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Tain Golf Club lauds work of volunteers as course pays homage to its origins


By Niall Harkiss

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The committee of Tain Golf Club are making the most of full-circle recovery since Covid after posting a surplus in its accounts for a second successive year.

At the heart of its revival, the club says its volunteers are to thank for answering a "transformational" call-to-arms at a time when the course had lost almost half of its revenue.

Volunteers showed up to help the club in its time of need during the pandemic. Photo: Alan Martin
Volunteers showed up to help the club in its time of need during the pandemic. Photo: Alan Martin

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Tain Golf Club professional Stuart Morrison believes that the resilience of its members in the face of restrictions imposed during the pandemic is what proved to be catalyst for a turnaround in the clubs' fortunes.

Mr Morrison said: "Prior to Covid, the club was not doing well. When Covid came along, it presented us with an opportunity. The club's revenue was 50 per cent from our membership, and 50 per cent from visitors. Theoretically, we had lost half of our revenue. The club all of a sudden had to fight for its survival, more as a business operation as opposed to a members club. This resulted in staff being furloughed, and a management restructuring.

"We were very fortunate to have the assistance of a qualified green keeper, Gary Tonge, from Castle Stuart, who volunteered with us while he was furloughed, along with Iain Cowper, another qualified greenkeeper who did some hours. So, basically we cut the grass. Essential exercise started to develop into one or two of us doing a bit of volunteering on the course to help out. One or two others saw us doing this and before long more people were coming along to help out.

Mr Morrison notes that help came their way in various guises and recalls a particular member, Alan MacKenzie, offering a donation to help with the repair of pathways around the course.

Modernisation of the course has involved moving bunkers to cope with changes in the ability of the average golfer. Photo: Alan Martin
Modernisation of the course has involved moving bunkers to cope with changes in the ability of the average golfer. Photo: Alan Martin

He added: "Alan was walking his dog during his stay in the Tain area during lockdown, and he asked me why were doing the paths. After I explained, he said he wouldn't be able to assist with doing the work, but he could afford to pay for the materials to get the job done.

"To a certain extent, that was the start of it. All of a sudden we had a new understanding of the depth of feeling members had, and how they would like the golf course to be. It gave Iain and Gary the confidence to present things a little differently – with their help. The membership reaction was brilliant and that prompted a discussion about how we go forward.

"We formed a greens committee which is now three years into its existence. We now have a senior greenkeeper in Ross Macrae and the club are confident that the greens committee is in good hands with him leading it. His energy and what he has done for the guys working on the course, has brought about a level of discipline and attention to detail that has been excellent.

Part of the work involved cutting back gorse and whin bushes. Photo: Alan Martin
Part of the work involved cutting back gorse and whin bushes. Photo: Alan Martin

"But if it was just greenkeepers and no volunteers we wouldn't be where we are now. Our volunteers have made so much possible, helping with labour and the simpler tasks that free up the greenkeepers to do other tasks. The volunteers we have, mostly older gentlemen, deserve so much praise. Among them, joiners, painters and other trades, have provided us with so much – but it has been more than that as I think they have all gained so much personally from having been involved. The positivity around the place is infectious.

"The pandemic has brought a lot of people back to golf, with their love for the outdoors enhanced by that spell of being locked in the house. Membership is now up, greens fees revenue is up, our course ranking has improved and we now have documented success, and proof that what we are doing is working.

On the back of its recovery, and with cash to invest, the club has been able to buy new machinery and greenkeeping facilities. It has also built new decking at the back of its clubhouse – an attraction that the club say is actively generating new social members.

Tain Golf Club is now exploring its value as an "authentic retro golfing experience" – a popular trend with the North American tourist market. With its connection to original course designer, Old Tom Morris, Mr Morrison says that the club is seeking to promote the "rustic" appeal of Tain.

The work to claw back whin and gorse has exposed the original topography of the course. Photo: Alan Martin
The work to claw back whin and gorse has exposed the original topography of the course. Photo: Alan Martin

Strides have already been made to clear gorse and whin bushes in a bid to restore the course to some its original state.

Mr Morrison added: "In the early days, the 1890s, the course was laid out without any gorse or whin in the way. It is well documented at the time, that they had cleared it all to lay out the holes, and part of what we want to do now is to recreate that. It has been felt that the course had become quite difficult, and a lot of people would start the course by asking how many golf balls they will need as they'd heard its so hard!

"We want to improve the chances of people coming back to Tain, and for them to have a proper experience and an appreciation of the spectacular views from the course. A part of that was to clear the gorse and whin. In order to manage it, and to control where it grows, we needed to take it all away. Some have said they didn't agree with it, but many who have played the course since have said how much more enjoyable it was to play.

"Since cutting the bushes back, we can now we see why the course was designed the way it was. You can see the topography of the ground and it is spectacular. The dunes, contours, humps and bumps were not visible, and now we can understand it better. This is what people saw over 100 years ago.

"That's the vision now going forward. So, we need to evolve that idea, but we also need to modernise the course too. For example, we are now moving a bunker due to the distance people can hit a ball. This is largely due to improvements in equipment technology, and also people playing the game being fitter and younger. A driver head, for example, may have 12 different settings around the neck and 20 different shafts available. This older bunker now only affects the shorter hitter, or perhaps older people who can't hit it as far.

"As a business, we need the average golfer to enjoy themselves. If you have a single-figure handicap you are in the top 5-10 per cent of the world's golfers. So, we've got to look at it from a business point of view that it's more likely that everyone else who plays here will have a handicap of 10 or higher. So we have to mindful of that. It still needs to be a challenge, but it needs to be enjoyable."


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