Orna Mulcahy: It's time to develop some golf courses into houses
Few young people take out golf membership and many courses are in areas crying out for affordable housing
My perfect Saturday means a walk with the dogs and, when time allows, we take a long route that skirts a golf course. I used to worry about flying balls or being considered as a nuisance but not so much recently. It’s not that the path has been improved, it’s just that there are so few golfers that there’s little danger of our getting in anyone’s sightline, never mind in their way. Sometimes the fairways are entirely empty. At weekends?
The path ends in the club car park which is often nearly empty too. It’s pin neat with designated parking spots for the captain and other important people. There’s the club house, doors firmly shut with, occasionally, a waft of golfer’s grill coming through a vent. It’s the Mary Celeste of golf clubs.
And no, it’s not one of those boom-era clubs built in the middle of nowhere, some of which have sheep grazing on them these days. It’s bang in the middle of suburbia. Of course its members are free not to play golf or not to hang out in the club as they so wish; possibly there is a waiting list full of young guns raring to pay their membership fees and collect the rule book from reception, but I somehow doubt it. What it appears to be is a prime chunk of land, maintained to velvety perfection for a dwindling number of members in a neighbourhood that’s crying out for affordable housing.
Out of style
Like many, it’s a club that was once considered a place of sophistication and refuge for men in Val Doonican jumpers but now appears to be out of style and, dare I say it, unnecessary. The 30 and 40-somethings who, in another era would have joined up and looked forward to years, nay decades, of playing, socialising and networking, are nowhere to be seen.
The reality is that Ireland has too many golf clubs like this one, and too many in general. According to the Golfing Union of Ireland (GUI)’s latest figures, the number of affiliated clubs has grown from 248 in 1980 to 450 today, a rise of 81 per cent. Actual golf membership in the same period has risen by just 22 per cent, up from 123,000 to 150,000.
So, lots more courses but overall fewer members. And not enough young players joining to replace the old brigade. It’s not just about money, golfers will tell you. Sure, it’s an expensive sport, but the recession knocked the wind out of many clubs, forcing them to cut their rates and green fees. No, it’s time that is killing golf. Your 30-something executive, man or woman, simply doesn’t have the time to play. They may love to watch it on TV but when it comes to taking four hours out of the weekend – more if you include drinks and supper – they just can’t. No sensible partner would encourage it, especially when there are children to be ferried around, fed and minded.
That makes golf more of an irregular treat, not worth a full membership. If they do want to play they can do so, here and there, part of a growing group of “nomad golfers” who aren’t too bothered about joining a club. They can put together a four ball at a time and a place that suits everyone, book it online and go. A dozen games a year like this would cost less than €600 compared with typical annual membership fees of €1,300-€2,200. That’s already a lot of golf. Even keen golfers are finding that they don’t have much time for more.
Further down the age graph, younger players, no matter now good or keen, aren’t rushing to sign up once their junior memberships have expired. It’s expensive, and they may not know where they will be in a year, never mind five. They’ve gotten used to things being precarious and they want fun experiences. You don’t see them putting up much golf on their insta feeds.
The steep jump from youth membership to full-blown membership is also an issue for young players who, around the same time they might be looking for a mortgage, may be asked to stump up thousands for full membership of a club, and that’s just the entry payment, with yearly subs after that. There’s also the air of permanency of joining a golf club. It’s a thing you do for life, but who thinks like that now? Job security is a quaint concept now. Being nimble, changing things up, taking on new challenges is the thing. Joining a club doesn’t fit that box.
I have hit an age where, all around me, friends could be taking up golf, but they’re not. Even the keen golfers I know seem to be playing less rather than more, with one or two exceptions. Instead, the men are cycling like fury up and down the Wicklow hills – no club dinners required and home at a reasonable hour. If anything, the women are becoming slightly more engaged with golf, though all sides are also busy hill walking, taking up yoga, or going to festivals – pastimes that are free or cheap to join and don’t require a packet in fees only to be told that you can’t wear jeans in the bar or use your mobile phone anywhere except on the far corner of the terrace.
And yet golf is the ultimate sport for all ages. Kids can get in early, and most Irish clubs have brilliant junior programmes that keep them busy over the holidays. Old age is no bar to play. Senior members are mostly honoured and encouraged to keep going. You won’t find that at a five-a-side.
Long-established clubs offer social programmes that stave off boredom and loneliness for empty nesters, though at a price. However, as older members eventually fall off, all but the wealthiest clubs will be forced to evolve or face extinction. In some cases there’ll be benefits to closing down. Developers continue to eye golf courses in prime locations, like Foxrock where there’s been speculation for over a decade that the club, 125 years old this year, will be sold, resulting in a bonanza for the 500-plus members.
Even Elm Park, the cream of clubs, is threatened with road widening, though things could be worse. In Hong Kong, for instance, the similarly swanky Hong Kong Golf Club has been targeted by the fierce-sounding Land Justice League, an activist group that wants its lands redeveloped into low-rent public housing. Who’s to say that couldn’t happen in Dublin 4?