DURING last month’s GMA National Conference—where general managers and industry professionals met to discuss and address the many issues affecting golf clubs—I was fortunate to chat with dozens of delegates about a variety of issues plaguing their clubs.

One such issue was the proliferation of “Virtual Clubs”—online-based or remotely-based groups that often operate independently of a physical golf course or private club.

These clubs – like The Social Golf Club, RACV Golf, QANTAS Golf Club (Recently re-branded as NBC Sports’ GOLFNOW/GOLFPASS), Future Golf, Social Golf Australia and others—operate via a monthly or annual membership fee and, importantly, offer official Golf Australia handicaps and access to a variety of courses across Australia. Additionally, there is also the related topic of Remote/Country memberships, which offer similar benefits, via a discounted price at a single club or course.

The general managers and delegates that I spoke with had a variety of opinions on the subject, and I discovered that there are two very clear viewpoints (arguments) when it comes to these Virtual Clubs:

On the one hand, the members of these virtual clubs are quick to point out that A) Golf Australia is firmly behind them (having created/promoted/partnered these clubs, and abandoning the “Golf Access Australia” pathway program in 2012), B) Their handicaps are issued under the auspices of Golf Australia (and you can use it to enter the Australian Open or the Open Championship if you wish), C) They are the fastest-growing segment of golf, with many Virtual Golfers being former members of private clubs (and even some professional tours), and D) They bring solid revenue to the physical golf clubs they play (through green fees, food and beverage spend, etc) as well as act as a potential conduit to future membership at the clubs they visit.

Conversely, many private golf clubs argue that A) These types of players are not “Real” gofers (they have not, for example, “paid their dues” at a club over the years, and thus should not get the same access to the magnificent course as the long-standing members), B) Are disruptive/loud, causing potential damage to the course, etc, C) Are the main “cause” for the decline in Australian club membership,  and D) Are frugal with their money (i.e. they are discount-shoppers that don’t spend all that much in the bar or pro shop) so they bring little value during a golf day.

This has led many clubs to either ban virtual members from playing their course, or restrict the Virtual member from playing in the daily comps (or, charge an exorbitant fee to play.) We’ve covered this particular topic via letters/columns in the past (i.e. “Discrimination in golf”), with the general consensus (and advice from Golf Australia) being that private clubs can, legally, operate in any manner that they wish, much to the chagrin of the legions of Virtual members that have written in.

I’ll admit that I am a bit torn on this topic. Being both a member of a private club (on the Board, no less), as well as a casual member of a popular Virtual Club, I can see both sides of the argument. And, I will note that, as with most arguments, both sides are passionate that “only their side” is the correct one (yet the reality is somewhere in the middle.)

So this month, I’m calling upon clubs and golfers to “sway me” (if you can) towards one argument or the other.

Write in to me (ed@insidegolf.com.au) and let me know your thoughts. Tell me what you think are the real facts in this debate.

If you are a private club member (or GM, etc), let me know: Does your club allow Virtual Clubs? (Why or Why not?). What does your club do to accommodate Virtual Golfers? Do you allow them to play in comps with your fellow members? (Why, or why not?).

If you are a Virtual/Social Golfer: Have you been refused entry to a comp at a club, based upon your Virtual membership?  What does your group do to combat this? How long have you been a Virtual Member? Were you previously a member of a private club? Why did you switch?

In both cases, feel free to share your horror stories, or any feel-good successes. Send it all in!

As usual, see you on the fairways

Richard Fellner

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