Take on the floating green

First published in Golf The Northern Echo: Photograph of the Author by , Chief Football/Golf Writer

A RECENT survey suggested there had been a significant drop in registered golfers in the United Kingdom and Ireland. After 20 years of growth, KPMG's findings claimed the numbers across Europe had declined.

But at a time when golf clubs across the country are having to come up with innovative ways to redress the slide, the English Golf Union is also doing their bit to try to ensure there remains a high demand for golf.

For some time now memberships have, generally, been dropping. Rather than highlighting a lack of interest in the sport, however, such figures have also tended to hide the fact there are a growing number of those playing social golf instead.

And with so many people quick to find they do enjoy swinging a seven iron or blasting a driver down the fairway, the EGU will attempt over the week of April 16-22 to encourage more new faces to try the sport.

"It is the start of the golf season, I want loads of people to come down, particularly to Stockton where we will have a floating green (on Thursday, April 19 from 3pm)," said Jason Budd, who has put a lot of work into organising the Regional Golf Week.

It is something new to the North-East, which has had the backing from the Northumberland, Durham and Cumbria Golf Unions.

Among the things to do will be a free disability golf day at Sharpley on Monday, April 16; a women and girls' taster session at Crook and Barnard Castle on Tuesday, April 17; and taster sessions at Seaham on Tuesday, April 17, and Saturday, April 21.

There are also numerous other activities along the way, which will see events take place at South Moor on Wednesday, April 18, Barnard Castle on Thursday, April 19 and a business skills challenge at Knotty Hill on Friday, April 20.

As well as those there will be an open day at Seaton Carew on Friday, April 20, a Junior Open at Seaham on Friday, April 20. Get into Golf sessions for women, girls and men are also scheduled at Barnard Castle on Saturday, April 21.

Effectively headlining the week will be the floating green, in partnership with Stockton Borough Council, which will be placed on the River Tees, close to the Infinity Bridge in Stockton, on April 19. Everyone will be encouraged to see if they can land a ball safely on the water-bound target. Among the prizes on offer for a hole in one is an LCD TV.

There are events being held for children, but the week predominantly is designed to try to attract more under-16s to try out golf and experience how enjoyable it can be.

"Hopefully it is something different to attract people to the game," said Budd, the region's EGU co-ordinator for the last four years. "This golf week is something we have talked about in the past. It is new to the North-East, so we have put some activities on all week. We are aiming to raise awareness for golf. It's changed so much, dramatically.

"The last few years have been quite challenging because numbers have dropped off. The first thing you find when you lose your job, or the finances drop, is that leisure takes a hit. Leisure is not a priority.

"Golf clubs are realising this. Now clubs are being more accessible. Years ago it used to be a lump sum to join or a golden handshake. Now there are deals on, direct debits. It is all helping to get people playing golf.

"But you still compete for the same kind of people. There are many sports out there and it's difficult to get people into golf. What we are seeing is that green fees are now lower."

One of the problems golf clubs have found in recent years has been the increase of the social golfer. A member might be reluctant to fork out a further £500 annual payment to remain a member.

But with golf clubs across the country coming up with new ideas to keep golfers playing, Budd - a nine-handicapper at his nearby Crook - thinks it is possible to convince the public to become more interested as the summer approaches and the sun shines.

"If you looked at the active people's survey, which we get judged on, it says participation in golf is on the decrease," said Budd. "The last set of results showed a considerable drop.

"But if you look at our figures, we run programmes like Get In To Golf and they are packed out every single week in the south and north. So there are contrasting views really.

"You only have to look at the car parks. Golf courses are still packed out in the summer. Bad weather doesn't help and last year we had a horrendous winter, that affected income and businesses.

"When people looked to renew their fees, they questioned if it was worth rejoining. We could do with a lot of new members but it is still a massively popular sport and hopefully this golf week will help boost numbers, get people playing golf."

The EGU believe only 28 per cent of golfers in this country are members of clubs, the rest would prefer to pay-as-they-play, which enables them to play a variety of courses, sometimes in unrecognised societies without an official handicap.

County Durham-based Budd wants to help further develop golf in the area, see memberships increase, which would help to bring more of the region's best golfers on to the professional stage, along with the likes of Hartlepool's Graeme Storm, Barnard Castle's Rob Dinwiddie and European Tour rookies Jodi Ewart, Ellie Givens and Anna Scott.

There is a concentration and commitment to introduce more youngsters to the game, but the up-coming golf week is all about trying to persuade the school leavers and adults to start playing.

"We are trying to attract 16-plus, it's the Sport England agenda we are working to," said Budd. "We have been funded up to 2013 to try to get those people into sport.

"Every national governing body who has signed up to that - 46 of them - they have role to play to increase participation. The golf foundation look at Under-16s, so we do look at that. But this month is more about the 16 and over bracket, even though we do have Under-11 events going on.

"What we are finding is that the average age of a golfer is 55 or 56. That's quite high. We look at market segmentation that Sport England puts together for us. We are trying to look at different ways to make more golf more accessible to everyone. Golf in 60 minutes, nine-hole competitions. All sorts. Regional Golf Week will hopefully show people that."

The Infinity Golf Challenge in association with Stockton Borough Council is proudly sponsored by Srixon and Cleveland Golf & Cash Converters.

The Regional Golf Week is part of the Durham County Golf Partnership's strategy to raise awareness of Golf and to increase participation across the County. This is also in conjunction with Durham County Council's "Join In" Olympic Legacy Campaign.

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