Balbriggan aiming to stay the course through turbulent times

Tue, Nov 13, 2012, 00:00

SPORTS CLUBS IN THE RECESSION:Even as a weather front brings its dark clouds over the north County Dublin landscape, some tell-tale indicators of vibrancy are to be found. Golfers are teeing off the first tee, positioned close to a new office building that also houses the professional shop and indoor swing tuition area.

Out on the course, one which was redeveloped just as the last, dying breath of the Celtic Tiger ushered in a vastly different economic reality, the wildlife are flourishing. Ducks. Cranes. Hares. Otters in the lakes. There’s even the sighting of a kingfisher down by the ninth hole.

For Balbriggan Golf Club, like the vast majority of clubs, be they parkland or links, around the country, the belt-tightening and cent-pinching measures have become a part of life; and, more than that, made the club all the more determined to ensure there is a future.

Innovation is critical, with financial packages in place and, indeed, a drive for new members where the traditional entry fee – which was €8,000 as recently as 2009 – has been waived.

A sign of changed times!

The vast majority of clubs are finding life tough. Back in 2009, the Golfing Union of Ireland, the Irish Ladies Golf Union and the PGA Irish Region produced a booklet aimed at advising clubs on how to attract new members. If anything, things have got progressively worse in the three years since then. In the years between 1989 and 2009, membership of golf clubs in Ireland rose by 160 per cent but those figures are now a blast from the past and clubs, like Balbriggan, are having to fight to keep what they’ve got and to be imaginative heading down the line.

Juniors

“Are we over the worst of it?” you ask Elaine Spillane, who spends three days a week working in Balbriggan Golf Club as a marketing executive. “No,” she replies in a nanosecond, a response determined as much by the general situation as much as the facts of life in a friendly, family-oriented club where positive factors – such as a significant rise in the number of juniors, highlighted by a group of 90 cadets (aged between seven and 11) – are undeniably present.

Balbriggan is a typical, traditional members club. The inspiration behind its foundation – in 1945 – was a local solicitor, GL McGowan, who lived in the big house across the road. He had an inside track, it seemed, on what land would be coming up for sale in the area and organised a number of like-minded golfers from the north Dublin town (many of whom played in Laytown Bettystown and Skerries) to form their own club and purchase an initial 46 acres which became the club’s home.

As it happened, the official opening of Balbriggan Golf Club came on an auspicious day in world history: Monday, August 6th, 1945. It was the day the Americans dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima and, far removed from such warfare, an exhibition match involving Harry Bradshaw, Adam Whiston, Séamus McGealy and Billy Kinsella took place on the new nine-hole parkland course.

The course has evolved over time and earned a regular place in the Golf Digest Ireland top-100. It was extended to 18 holes and upgraded by Bobby Browne and later again by the British architect Richard Stilwell in the early-1990s but the greater impact is of a more recent vintage with €2.5 million spent on irrigation, drainage and an upgrading of all 18 holes and tee complexes to USGA sand-based standards as part of a remodelling of the course undertaken with Eddie Connaughton and completed in 2009.

Tom Walsh, a past captain and current president of the club, whose wife Maureen is the present lady captain, recounts how “it took us a number of goes before we got what we have now  . . . it’s totally different, a huge improvement. Once we bit the bullet (to refurbish) five or six years ago and said, ‘look, we’ve got to do it’, we probably couldn’t have picked a worse time (just before the economic crisis struck).”

And, yet, everyone agrees that the investment on the course was worth every cent. As Spillane points out, just two and a half days were lost this year despite the horrible weather.

“The investment was well worth it. We’re living in a much wetter climate now than we ever did . . . our course is open when other clubs around aren’t because we spent the money on it,” says Walsh.

Clubhouse

Peter Sullivan, the club captain, adds: “I think we got lucky. A lot of clubs around have built fantastic clubhouses and not spent any money on the course. I think we, by luck and management, put it in the course. The course will generate return. A fancy clubhouse at the end of the day,  you never hear anyone coming off a course saying that’s the nicest clubhouse we’ve ever been in. You’ll hear them talking about the golf course. Our clubhouse is a little old-fashioned, small, quaint. But it’s perfect for what we need. The money went on the golf course, our last hurrah.”

Of course, things changed quite dramatically in the period of 2008-2009 when the course redevelopment was ongoing. In their financial projections ahead of the project – which cost €2.2 million on top of €300,000 previously spent on irrigation – it was anticipated that 40 new members (paying €8,000 a pop entrance fee) a year would join the club. As harsh economic facts hit home, golf club membership fell. Balbriggan hasn’t been the worst affected, not by any means, but membership fell from 557 members (men and women) in 2009 to 428 members this year.

The haemorrhaging of members was similar to that experienced in other clubs up and down and across the country. Dual members who weren’t playing enough to justify paying subs in two clubs in some cases. People who simply couldn’t afford it, some opting for a “leave of absence” and others with no choice other than to resign their membership. However, a recent recruitment drive, with the entry fee waived for a limited time, has proven successful with 70 applications for new membership.

“We had to make a call on the new (membership) drive,” admits Sullivan. “Our fear at the time was if you drop the entrance fee altogether that you end up with folks with no loyalty, who move from here to the next best deal the year after. But we came to the conclusion, we have to take the gamble our course will keep somebody once they come because it is so good. It is one of the best in north county Dublin.

Entrance

“Rather than worry too much about the entrance fee, we had to take the punt that the course is good enough, the club is friendly enough, and that people who will join won’t move.”

John Flynn, the club treasurer, admits that “it is difficult” for clubs in these recessionary times.

“As a treasurer, you don’t really have control of your income. What you have to do is take what you’re given to a certain extent and try and manage that as best as you can. I think we have done that pretty well as a council. Unfortunately, the level of membership is dropping every year and we’re hoping to correct that.

“We’ve temporarily removed entrance fee and there’s over 60 new applicants coming through the process. It makes a healthy picture going forward. And we’re managing finances quite well. You have to treat it like a business from a financial point of view. You still have to maintain membership, but, at the core, you have to treat it like a business and budget your costs . . .”

Spillane outlines some of the other problems – away from membership numbers – that are affecting golf clubs. “Society business,” she says, “has been eaten away. The corporate business is absolutely finished.”

And clubs – like Balbriggan – are working hard and thinking innovatively to buck the trend. In a way, they also got lucky in that course improvements, rather than the clubhouse, was the focus of all of the investment.

And the good folk of Balbriggan have a little suggestion to make to the Minister for Finance ahead of the upcoming budget. He could reduce VAT on green fees, which currently stand at 23 per cent.

“Along with what he did a number of years ago when he reduced the VAT on tourism, to nine per cent. It made a big impact to help tourism sector.

“Golf is very much a part of the tourism sector in Ireland and makes it a logical step to do the same thing and add on to what has been already done.”

Tomorrow

KEITH DUGGANon how the Aodh Ruadh GAA club in Ballyshannon, Donegal, is coping in straitened times

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