Downturn good for your downswing


IT MIGHT still be all doom and gloom on the global financial markets with workforces beginning to take to the streets in fear of their jobs, but it seems golf clubs across the country are tackling the downturn in their own way and remain relatively optimistic because at the end of the day there is still huge demand to play golf in Ireland.

One thing the economic crisis has done is provide real value for money for those seeking out a game of golf. Green fees are as competitive as they’ve ever been and golf clubs are courting prospective new members with renewed vigour as they battle to get through difficult times.

From a sample of clubs contacted a common thread has been the reviewing of once over-priced joining fees. While some clubs still retain these up-front payments many have taken a reality check and reduced their rate or better still – for golfers at least – simply done away with joining fees.

Perhaps the best example of this in recent times is the Druids Glen resort in Wicklow who boast two Pat Ruddy-designed championship courses.

Although the more prestigious Druids Glen – home to the Irish open from 1996-99 – maintains its €55,000 joining fee and €3,000 annual subscriptions, they introduced an attractive €1,500 annual membership with no joining fee for Druids Heath.

“We ran a new membership drive for Druids Heath with great success recently,” explains Denis Kane, Druids Glen chief executive.

“We attracted over 600 applications and closed it off at 350. To beat the downturn you have to offer facilities of quality and value . . . and people still want to play golf,” adds Kane, noting winter deals and overnight stays at the resort’s Marriott Hotel are also on offer.

Mount Juliet is another former Irish Open and World Golf Championship venue at the upper end of the market. This Kilkenny venue has annual subs starting at €3,375 for single country membership or €4,495 for a couple. Since opening in 1991 Mount Juliet has never had a joining fee.

They are not alone for established venues like Co Sligo GC, Glasson Hotel and GC in Athlone and Westport GC don’t have joining fees either.

“The trick is to keep hold of your members at this difficult time as they are the core of your business,” said Seán O’Neill at Mount Juliet where staff, like at Killarney Golf and Fishing Club, are on reduced working weeks to keep costs down. The whole thing about golf in Ireland at the moment is price and everything is negotiable.”

That said, the demand for membership at Ballybunion GC in Kerry remains so vibrant the club increased their joining fee from €5,000 to €7,500. The famous links venue has approximately 2,500 members across all categories and the €550 annual subs – which includes a €150 bar levy – represents real value for money.

However, to pick up the slack on the timesheets, Ballybunion introduced a new scheme to play the Old Course for the standard €180 green fee, but during April, May, June, July and October visitors receive a complimentary green fee for the secondary Cashen Course (normally €110) to use within seven days.

County Louth GC have held their 2008 green fee rates which means a round at this year’s Irish Open venue will cost €125 midweek and €150 at weekends. The famous Baltray links has a total of 1,400 members and annual subs come in at €880. The club still have their €17,000 joining fee in place.

After staging the Ryder Cup in 2006 The K-Club in Kildare is arguably Ireland’s most recognisable venue to a global market. Given its prestige and reputation green fee rates remain high in comparison to other Irish courses. The current rack rate for the Smurfit Course – where the Ryder Cup was contested – is €380 while the Palmer Course costs €220. Annual membership comes in at €6,900 and the joining fee remains at a staggering €80,000.

That said, The K-Club is addressing the downturn in their own way as the club is due to introduce a new tee-time reservation system this month where reduced green fees, starting from €150, will be available at different times of the day. “The new reservation system should provide greater yield for us and better deals for visitors at different times of the day,” explained Bill Donald at The K-Club, adding there are also specific hotel resident and guest rates available.

Headfort GC in Meath boasts two fine parklands, with the newer Christy O’Connor Jnr designed layout considered one of the best in the country. Headfort still hold their joining fee at €10,000 but have recently opened their membership again to attract new business.

Many clubs like Headfort have introduced a payment scheme to ease the hit of a one-off lump sum payment. Westport is a well supported members club and this year they introduced a direct debit facility for members wishing to make monthly payments.

“This not only benefits some members when trying to budget but it also helps the golf club greatly with a cash flow injection, particularly this time of the year,” explains Westport’s Paul O’Neill.

Perhaps one of the biggest sea-changes in their approach to membership has been the relatively new Castleknock GC in Dublin. The initial membership deal was €30,000 joining fee with €1,700 annual subs. But in realising this was an unrealistic benchmark in a competitive and often considered saturated market, Castleknock came up with an alternative where new members can join for €3,371 per year – including a €250 bar levy — with no joining fee. “I think the days of the big joining fees at golf clubs are well and truly over,” said Mark Lynch, Castleknock’s membership manager.

Castleknock are also hopeful of attracting new members from their neighbour, Luttrellstown Castle, which closes at the end of this year.

Existing Luttrellstown members (approximately 400) have held a number of meetings since the start of the year working out how best to proceed from their club’s imminent closure. Colm Hannon, Luttrellstown chief executive, said members who had paid joining fees were in line to be refunded on a pro-rata basis.

One of the most radical and innovative measures to become more competitive and reduce costs took place at The South County GC, who have outsourced the day-to-day running of their club to Carr Golf.

Last month a three-year deal was agreed where Carr Golf will put in place a general manager and manage the day-to-day running, while South County also benefit from Carr Golf’s other areas of expertise and vast range of global contacts within the golf industry.

Ed Pettit has been heading-up this project for Carr Golf Services, who also operate Navan Golf Club plus public courses Corballis and Elm Green, on behalf of the Dublin Council. While not giving specific details away regarding South County, Pettit said the cost of such a service starts in the region of €60,000 but could go as high as €750,000 to run an entire multi-million golf resort.

“It all depends on the level of service required and in the case of South County, we are heavily incentivised so it’s in our interest to attract new business on behalf of our client,” said Pettit.

When carrying out a straw-poll exercise like this it’s not easy to compare like with like as traditional member clubs operate entirely differently to private clubs and multi-million resort complexes. The Greg Norman-designed Doonbeg in Clare falls into the latter category but have kept sight of obligations to the local fraternity while competing for business in overseas markets.

In effect, Doonbeg still holds a mammoth $70,000 (€55,000) joining fee for overseas members and €4,300 annual subs. But as part of their remit Doonbeg offers a much more realistic €1,600 joining fee and €1,100 membership for locals to join through the Doonbeg Golf Links. This membership is restricted to 150 golfers.

Killarney maintained their €15,000 joining fee but this year they devised a new scheme where if a new member is introduced the existing member gets €500 back. Annual subs are also competitively priced at €720 considering the access to three courses, including the Killeen Course, and fishing membership.

Ballyliffin GC in Donegal benefits from its association with the North and West Coast Links where 12 top-rate links courses market themselves under the one umbrella. This busy members club with two championship links courses has also tied up deals with six local hotels to attract overnight stays and offer reduced green fee rates. Their most recent initiative to buck the downturn was to invite one representative from all the societies affiliated to the Golfing Union of Ireland (GUI).

“Last month we had over 35 representatives come and play a complimentary round and have a bite to eat with us in the clubhouse afterwards. We gained a lot of bookings from this,” said John Farren, Ballyliffin general manager.