Golf Victoria moves GAA handicaps to RACV and VGL, while GolfNSW and Golf Queensland re-evaluate their options.
GOLF social clubs and social golfers who get their handicaps via the Golf Access Australia program will be facing an important decision in the following months, as the GAA Handicapping program is undergoing a major transition, starting in Victoria.
The program, originally launched by Golf Australia/AGU in 2007, was designed to act as a pathway for social players to convert into club membership. Operated on a state level, it has been administered by various GAA providers in Victoria, NSW and Queensland, as well as via a national provider, Bushranger Golf.
But in a letter to the nearly 2000 Golf Access Members in Victoria, Golf Victoria announced that handicaps would no longer be available through the state body, and that members should consider transitioning to another provider; with the RACV Golf Membership receiving top billing.
“Following a recent review by Golf Victoria, it has been decided that the current Golf Access membership will no longer be offered,” the letter explains. “Instead, Golf Victoria has formed a relationship with RACV Golf Membership. This relationship provides a fantastic opportunity for Victorian social golfers to access a wide range of benefits not currently available to Golf Access members.”
The letter came as a surprise to many GAA members, as well as some independent GAA providers, who found themselves unexpectedly unable to renew handicaps of their members. Inside Golf spoke with a number of GAA providers who were both shocked and upset by the announcement.
“We were completely blindsided by this,” said one GAA provider, who asked that their name and club be withheld. “We were not consulted at all, nor were any of the other GAA providers that we’ve spoken with. We had no warning that this was coming, let alone that a review had taken place.
“From our position, it has been very poorly managed and the outcome is a backward step for golf. It appears that GAA providers have been removed from the market and the RACV is being handed a monopoly. Many of our golfers are very angry and we feel somewhat betrayed given how we were lobbied by Golf Australia initially to participate in the Golf Access program when it was established.”
Golf Victoria’s CEO, Simon Brookhouse, told Inside Golf that the decision to end GAA administration at the state level was based on many factors.
“Following the development of the Golf Victoria strategic plan, it was identified that an area of potential growth was that of the social golfer. The social golfer market appears to have been disjointed in the past with a number of options provided but no consistent approach across the state. The options [include] Golf Access, Women’s Golf Network, League Clubs, Social Clubs, RACV Club Membership and the new Crown Lager Social Golf Club (CLSGC). To consolidate this we have taken the approach that RACV Membership offers the social golfer the best benefits.”
The GAA Program has sparked debate throughout its existence. Social golfers openly welcomed the program, as it gave them access to an official Golf Australia handicap (via the GolfLink system), as well as the necessary insurance and other benefits. Private clubs, however, voiced serious concerns about the program, claiming that it had the opposite effect, essentially driving members away from clubs and into more social play.
Brookhouse suggests that the latter was the case, with GAA not fulfilling its original goal.
“Our data suggests that Golf Access members were not converting to club membership. The product has not been subject to any development since its inception, and with Golf Australia introducing the CLSGN, Golf Victoria felt that the further development of the Golf Access product was unlikely.”
But the conversion data in Victoria may not tell the entire story. According to Matthew Pitt, founder of national GAA Provider Bushranger Golf, between 20 to 25 per cent of golfers they have supplied GAA handicaps have transitioned to club membership.
“We know 20 per cent of our golfers do not renew with us as they have joined a club, but the actual percentage is higher than that. We are aware of many cases where the golfer is not transferred on GOLF Link and the new club creates a new entity for the golfer on the system. We think it is safe to say that a quarter of the golfers we have put on handicaps have used the GAA handicap as a pathway to club membership. I would think the percentages for State-based providers vary from ours, but the figures we have reported to Golf Australia have been very consistent over six years.”
According to Stephen Pitt, CEO of Golf Australia, the golfing landscape has undergone a change.
