A final and very audible sigh of relief greeted the departure of 2020 into the annals of history as the clock struck midnight on 31 December.

It was a year of trials at almost every level of human activity, not least in the real-world retail sector, which came under unprecedented pressure globally throughout 2020.

For any lovers of conspiracy theories one of the rules of thumb is to ‘follow the money’ and if you analyse who benefitted from the pandemic, the beneficiaries are obvious.

Elon Musk rocketed (literally in the sense of Spacex) up the rich list this year from the mid 40’s to the number one spot largely on the back of the surging Tesla share price. The BBC correspondent, Rory Cellan-Jones interestingly refers to the investment frenzy in Tesla shares as ‘the ultimate example of irrational exuberance’. He did add the cautionary note that anyone who has bet against Musk to date has come very short!

That said, almost everyone in the technology space saw exponential growth, with some online services reporting trajectories, from March 2020, achieving levels of growth that should only have been reached, under normal circumstances, by 2025.

Admittedly, inherent weakness in the bricks and mortar retail model resulted in significant casualties during the pandemic.

It should be noted that many of these businesses suffered from a combination of co-morbidities, including moribund trading practices, high staff levels, expensive rentals, etc., which, when combined with the lockdown of huge sections of the population everywhere, merely hastened what was seen as an inevitable decline.

I have commented that the ‘boom’ experienced by golf in terms of the interest and rounds’ numbers, although most welcome, might be an unsustainable bubble in that most clubs and venues did little or nothing to moderate their practices and were just pleasantly surprised by the unexpected windfall.

I asked Jason Rowe (JR), who is the CEO of the Golfers Club Group, that if we are not changing our behaviour, what drove this sudden surge of attraction and if it was perhaps just a case of the pandemic turning a plain girl at the party, into the only girl at the party.

JR: Very funny and perhaps not too far off the truth. As a retail operation, we had a terrific holiday season and the indications are that we are on track to be on par with our retail figures in 2019. Given the loss of seven trading weeks mid-2020, this is quite remarkable and means that we are actually ahead in overall terms. The ‘boom’ has been noticeable and was experienced across the board by many clubs and our competitors alike and your remarks that golf had not done anything different to attract the surge of interest, and that it would take real change to sustain it, are both fair and concerning.

JC: So was this just a mini-boom, is it real, is it sustainable and how did it manifest itself in stores for you?

JR: In retail terms, it was very real. For example, we completely sold out our stock of starter sets and nearly did the same with the ‘kids’ packages. The challenge for golf, which I see as a collective responsibility, will be to sustain these new players' interest. Golf must strive to keep the new arrivals engaged and in the game and prepared to continue spending. This spend would be on lessons, rounds, golf balls, softs, competition entry fees, etc. until they are ready to graduate from their starter set and entry-level memberships to the purchase of branded clubs and full memberships.

Common sense should prevail in this, as a customer’s real value, to any business, is in the future relationship – look after them now and convert them into repeat and loyal customers, which, all in all, is really not so very different from the needs around member retention.

JC: I have the sense that you have tried to make a visit to the Golfers Club something of an experience and more than just a trip out to buy golf equipment - something everyone in the golf business needs to pay more attention to – would this be accurate.

JR: Most definitely and it is an ongoing process for everyone. We try to position The Golfers Club as a destination, which offers great value, good advice and a welcoming, fun, shopping experience. I am a member at Bryanston Country Club, which has made huge strides in addressing just this issue, and the fact that the club is now a destination, much more ‘fun’ to be at and family orientated is what prompted me to move to it.

In all of this, and quite naturally, the physical elements of this mix are easy enough to achieve – just throw money at it! However, finding and keeping staff able and willing to deliver this vision, especially at the golf clubs, is a much greater challenge.

JC: A number of golf venues are distancing themselves from ‘old fashioned’ terminology, and the historical prejudices these may contain, and which might imply any kind of unnatural exclusivity, or which are seen to be unwelcoming. Fancourt’s name is just that, with no reference to golf club, with the attendant implications of ‘stay away’, ‘members only’, ‘admission reserved’, etc.

Goodwood, in the UK, has named its ‘clubhouse’ The Kennels and this generic moniker makes it much easier to market the facility for other uses and to a broader public.

JR: The key question, which I am sure you will explore further this year in this column, will be how we can hold on to those recent additions to the golf family. I like to think that all my customers are no more or less than ‘members’ and I feel that clubs will need to adopt a very customer-centric approach, appeal to a broader public. In addition and going forward, most clubs will be best served by a move away from the traditional reliance on a limited and core membership to sustain themselves financially.

John Cockayne has been a Professional Golfer since 1977 and is a fully qualified founder member and Life Member of the PGA of South Africa. He is a former Head Professional at Royal Oak, State Mines and Benoni Country Clubs and Director of Golf at Southbroom, during which period he was involved in the organisation of golf tours, numerous professional and amateur tournaments and as a consultant on the Sunshine Circuit.