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"No lessons, no comps, no customers" – The life of a club pro in lockdown

If bad luck really is a three-headed serpent, then Gordon Stewart is entitled to feel as though he’s due a change of fortune.

The long-standing head professional at Cawder Golf Club, just to the north of Glasgow, had his shop broken into in December. Thieves helped themselves to his entire stock of hardware and some apparel, making off with over £25,000 worth of goods.

The second wettest winter on record in Scotland proceeded to follow, storms Ciara, Dennis and Jorge depositing three times the average rainfall for a Glasgwegian February - almost ten inches of the stuff.

Then coronavirus struck, locking down the whole city, country and, indeed, much of the world.

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In line with government guidance, Cawder temporarily closed its doors on Tuesday morning to help contain the spread of the pandemic. Stewart had done likewise with his shop 48 hours earlier. Concerned by some people’s lack of social distancing vigilance – “At one point last Sunday,” he said, “I counted 16 people in the shop all at once” – he felt he had no alternative.

Consequently, he has spent this past week in a position that will be all-too-familiar to many people across the country: in work but not.

Gordon Stewart Cawder Gc

“It really couldn’t have come at a worse time,” Stewart, pictured above playing his home course, told bunkered.co.uk. “The first ninety days of the season is where you make the biggest percentage of your turnover. You get a spike because people are starting to think about playing golf again and they’re excited because The Masters is on the TV, the weather’s improving, the days are getting longer – a whole accumulation of things.

“Around about July is when you see things start to taper off – which, if the projections are accurate, is when the virus is expected to peak. And remember, that’s just the peak. It then has to come back down. The whole season could be a bit of a write-off.”

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In a tale that will be familiar to many club professionals the world over, Stewart currently has a huge supply of stock to sell but nobody to buy it.

On top of that, he’s not able to make any additional income from giving lessons or playing, the PGA in Scotland having cancelled all of its events through to the end of May. He has also had to place his two assistants onto the furlough system.

In spite of this, Stewart is one of the lucky ones. He operates as a sole trader. That makes him eligible for financial support from the government. By contrast, some of his contemporaries are their own limited companies and, as a result, don’t qualify for assistance.

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Then there’s the matter of insurance. By virtue of his affiliation to the TGI Golf Partnership, Stewart has an insurance policy that covers for “notifiable human disease”. On March 5, COVID-19 was officially registered in such a way in order to mitigate the effect on businesses.

Not everybody’s insurance offers such cover, however, compounding the worry that is currently hanging over the industry’s grassroots.

“There’s a huge amount of uncertainty for club professionals just now,” added Stewart.

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He plans to spend the next few weeks – potentially months – working in other areas of the business. “We’ve made up a communications strategy to make sure we speak to our members on a weekly basis and make sure that they continue to feel like they are a big part of our club because they absolutely are. I can totally appreciate their frustration at not being able to play just now but I just hope they’ll persevere and stick with us throughout all of this.

“That goes for members of all golf clubs. Cash-flow is going to be huge if clubs are going to survive this crisis. I know that some people will be tempted to cancel their memberships but I can’t urge them strongly enough to do that. 

"I saw somebody the other day saying to treat the next five or six weeks as if there’s snow on the ground. You wouldn’t cancel your membership then, so why do it now? If you do, there’s a good chance you’ll be helping to push the club one step closer to the brink.”

James Erskine

Around seventy miles south, Dumfries & County pro James Erskine, above, is celebrating ten years at the club this week. Although ‘celebrating’ is maybe not the word. 

Concerned by the spread of the coronavirus and the possible health implications to his young family, he decided to cancel all lessons over a fortnight ago.

“I was probably one of the first people in the country to do that,” he said. “It’s fair to say it got a bit of a mixed reaction but I just felt like I had to take caution.”

He continued to keep his shop open but, last weekend, completely surrendered to his own reservations.

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“I just felt a bit uncomfortable being there,” he said. “Although the course was still open and people were saying that golf was a great thing to be doing, I didn’t think we were doing ourselves any favours. I’ve also got two young assistants who I’ve got a duty of care towards. So, on Saturday lunchtime, I decided to close.

“It was a really hard thing to do, to basically give up, albeit hopefully temporarily, on a business that we’ve built up over the last decade from being small and not particularly technologically-advanced to being a modern, pro-active set-up. But I felt I had no choice. You’ve got to do the right thing.”

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The response to that decision, he adds, has been far more positive. “I’ve been completely overwhelmed by the number of messages I’ve had in the last week. Customers and members alike have got in touch to say that they support the decision and to pass on their best wishes. That has been really reassuring.

“You know, this is a competitive industry but I truly hope and belief that when we come out of this thing, we’ll be more successful than ever.”

Erskine’s relationship with Dumfries & Country is incredibly strong. So much so, in fact, that the club is going to honour his retainer throughout this period of inactivity.

“I can’t begin to tell you how much I appreciate that,” he said. “Right now, I’ve got around £60,000 of stock and nobody to sell it to.

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“The last competition I played in was a PGA Winter Fourball at Craigielaw where Graham Fox and I finished second, making £250 between us – but he made zero birdies that day, so, really, he stole £125 off me!

“Seriously, though, there are no more events in the pipeline and I’ve got nobody to teach. All three of my main revenue streams have been cut off, so having the support of the club is absolutely massive.”

It’s also not necessarily commonplace. Some pros aren’t having their retainers honoured and have been forced to apply for part-time work in supermarkets. Anything to kept the well wet.

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“It’s just brutal,” added Erskine. “Club pros generally don’t get anything like the credit they deserve. We put in so much work and often for very little reward. It’s our passion for the game and for helping others to enjoy it that keeps the fire burning. Fortunately, the majority of us all speak to one another and so we’ve been bouncing around ideas for what we can do to get through these times.

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“One thing that is for sure is that the industry is going to have to adapt and there will be some tough times ahead. Visitor income, for example. We’d probably take in £60,000 per year just from visitors. That’s a lot of money that we have to try and make up but, equally, other clubs that rely more heavily on visitor revenue will have it tougher than us.

“The good thing about a crisis is that it generally brings out the best in people and everybody works together.

“It was encouraging this morning to get a phone call from the chief executive of the PGA. I gather he’s phoning every professional in the country to offer his support, which is impressive and much appreciated.

“We can get through this and, if we all pull together and have each other’s back, I have every confidence that we will.”

• Are you concerned that you may have coronavirus? Follow the NHS guidelines here.


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