Pitt's Push for Socal Golf article on BRG's Matthew Pitt in Golf Vic magazine
Pitt’s Push for Social Golf
By Henry Peters – published in Aug / Sept 2015 Golf Victoria magazine
From founding Bushranger Golf to his hectic role as Managing Director of Social Golf Australia (SGA),
Matthew Pitt is an innovator in the social golf sector. Henry Peters sat down with him to find out why some
traditional club golfers don’tunderstand what social golf clubs can do for the growth of the game.
Two teenagers are turning heads on Heidelberg Road in the Melbourne suburb of Clifton Hill. Matthew Pitt is one of them and he and a mate have developed a mode of transport rarely seen. “We used to ride our bikes from North Fitzroy to Yarra Bend, towing golf clubs on buggies hitched to the back of our BMXs.”
Now 46 years old, Pitt reclines on a chair in his home office in the central Victorian sleepy hollow of Heathcote, where he moved with his wife, Sally, in 2007. It’s school holidays and his three young children are running amuck inside the house while he bunkers down at Social Golf Australia’s (SGA) humble headquarters. Pitt has long championed the cause of social golf clubs and what they bring to the game of golf in Australia. He founded Bushranger Golf – now Australia’s biggest social golf club – in 2006 and Social Golf Australia (SGA) in 2009, which hosts over 100 events annually and now maintains over 1000 official handicaps around Australia.
“Golf clubs are our most important suppliers and we both benefit from the relationship. Our event bookings deliver green fee and catering revenues and our customers are potential new members for clubs,” Pitt says. “In addition to providing handicaps, all our events are official competition rounds. We’re giving golfers the opportunity to play events at different courses and introducing them to competition golf.”
Pitt’s passion for golf is unmistakable although work and famiy life have reduced him to only fleeting appearances at the beautiful Heathcote Golf Club. Four sets of golf clubs sit on the deck of his Heathcote home as he starts debunking some of the myths surrounding social golf clubs.
“There is a misconception amongst some club members that it’s us against them. A far more constructive approach is that the game needs all golfers and we can work together. Golf is competing with other sports and leisure activities. Rather than internal division, the game would be best-served with a unified approach.
Unfortunately, social golf can carry an unwarranted stigma that it is thongs, singlets, beer and swearing. There is certainly an element of that, but social golfers are the 700,000 people who play the game who are not members of a club. Social Golf Clubs are golfing fraternities that range from the ‘Sink Another’ SGC (eight pals playing monthly on various courses and enjoying a beer afterwards) through to highly orgamised clubs such as Nunawading SGC that is an official handicap provider with an elected committee, a constitution, office bearers and club championships.”
The attitude towards social golf clubs is changing. Perceptions that they are only stealing members from ‘proper’ clubs are less pervasive. Golf Victoria CEO Simon Brookhouse is urging all golf clubs to welcome the pathway that social golf clubs provide. “If the traditional clubs can embrace the fact that social club members are all potential future members, the marketing becomes easier for them,” Brookhouse wrote in this year’s Issue 3 of Golf Victoria Magazine.
According to Golf Australia’s statistics, there are currently more than 700,000 social golfers – people who play but don’t belong to aclub – and only 397,000club golfers.
“Clubs can generate revenue from social golfers through green fees, golf equipment sales and golf lessons . One of the challenges for the game is educating some club members that social golfers are an opportunity and not a threat.” Pitt laments. “If a golf club is looking to increase membership, the logical primary target demographic for new members is people who play golf and are not members of a golf club - social golfers. If they already have a handicap, then even better. The only other demographic to target is existing members at other golf clubs.”
Pitt began running golf trips to Murray River courses for a group of around 20 golfing pals. A web developer named Sam Saltis – founder of bwired.com.au – met Pitt at one of his events and encouraged him to develop his passion for golf into a business. Saltis became a business mentor and offered a Pitt a website which was the spark that started Bushranger Golf and later SGA.
Last summer SGA partnered with GOLF Link to manage the Race to Bonville events at 30 golf clubs around Australia and Pitt now oversees over 30 events a year in Victoria at venues including Kingston Heath, Victoria, Commonwealth, Huntingdale and Yarra Yarra. Even Australia’s most esteemed private clubs have warmed to the idea that social golf is a potential opportunity for revenues and/or membership growth.
Perhaps a lesser known demographic of social club golfers is the person who is also a member of a private golf club. There are no hard and fast stats but Richard Fellner – co-founder of Bushranger Golf and an Eastern Golf Club member – continues to juggle private and social memberships.“At Eastern, I play every Wednesday and then three, four times a year, Bushranger Golf has one of the weekends away. I’ll do the big trip away with them,” Fellner admits.
Pitt says the wide-ranging snapshot of the social club golfer is on show at SGA’s annual Australian Social Golf Club Championships in Queensland. “I see tradies and company directors who are old friends or they’re mates through a social golf club. They appear to be from different worlds and that’s the beauty of the game - golf brings friends together.”
The networking benefits of social golf membership are undeniable according to Fellner. He’s held the position of editor at Inside Golf magazine since 2009 – a role he argues came from his association with Bushranger Golf.“I pitched a story to the editor at the time saying I wanted to write a story about the social club and they said they loved it, they ran it, they said ‘do you want to start doing course reviews?’ I said ‘sure’, and then eventually moved on up to editor.”
Fellner – who moved to Australian from America 12 years ago – is a poster child for what social club golfers can do for traditional clubs.“I was introduced to a lot of courses around Australia. Eventually I came across Eastern and took the leap into private golf club membership.”
Pitt estimates that more than 25 per cent of Bushranger Golf’s members leave to join a traditional club supporting the view that the discount handicap model provides a pathway to club membership. While many people believe discount handicaps can hurt clubs, Pitt argues that Golf Australia’s decision to dismantle Golf Access Australia (GAA) effectively deregulated the handicapping market and opened the door for more handicap providers.
"Under Golf Access, golf clubs were protected as anybody who left a golf club had to wait 12 months before applying for a handicap through a GAA provider. The anti-Golf Access logic was counter-intuitive because GAA genuinely protected the golf clubs and provided a pathway for new club memberships. With GAA being removed, the 12 month rule protecting clubs no longer exists.,” Pitt states.
Pitt believes the deregulated handicap market has been the catalyst for some businesses to enter the market as new handicap providers. It is a challenge the game is working through, but Pitt argues that bridging the gap between club golfers and social golfers is critical for the future of the game.
“In Australia, golf is competing with cycling and soccer and cricket and a dozen other sports. That competition is already intense without the distraction of internal divisions between club and social golfers. We would be far better served if golfers could work in unison to promote the game and grow participation by making new golfers feel welcome on the course with us."
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