them as separate – even though they are under the same umbrella?
They are very different and you have to treat them very differently, but within the tradition and the rules that govern Glasgow Golf Club. At Killermont, visitors can’t just pick up the phone and say ‘I’d like to come and play’.
That is the opposite end of the spectrum to Gailes, which has hosted national and international tournaments like the Amateur Championship and Open final qualifying.
Visitors are more than welcome there. So how do you deal with balancing the two?
When I am at Gailes, I tend to focus purely on there. That gives me focus and allows me to consider what we need to look for in terms of development and levels of service to the members and visitors.
When I’m at Killermont I look at the bigger picture. I think it’s right to treat them very separately and very differently –
because they are. But that’s part of the beauty and the challenge of the role. They are two very distinct characters.
Gailes is a wonderful golf course…
It is and a lot of work has been carried out recently to improve it further. A lot of the heather has been trimmed back. But it still
has the character and, if you are wayward, you can find yourself in heather a foot deep. Just off one or two of the fairways,
though, it has been trimmed off to an inch. You can find your ball but you might not necessarily be able to get a long iron or a rescue at it.
You will, at least, be able to get the ball back into play. If you’re in the ankle deep heather, you might not even find it. Some of the trees have been taken away and they are looking at taking it more to the original design. As with a lot of courses, things have changed, bunkers have been moved and tees put in, so we are looking at how we can bring it back as well as improve the drainage and the quality of the course.
You’re not afraid of taking on big issues. Tell me about the issue of equality there?
Just before I started the committee put out a paper to the members discussing open membership – looking at how ladies can join as well as family membership.
We collated responses from the membership up until the end of January. A good percentage were in favour of open membership and
ladies joining. Glasgow is very much a traditional gentlemen’s golf club. There are certain areas of the Killermont clubhouse where you have to wear a jacket and tie and it’s almost a lunch club in a lot of respects.
They are approaching a crossroads and the club realise that to continue to be successful they have to diversify and they have to diversify their membership. Some were dead against it.
Some of the members have been there for up to 50 years and so I understand that side of things. Quite a few of the members gave it some really detailed consideration, made suggestions and said we should look at ladies joining and being part of open membership.
They gave my council some options so we could sit down and develop a little bit further – rather than just saying ‘yes I support it’.
It’s such a fundamental change for the golf club that there is also an opportunity to review other membership categories.
The club has an opportunity there to be at the forefront of total integration. Whether the members will go for that, we will wait and see.
Speaking to other secretaries who are going through a similar process at men-only clubs, it’s very much at the forefront of The R&A’s mind.
The numbers of ladies who want to join traditional men-only clubs are going to be few and far
between to start with. But if we can show we have different initiatives in place to encourage junior girls, ladies, mums and wives and others who want to join, we could put Glasgow Golf Club at the forefront.
What do you need to look at to help the club continue to flourish?
We want to attract the mid-20s to the mid-50s. Our subscription is nearly £2,000 a year so we are looking for successful and affluent people, who expect a certain level of service.
They are looking for people to meet them on the front door, which Killermont used to do 20 years ago, but it’s not as though we are
reinventing the wheel. Not everyone wants to wear a jacket and tie but we still need to cater for those members who have always supported the club.
We also need to have facilities that are modern, bright and welcoming to families.
Now you’ve been in the role for a few months, what other plans do you have in mind?
It’s going to take a lot of time to develop the facilities we have got, because obviously we have got two courses, and develop the
service that complements that. It’s the same at Gailes. We’ve got a wonderful clubhouse and a stunning main dining room
but we’ve got to make sure that everything throughout – and behind the scenes such as the kitchens – is of the same standard.
These are the challenges and the membership is realising that this is the way we have got to go.
We had regional qualifying for the Open for four years, until last year, and know that unless we become a mixed club we won’t be hosting any more prestigious tournaments organised by The R&A.
But this isn’t going to be a one-year quick fix.
This is probably going to take three to five years to 10 years to make sure it is done properly, to make sure the facilities are invested in and, hopefully, we can start to see a growth in the number of junior girls and perhaps ladies who want to come because we are making it a modern-style club.
It’s a wonderful club, ultimately… It is. There are lots of different things
that can go into the melting pot to create this offering of Glasgow Golf Club being the premier club in the area.
We don’t have the land to develop so we can’t have a spa, tennis courts, bowling greens or things like that, but we can take
that concept and see what else we can develop.
Sounds like you made the right decision to go to Glasgow?
I think I have. I have no regrets at all about the decision to leave North Berwick. I will look forward to going back and enjoying North Berwick and everything that goes with it. I wish the team there continued success because it is a special place to work and golf. I know I have played a very small part in its history. But, at Glasgow, if everything comes off as I hope, that would be something pretty special.
By Marie Taylor