Golf was a regular feature of sitcoms in the 1970s and 80s – usually a breezy outdoors scene where mayhem and mishap prevailed amid the greens and bunkers.
Routinely it was the likes of Terry Scott, Eric Sykes and Richard Briers playing middle-aged, middle-class oddballs in powder-yellow Argyle-patterned jumpers, mewling over mishit shots or mistimed remarks to their boss – the social and elitist nature of golf always clearly spelt out.
These sitcoms reflected the times in which they were set. Back then, many men of a certain age and class spent their weekends and summer evenings playing golf. Not any more. England Golf (the governing body for the amateur game) reports that one in five golfers has given up club membership since 2004.
“The industry has been suffering tremendously over the past 20 years,” says Alistair Dunsmuir, editor of Golf Business magazine. “Over a seven-year period the number playing once a month has fallen from 1.5 million to 1.1 million. It has had the knock-on effect of hitting golf clubs very hard, leading to many closures.”
Riddlesden Golf Club in Bradford is a typical case. Formed in 1927, its membership halved over three years to barely 100, forcing it to close last year. It is now abandoned, the greens overgrown, the clubhouse derelict and boarded up.
“When the council came and took the keys off me, the drive home that day was gutting,” says John Dickinson, its former secretary, who had played the course for more than 30 years. “My wife just said to me, ‘Sit down, I’ll get you a drink, because I know how you feel’.”
Society has changed markedly over the past two decades, especially in terms of gender roles. While it might have been perfectly acceptable in the 70s for men to toss their golf bags into the boot of a Vauxhall Viva and chirrup, “I’ll be back for tea sometime later, love,” this no longer stands. Men now play a greater role in the life of the household and spend much more time with their children.
“Everybody is talking about work/life balance,” says Professor Sir Cary Cooper of the University of Manchester, an expert on wellbeing. “People are working longer hours and want to better enjoy their free time. Studies have shown that the key to this is relationships, especially within the family. So this means men aren’t out on a golf course somewhere with their mates but are doing stuff with their wife and kids.”
And although there are no definitive statistics, most agree that cycling has become the “new golf ”, with many ex-golfers squeezing themselves into lycra and leaving their clubs in the garage.
Unlike golf, cycling better fits the pace of modern living and is a pastime that need not take up most of the day. Victories by Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome in the Tour de France along with incredible Olympic successes by British riders have rebranded the sport, inspiring nearly two million people over 16 to get on their bikes at least once a week and make it the third most popular participant sport, after swimming and athletics (golf is in fifth place).
Richard Fletcher, business editor of The Times, believes cycling has also replaced golf as an out-of-office jolly, where contacts are made and business deals negotiated.
“I can’t remember when I was last invited to a Golf Day,” he says. “So many people now cycle and it has a real corporate element. Often it will be the first topic discussed, or we’ll agree to follow each other on Strava [a website and mobile app that tracks athletic activity via GPS].”
Some believe the switch to cycling from golf indicates a fundamental change in the make-up of middle-aged men. “Men in their menopause want to stay active for longer,” says Cooper. “They are joining the gym or pounding away on a bike. It used to be said that golf had psychological benefits because of its reflective nature, but it’s not like that at all – it can be a frenetic, competitive sport where you’re hurried around a course by the people behind you.”
These chaps on carbon-fibre bikes that can cost thousands of pounds have become known as Mamils – middle-aged men in lycra. A mixture of polyester and polyurethane and invented in 1958, lycra has long been the apparel of choice by the cycling fraternity.
‘‘It’s purely practical,’’ says Peter Root, formerly of British Cycling. ‘‘You can’t really ride a bike with bits of your clothing flapping about. Having said that, there are some people who definitely shouldn’t be wearing it!’’ Golf, meanwhile, is fighting back. It still brings in £3.4 billion to the British economy and it is claimed two per cent of the landmass of England is taken up by courses.
And there is evidence that the tail-off in popularity has been stymied. A dynamic short-form version called GolfSixes, with accompanying music and set against a clock, has been trialled successfully and the sport has recognised it has to shake off its exclusive, stuffy image.
‘‘The bodies that run cycling have shown how it’s done,’’ says seasoned sports journalist and golf fanatic John Hopkins. ‘‘They recognised this burgeoning demographic and went all out to get it. We have to do the same with golf and say, ‘Come over here, boys – and girls – and have a go at this. You’ll love it.’’’
In the Rough: Golf’s Uncertain Future is on Monday 8.00pm Radio 4