The R&A - Working for Golf

Dealing with COVID-19: South Africa

With the COVID-19 pandemic impacting all areas of society on a global scale, golf clubs have faced huge, uncertain challenges. It has made the role of national federations and associations even more important during a turbulent period.

GolfRSA is the unified body of the South African Golf Association (SAGA) and Women’s Golf South Africa (WGSA), administering, operating and providing service to amateur golf in South Africa. GolfRSA’s role is to look after the interests of more than 400 golf clubs and 139,000 registered golfers. 

During the crisis in South Africa the strategy from GolfRSA focused on working with government to enable a safe return to play and supporting those who work at golf facilities. The following Q&A with Grant Hepburn, CEO of GolfRSA, outlines work undertaken in this crucial area and how other national bodies could perhaps learn from their experiences.

How severe was the lockdown in South Africa?

“There was an interim period where the country wasn’t on lockdown and golf was played with modified Rules to cater for COVID-19 but, as of 27 March, golf courses were closed as a countrywide lockdown was introduced, with only essential services open. It was one of the strictest regimes in the world with everyone confined to their homes 24/7, only being allowed out for emergencies and to go shopping for essentials once a week. There was a ban on the sale of alcohol and tobacco.

“GolfRSA supported clubs through communications on various issues that arose leading into the lockdown. GolfRSA also sought government opinion on course maintenance during this time and we were able to inform clubs that they could maintain their course in this period with minimal staff and as little human interaction as possible.”

It has been a challenging time for club affiliation fees. How has GolfRSA handled that and what impact might it have on GolfRSA?

“GolfRSA is largely funded by affiliation fees that are received from golf club members. Those fees are collected by the golf clubs and are then paid over to GolfRSA, with fees due by the end of May.  

“Some clubs have not paid the fees yet and are using the money to fight their own cash flow issues caused by the pandemic. GolfRSA, through their Unions, is engaging with these clubs and putting agreements in place in order to help them with options around paying GolfRSA at a later date.

“In addition to the difficulty in collecting last years’ affiliation fees, golf in South Africa faces the very real scenario of hugely reduced golf club membership as a result of this crisis. The pandemic and extremely strict lockdown rules in South Africa has seen massive job losses already across all sectors. One can only imagine the impact on golf club membership, which will directly reduce GolfRSA income.”

Has GolfRSA been involved in collaborative work for golf’s return?

“At the end of April, GolfRSA headed up a delegation representing the golf industry comprising the PGA of South Africa and the Club Management Association of South Africa, that took the case to government for the consideration of opening up golf facilities. This was well received and, in his speech to the country two days later, the Sport Minister complimented the proposal. He acknowledged the fact that golf is a non-contact sport and, due to the nature of the game, it is easy to practice social distancing, which increased the chances of golf facilities opening up before other sports.  

“GolfRSA has carried out a number of club surveys and these have helped inform its approach to the lockdown and the process of bringing golf out of the COVID-19 crisis.”

How has GolfRSA planned for the return to golf?

“The proposal to government hinged around putting in place a ‘Risk Mitigation Strategy’ that includes scanning, testing, providing PPE to staff at clubs and reporting test results to a central government database. The necessity to get people back to work (caddies, casual workers, labourers) was also highlighted. In order to achieve this, it was proposed to repurpose these workers to help with the implementation of the risk mitigation practicalities. As an example, caddies will be positioned on tee boxes to monitor social distancing. Caddies and casual workers will be positioned on fairways with their own personal rake to rake bunkers and again monitor social distancing and the same would happen on the greens. Workers will also be trained to test and scan other staff and golfers.

“Golf’s proposal is now being sought after by many other sporting codes as an example to follow and GolfRSA is extremely busy engaging with those sports as well as golf clubs and government.

“In line with our Risk Mitigation Strategy, training for staff around the country will need to be provided and golf clubs will need to provide PPE and other safety measures, such as foot pedal sanitation pumps. This all comes at a cost and most clubs cannot afford to outlay the money, which presents a huge challenge.”

How is GolfRSA helping golf club workers?

“In the presentation to government, a COVID-19 Help Fund was outlined. This is aimed at helping caddies and casual workers. Many of these people do not have jobs now, no source of income and, in many cases, they do not qualify for any of the government relief funds. GolfRSA has started a fund with R1 million that it has been able to commit due to income retained from the cancellation of tournaments, as well as significant staff salary reductions. The fund has already sent thousands of food vouchers to caddies and casual workers around the country.  

“An auction site that is tied into the Help Fund has been established. Famous international golfers, as well as sports stars, offer themselves up for auction whereby they will play a round of golf with the person paying the most for their time. Some of the sport stars have offered their beautiful personal holiday homes in game reserves and other amazing sites as auction items. GolfRSA hopes to grow the fund rapidly and make it into something that can be sustainable and also offer help to various people that are suffering in the golf industry, not only caddies and casual workers, but people like golf coaches who only live off lesson fees.”

How does GolfRSA see the sport in South Africa coping through the remainder of 2020 and beyond?

“Many thousands of people in the country have lost their jobs. A good percentage of those will be people that play golf and will no longer be able to afford to play. That will negatively affect many golf clubs that have already been brought to their knees. Small clubs had very little cash reserves and large successful clubs that did have reserves have spent most of that on maintenance and paying large salary bills during lockdown. Due to the steep and harsh economic decline, one can imagine a very difficult challenge for clubs to crawl out of the crisis even once golf is allowed again.  

“Hundreds of people within the golf industry have already lost their jobs and when clubs open back up many of them will probably not get those jobs back as clubs try to resurrect themselves by keeping costs down. Operating a golf club and maintaining a golf course will probably, by necessity, need to be done by much smaller staff compliments. 

“When it comes to golf unions and GolfRSA as the governing body, the knock-on effect will likely be significant. I mentioned that many golfers will not be able to afford to play golf and there will be many that cannot afford to pay club membership fees, so that will have a direct impact on affiliation fees. Then there is the harsh reality that some people may not want to pay affiliation fees on top of club membership fees. On top of that, due to the economic crush, there will be a strong expectation to reduce the affiliation fees significantly.

“One also has to consider the mindset of the golfers once the full impact of this pandemic has registered. Much of GolfRSA’s core operations centre around running tournaments. These tournaments, like most countries are mostly national championships for various age groups as well as inter-provincial tournaments for juniors, open amateurs, mid-amateurs and seniors. There will likely be far less income to pay for the running and staging of those tournaments. No doubt the tournament schedule will be affected and some tournaments will be cancelled for the foreseeable future, even long after the pandemic has passed.  

“Another consideration for the governing body to be mindful of is the ‘optics’ around spending money on a tournament such as an inter-provincial when the general golfing public and the clubs are struggling to survive. There could be resistance to that type of spend and financial resources of governing bodies might be expected to be redirected towards other projects. One will have to wait and see where the greater need is.

“One thing that seems certain is the way golf clubs and governing bodies operated in the past will change after COVID-19. Those changes will unfold as a new reality sets in. Many of the ‘old rules’ and traditional behaviours will disappear, either through necessity due to the economic impact, or because of a resetting of people’s mindsets and what they deem to be the new priorities.”