Golf clubs big and small concerned over future due to coronavirus outbreak

Loss of revenues and cash flow issues to the fore for some of the over 400 clubs on the island

“I’m very concerned about the future of the club!”

Sidney Houston is the go-to man when it comes to Aughnacloy Golf Club, a parkland course in Co Tyrone. If the truth be known, he has put his heart and his soul into making it what it is; apart from offering enjoyable golf for its members, it also earned a reputation as a friendly pit-stop for those travelling the A5 which merges into the N2 at the nearby Tyrone-Monaghan border crossing.

It doesn’t matter where the 400+ golf clubs are on this island, north or south, east or west, parkland or links, the impact of the coronavirus has been felt by one and all.

It doesn’t matter whether a course aspires to playing host to an Irish Open, or is honoured to be selected for a provincial or national interclub competition, or just exist – as most do – to provide for their members, the effect of course closures, as jointly-recommended by the Golfing Union of Ireland and the Irish Ladies Golf Union, has had a telling impact financially already, with no end in sight for any respite.


Aughnacloy is but one example. Track further south-west to the five-star Dromoland Castle resort near Newmarket-on-Fergus in Co Clare. It couldn’t be further removed from the homely Aughnacloy set-up but it too, like every golf facility, has felt the implications of course closure. Since March 16th, it had been restricted to members-only, with strict guidelines in place to ensure player safety, but the course and facilities closed completely on foot of the Government’s stricter measures announced on Tuesday.

“The main implications are loss of revenue for all elements of our golf offering, from green fees, to shop, to rental and food and beverage. This will affect jobs in the short term and possibly long term depending on the timescale of the current closure being extended,” said Eamonn O’Donnell, the director of golf. He added the main challenge going forward would be “financial, loss of revenue while trying to maintain a golf course to certain standards. We are keeping our greenkeeping department in place during the period as essential maintenance was planned during this period and that will still need to be concluded.”

Many clubs had only just managed to come out the other side of the recession – a period in time which saw a number of clubs fall by the wayside – and had only come to see some light at the end of the tunnel when this latest broadside hit: as Birr Golf Club treasurer Seán Doorley put it, their plight reflective of many, “We were already in a precarious situation given low member numbers between the 25-50 [age group]. But if members stop paying direct debits, it could be a disaster.”

The point is well made given that many club membership dues are, well, due. Back to Houston in Aughnacloy. “This is a major issue for golf clubs. Cash flow is non-existent and I am worried about the knock-on effect with membership fees as ours is due on 1st April. It’s very unlikely members will pay if they are not playing.”

That fear of members cancelling direct debits – effectively the life source of many clubs – is a recurring theme. As James Murphy, the general manager of Bray Golf Club described the primary implications of course closures, "loss of staff, loss of revenues through green fees, bar and other services, the potential loss of members . . . . and certain cancellations of direct debit member [fees]."

As Daragh Lyons, the club manager at Portsalon in Co Donegal, admitted: “The challenge facing us now will be how we can return to some normality when this blows over. I fell that, even with the seriousness of the disease, golf courses should have remained open to members with strict conditions.

“This would have made it easier to retain members and keep a flow of income. The reality now is we are not sure when we will be able to reopen and the longer it goes on we will have members probably looking to freeze memberships and [possibly look for] money back. We rely heavily on visitors during the summer months and in particular overseas visitors, so I would imagine green fee revenue will be down by 50 to 75 per cent this year.”

No-one is immune, of course.

The Royal Dublin Golf Club – like many of the country's famed links courses, which rely on green fees as an important revenue stream – has implemented all of the GUI's recommendations, among them breaking the eight-man greenkeeping staff into two teams. "We're trying to be as proactive as we can be," said general manager Jeff Fallon, who also suggested the "perception of golf being [continued to be] played isn't good."

Killarney Golf & Fishing Club are, as Meg Mallon, the sales and marketing manager, put it, "endeavouring to adapt to a hyper dynamic situation, almost on a daily basis". The famed Kerry lakeside club has closed clubhouse, golf courses, driving range and academy until April 19th, although there is every likelihood that period could be extended further.

“The primary implication for our golf club and similar to the majority of tourism and hospitality businesses here in Killarney is a significant loss of revenue from bookings for our 2020 golf season. However, we remain optimistic; many of our visitors are rescheduling their bookings to later in 2020 or 2021 . . . right now, our main concern is for the wellbeing of our team and golf club members. As a golf club community, we are all 100 per cent onboard with the closure to minimise the health risk of the Covid-19 pandemic,” explained Mallon.

There will be no financial bailout from golf's governing bodies, although, as Pat Finn, chief executive officer of the GUI put it: "We are engaged with Sport Ireland and Sport Northern Ireland around what supports might be available when everyone gets out the right side of the crisis but we don't have concrete detail on that at the moment.

“We have been asked to write a case for golf, in high-level terms this is what a golf club might lose out on as a consequence of this. And then they are going to include that in making a case for sport in general and with golf included in that. We don’t know enough yet, but we are working on a plan to really support clubs.

“ I don’t think it will be GUI-specific support because we don’t have significant revenue resources or reserves to be in a position to directly support clubs in any significant way, but we are positioning ourselves to represent clubs, along with the ILGU.”

He continued: “The Golf Ireland project is due to launch in January [2021], there is a hell of a lot of energy going into making sure that happens. It is another obstacle in our way in the sense that nobody saw this coming and it does provide a higher fence to jump, but there is a real resilience and willingness to get that energy off the ground.

“Golf is going to need Golf Ireland more than it ever has, one governing body, one voice for the sport, one entity representing the game in Government circles to make sure we get back on our feet after this. It is going to be very damaging to the game in terms of loss of revenue, green fees, societies, but also overseas tourism. The resolve is to get Golf Ireland up and running, one entity with a single voice.”

For virtually every golf club on the island, the road ahead is a rocky one; and, to make it smoother, even to ensure survival for many, some financial aid will likely be necessary. Golf clubs are, in effect, small- to medium-sized businesses and also an important part of the tourism industry. A lot of pieces will have to be put back together again when the crisis is over.