What makes a successful club?

By Dean Murphy
New Zealand Golf Chief Executive

Every day I get asked about the health of clubs in New Zealand and what the successful clubs are doing.

I generally have the same answer but first let me provide some background.

While a good number of clubs are in a strong financial position with healthy club memberships, an estimated half of golf clubs in New Zealand are experiencing financial difficulties with some considering their long-term futures.

A few clubs have needed to merge, and some have relocated or closed. For many clubs, unless declining membership is addressed or operating cashflow increases, this trend is likely to continue.

The fact is that golf clubs are currently experiencing a lengthy period of customer transition. Casual golf participation and golf tourism is growing but memberships are at best static. These days, clubs must manage multiple challenges. Broadly, these include changing societal and leisure habits, an ageing player demographic and increasing costs, including higher operating and infrastructure costs.

Small clubs are relying heavily on volunteers to remain open and keep their course playable. Recruiting new volunteers is a challenge and succession planning is a major concern. Clubs are struggling to balance the entitlements of members with increasing numbers of casual players. The administration burden for clubs is also increasing, with a greater need for club support and more knowledge sharing.

From our experience, the clubs most at risk are those with more than 75 percent of their revenue coming from membership subscriptions and those clubs who have a unique catchment area of less than 20,000 people.

Navigating this challenge is very tricky and often clubs are reluctant to ask for help. Through our club support programme, we have invested into the employment of five dedicated club and sector support staff, worked with over 150 clubs, created over 150 case studies and resources, realised more than $1 million of savings for golf clubs through Lite Club partnership and about $200,000 is now being saved each year through the national group buying scheme.

These are all great initiatives, but we are well aware there remains much to do. Our ambition will always outweigh our resource, but we are starkly aware of the need to increase our support to clubs as they navigate the tricky future.

Back to what makes a successful club?

My experience is that there is no one formula that drives club success. All clubs are different and what works for one club will not necessarily work for another. While there is no silver bullet, there are three things that I believe greatly increase the probability of success.


It is staggering the number of clubs who consistently fail to plan for the future in favour of setting their entire focus on short term matters. However hard it may be, the process of developing and setting a well thought out long term plan for the club significantly enhances the chances of future success. For reasons we can’t explain, so many clubs are just not interested in this process or when they do plan, they fail to critically analyse their current state and continue with a more of the same or she’ll be right attitude. Not surprisingly, the successful clubs around the country can usually very clearly articulate the challenges they currently face, their ideal future state and the plan they have to get there. Seems simple but it’s amazing how few clubs are in this position.


If you evaluate successful clubs, the origin of their success can often be traced back to good people who are good strong leaders. In today’s difficult environment, it’s easy to look for excuses and to blame others – societal change, the club board, the committee, the local council, New Zealand Golf or the local district association. Strong leaders at clubs get busy and create an environment that breeds success. It makes such a difference when a club has good strong leaders and, in my view, it is worth clubs thinking about who are the best people to lead the club navigate into the future. The better the leader, the more chance of success.


To add to strong leadership and good planning, my experience tells me that clubs can greatly enhance their probability of future success by embracing good governance practices. The clubs who don’t, generally struggle to get out of second gear and get stuck in short term thinking that does little to achieve long term outcomes. If golf clubs are to thrive in the future, my view is that much work needs to be done to define the responsibilities of committees and to strengthen skills set through succession planning and proper strategy.

Our job is to support clubs wherever we can, and we look forward to continuing this work. There are so many people doing such good work at the grass roots level and its inspiring for us to work with these people every day. When clubs get the governance piece right, have a good leader and a well-developed future focused plan, it is amazing the progress that can be made.