In a sport that’s traditionally been slow to embrace change, Joyel Singfield’s new job as general manager of the Royal Ottawa Golf Club is another sign of a game in transition.
Singfield, who has served as the venerable golf course’s acting GM since her predecessor, Guy Prevost, left the club last March, will make Royal Ottawa history on Tuesday when she officially becomes the first woman general manager in the club’s 128 years of existence.
“Being the first is humbling, and it’s nice to be recognized,” says Singfield, who started working at the private Gatineau club in 2007 as the membership and communications director before being promoted to clubhouse manager in 2015.
A former entrepreneur who co-owned an Aylmer tea room, banquet facility and folk art studio called Tea ’n Tole from 1995-2005, Singfield says she’s had “wonderful feedback” from members since her appointment was announced a couple of weeks ago.
“I’m really hoping that now that that ceiling is broken, we don’t have to consider it anymore,” she says.
In her past life as a business owner, Singfield had to negotiate contracts with suppliers and work with the City of Gatineau and the National Capital Commission, experience that will come in handy in her new job. Although she concedes she wasn’t much of a golf enthusiast until she became employed at the Royal Ottawa, she says she now truly appreciates “the passion for the game” exhibited by her members.
Golf suffered from economic downturn
Singfield takes charge of the Royal Ottawa at an interesting time for the game that’s historically been the most-played sport in the country.
After decades of unabated growth, golf hit a rough patch in the early 2010s in the wake of an economic downturn and changing consumer tastes that saw the number of rounds played in Canada drop from 70 million in 2009 to 60 million in 2013.
In response, golf courses across the country began experimenting with a range of initiatives to rekindle Canadians’ passion for the game – everything from doubling the width of the cups to introducing footgolf, a mix of golf and soccer in which players kick a soccer ball down the fairway with the goal of potting it into a 21-inch hole.
The sport has bounced back a bit as a result, with a study from Golf Canada and PGA Canada reporting a 1.6 per cent jump in the average number of rounds played between 2014 and 2017. Even still, waning interest in golf has led some course owners to consider other uses for valuable course real estate.
ClubLink, which owns the Kanata Golf and Country Club, announced plans last December to join forces with local developers Minto Communities and Richcraft Homes to find ways to “better utilize” the 70-hectare property. In southern Ontario, ClubLink is embroiled in a legal fight with the Town of Oakville over a plan to replace the venerable Jack Nicklaus-designed Glen Abbey Golf Club with apartment buildings, offices and retail space.
“Golf is at a pivotal time right now,” Singfield says. “The industry is changing, and we recognize that based on the needs and time that people have for a sport like this. It’s really exciting for me to be part of that change, because I think there’s so much more that we can explore and do in how people use a golf club like ours, and that’s what I’m looking forward to.”
Membership at the Royal Ottawa has held steady at about 1,200 since she first joined in 2007, she says. But Singfield also sees plenty of encouraging signs in the current membership picture.
The number of Royal Ottawa members under the age of 40 has tripled over the past decade, she says. In 2012, the club introduced a new membership plan called “Royal Nine” aimed at new golfers who want to hone their skills on the club’s recently renovated nine-hole course, and there are now close to 100 members in that category.
“We know we’re growing the game,” Singfield says. “We’re just finding the places where it makes sense to people in their lives.”
The Royal Ottawa is also in the midst of a $3-million makeover that will see the driving range rebuilt and the number of hitting bays expanded from 10 to 25. A new teaching academy featuring state-of-the-art “ball-tracking” technology is also being added.
“That’s how people want to use a golf club,” says Singfield, adding non-golf revenues from activities such as weddings and meetings at the clubhouse have risen more than 20 per cent since she first started working there.
“They want to play when they can, but more often than not, if they can come over and hit a bucket of balls or play nine quick holes, they’re just as happy.”