“The playing and membership environment has changed compared to when Golf Access was developed,” Pitt explains. “Golf club membership is, in many cases, less expensive and of greater value than Golf Access, so social golfers can indeed play as they want, whether that be socially or at a golf club in competition. “The recent introduction of Golf Club Connect (www.golfclubconnect.com.au) enables golfers to purchase and find suitable and more flexible membership offerings to suit their needs. This means the golf clubs are getting significant support and social golfers in particular are too,” Pitt said.
In addition, Pitt believes the switch to RACV will give golfers plenty of benefits.
“Golf Victoria’s decision to move Golf Access members to the RACV Golf Membership will give program members in Victoria more options and benefits than they had before. Members will continue to have an official handicap, personal insurance, access to competitions and magazine subscription as they did in the original program but now they’ll also have access to other benefits from the RACV,” Pitt says.
Victoria is just the first of the states to formally re-evaluate the Golf Access program, with NSW and Qld potentially following suit.
“Golf NSW is currently reviewing its Golf Access and Golfers’ Club NSW/ACT programs,” explains Graeme Phillipson, General Manager of Golf, GolfNSW. “We are looking at consolidating these programs together with the national program. Golf NSW does receive queries from casual golfers who are interested in alternative ways of having a handicap other than becoming a full-time member of a golf club. Our challenge is to find the right mix between satisfying the desires of these golfers and also meeting our clubs’ needs. We are in the process of discussing these schemes with our Clubs and Districts to determine the best way forward.”
Golf Queensland, which has about 12 social golf clubs registered on Golf Access, is also working on ways to implement a similar scheme to that in Victoria and New South Wales.
“Golf Queensland does receive calls about Golf Access so we have identified there might be a need to change as well,” says Luke Bates, manager of golf operations.
“We are trying to work out ways to fulfil the need that is out there for those players who want to play competition golf, but who are unable to join a traditional golf club. We must also be mindful of keeping traditional member golf clubs happy.”
So what are the current options for social/casual golfers to get an official handicap?
Joining a country golf club or a metropolitan club is the obvious choice, and many clubs (especially the cash-strapped country-based clubs) are offering an increasing range of alternative membership options to suit a variety of budgets or playing preferences.
In Victoria, The RACV Golf Membership (www.racv.com.au/golf) offers official handicaps, Personal Golf Insurance cover, a free round of golf at selected RACV courses, discounts on golf rounds at RACV member courses and other benefits. Golfers transitioning over to the RACV Club will receive a special rate of $120 for the first year (normally $210).
Another option for Victorian golfers / clubs is to join the Victorian Golf League (www.vicgolfleague.com.au, 03 9417 3019), which represent all golfers on public access courses. The VGL currently offers handicaps at 78 clubs across Victoria, with a membership of over 7000 golfers.
“This is a great opportunity for Social Golfers. The VGL can affiliate all golfers, either with one of our existing 78 clubs, or as a new social club,”says Peter Kingshott, president of the VGL. “If they elect not to join the RACV Golf Program, Social Clubs can join our League as a Restricted Club for $80 per member, and maintain their Australian Handicaps, along with all other benefits they enjoyed with Golf Access, including magazine subscriptions, Public Liability, Injury and Property Insurance.
“Golf Access was originally intended to provide a pathway for social golfers into mainstream golf; this new direction, will now provide that. ”
Finally, golfers in all states can join Bushranger Golf (www.bushrangergolf.com.au, 03 5433 3213). Since 2006, Bushranger Golf has provided full official handicaps for golfers across the country, and offers all the necessary insurance and access to a variety of professionally managed events in various states.
“Bushranger Golf welcomes all golfers who are interested in holding an official handicap,” says Pitt. “Our goal is to help golfers where we can and to promote and grow the game. We have been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to introduce so many golfers to handicaps and provide a pathway to club membership. We look forward to helping many more people activate a handicap to enjoy participating in the fun and challenge of competition golf.”
FOOTNOTE: The Crown Lager Social Golf Club, launched by Golf Australia in November 2011, offers “casual” handicaps which are maintained by golfers and calculated via GolfLink. These handicaps give an indication of a player’s skill, but are not officially recognized, and do not qualify for most Australian events or competitions.