Golf clubs face dilemma of whether to reimburse members for Covid-19 shutout

Most Irish clubs set to prioritise members as they enjoy healthy renewal rates for 2021

Tullamore Golf Club closed last March as the Covid-19 pandemic set in. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

As golf clubs around the Republic of Ireland prepare for next Monday's long-awaited reopening, committees and management are faced with a dilemma - what to do for members who have been unable to play for 209 days of the last 14 months?

On the face of it members may feel that they are entitled to some form of money back for a fee they have paid while their club remained closed. However, on the other side of the fence, most member-owned golf clubs have little room for manoeuvre after a year when many normal revenue streams such as green fees, society bookings and hospitality were severely curtailed while maintenance of the course - which usually accounts for around 50 per cent of a club’s cost base - still had to continue.

Some clubs have been able to offer members an incentive, such as Mount Juliet who discounted two months off their renewal fee while Arklow and Strandhill both gave renewing members three months off. Castleknock, Corballis and Elmgreen - all operated by Carr Golf - provided members with 13 months for the price of 12 while Hollywood Lakes members received the same offer as well as a 20 per cent price reduction on renewal.

In Donegal, Greencastle Golf Club went down a different route by asking members for their full subscription this year with the offer that they will receive a 10 per cent credit towards their fee in 2022. Further south, Spanish Point gave a 15 per cent discount to all members who renewed by March 31st while East Clare changed their subscription year from January - December to April - March.


Retention figures in the long-term may not match the boom seen last year, particularly at smaller rural clubs

In Cork, Fota Island have credited all renewing full members with €200 to be used in the bar and restaurant with the hope being that hospitality will be able to operate in a couple of months’ time while, in the North, Scrabo, Clandeboyne and Kirkistown have joined together to offer members a three-day competition across all three courses in June for a fee of £50.

Elsewhere, clubs have passed motions at AGMs to make course improvements rather than offer members money back. However, at a small number of established clubs with large memberships there has been unrest among members after their subscription fee increased in price for 2021 due to the addition of a Covid levy.

Healthy picture

It’s a tricky issue and one that clubs are having to deal with at a time when most saw membership numbers increase last year but are now unsure of how many of those new members will be retained.

Most clubs spoken to by The Irish Times report renewal rates upwards of 90 per cent for 2021 which paints a healthy picture for golf in Ireland but, with a wider reopening of society on the cards in early summer, retention figures in the long-term may not match the boom seen last year, particularly at smaller rural clubs which wouldn’t have the same strong membership numbers as those closer to urban areas.

Members are, on average, playing far more golf as well which adds to the maintenance needed on the course while also creating the issue of space on timesheets. Providing as much of the timesheet as possible to members over the rest of this year will be a priority for clubs as they reopen but that then continues to eat into the green fee and society revenue which they may have previously relied on.

At Lucan Golf Club, general manager Mark Ruddy says the club have taken the approach that what the members put into the club they will get back "in spades".

A view of Mount Juliet golf club.

“Depending on the various formats and when the protocols lift for competitions and more people on the tee-sheet we have a menu of events and value adds that will be given back to the members in the summer as a thank you note. We also committed to finish off our three-hole development this year and that’s down to the membership support.

“Instead of putting a discount on a membership we’ve said we’ll prioritise our members when they get back and reduce the amount of outside available tee times because the culture now is that the member wants to play golf. We’ve shaped our model this year to focus on our membership playing so our members feel that they’re getting the rewards for paying a sub for 12 months while only getting golf for eight months. In those eight months we believe our members will still get up to the amount of rounds played in 2019.

“Plenty of our membership are playing double and the majority are playing 50 per cent more so what we’ve said is those other incomes are down and will continue to be down but we have the support of our membership so we need to give them support back. Members traditionally would use up 70 per cent of the timesheet but we’re now setting up a format where they will more than likely utilise 90 to 95 per cent of the timesheet.”

Travel restrictions

For clubs with a large amount of members living in a different county, countywide travel restrictions in 2020 provided other difficulties as a certain section of members were unable to play while those who lived more locally could.

In Dublin - which went to Level 3 restrictions in September - golfers who were members in other counties lost out on even more playing time which has resulted in some clubs losing Dublin members this year as they opt to join clubs in the capital instead.

While it is hoped that the current extension which allows people to travel 20km over county boundaries will permit the majority of golfers to get to their course, there are still some clubs that have large amounts of members living well outside that range.

In December of last year, Sport Ireland announced an exemption for people to travel to their sports clubs but, since then, there has been no indication of a similar clause being introduced for this reopening.