Royal Dornoch GM Neil Hampton on Golf Clubs in the UK vs American Clubs

I’m intrigued by the cultural differences between golf in America versus the UK, Scotland in particular. I recently had the chance to sit down with Royal Dornoch Golf Club General Manager Neil Hampton to discuss.

As many know, Royal Dornoch’s championship course is consistently ranked among the top 5 in the world and has a dramatically different financial operating model than most top clubs in the US. I asked Hampton why the model is so different. He spoke at length about the origins of the game in Scotland 400 years ago as an “everyman’s” pursuit that has been given to the US in a finished form versus the rudimentary beginnings where the game was more inclusive versus the exclusive nature of American clubs. Hampton said that in Scotland every community has a golf course and especially in small towns the golf course or club is the social center of the town. He noted that at 95% of the clubs anyone can walk up and play the course, as compared to the US where golf is a status symbol and clubs often restrict membership and guests and seek exclusivity.

Hampton related that in the beginning, golf in Scotland was simply a game played on natural linksland with little or no financial investment required. When adopted in America, the game required land, and development of a course which in turn required a profit. Then, after those in the UK observed the financial benefits of American clubs, they capitalized on Americans’ desires to visit the home of golf and created the financial model of today where Royal Dornoch has 40% of members from overseas. Only 25% are from the surrounding area, and they play 60% of the rounds. Visitor fees are critical to the financial success of Royal Dornoch, many of the more well known Scottish clubs and to a lesser extent many of the less well known clubs in Scotland. A full 60% of revenue at Dornoch is generated from visitor fees which keeps membership at a very nominal cost.

In Scotland, golf tourism is a $300 million industry and Hampton acknowledged that 80% of that revenue is generated by 20% of the 600 clubs, but that still leaves $60 million for the rest. At Dornoch, the club is an integral part of the town’s economy. This is not uncommon, even at the less prominent courses in other towns in Scotland. While concerned about maintaining the course’s lofty ranking, Hampton takes the approach that he can help introduce some of the other courses to tourists and everybody benefits. There are most definitely great golf experiences to be had at some courses many have never heard of.

Whereas US clubs focus on their membership, status and individual financial situation, Hampton’s perspective is that what’s good for the growth of golf is good for his club and all the others. He points out that whether members or not, townspeople in Dornoch or any other town in Scotland take pride in the golf course as part of their community and would recognize the importance of the golf course to the town. Hampton grew up playing (and honing his considerable skills) at a club near Inverness called Fortrose & Rosemarkie, that I can attest is one of the more delightful golf experiences one can enjoy. Anybody ever heard of it?

Another difference between golf in Scotland and in the UK is the cost of golf course maintenance. Not only (as profiled in this article) have Dornoch and other clubs focused on both environmental and financial sustainability with respect to golf course maintenance, they’ve also avoided the golf course maintenance related desires of many American clubs for manicured perfection. Hampton notes that clubs in America are often focused on bragging rights as to which is better and culturally, golf in America is a status symbol (especially at private clubs) while in Scotland it’s a game for everyone. He mentioned that each time he visits America, he’s never been able to play a municipal course because everyone wants to show off their club.

Environmentally, Hampton points out that while their climate and other factors help keep maintenance costs down, more than anything, they use naturally indigenous grasses and whatever the land yields, versus the turfgrass types used in America, which require more water, chemicals and maintenance than what native species might. He emphasizes, that in such an environment, the native grasses know how to respond better to changing conditions without the costly chemical and water applications typically used in the US.

When I asked Hampton about the Strengths of Scottish Links Golf he mentioned the following:

  • The game in its most natural environment
  • Everybody can come to play – Accessibility

He sees as opportunity enhancing the viability of lesser known courses which will bring more people to visit and appreciate links golf. Hampton sees the open, welcoming environment of Scottish clubs as their biggest asset. Playing the top Scottish courses is available to everyone whereas in America one typically has to be invited and it creates a less-welcoming atmosphere. He sees his job as to get people on the golf course.

Lastly, I asked Hampton, the GM of a most traditional club how it was that he could join us for a beer after golf. Unlike most American clubs, staff are provided free membership in the club. Accordingly, they are able socialize more comfortably with members and develop more intimate relationships, to be fostered when not on duty. With few exceptions, I’ve felt most welcome at the Scottish clubs I’ve had the privilege to play. If Hampton’s attitude and philosophy, along with club leadership’s willingness to let the GM manage autonomously is the norm, I suspect members, guests and visitors will feel most welcome and enjoy a great golf experience.