For golf clubs in Ireland, 2020 was a strange year. On the one hand, every club in the country was closed for a total of 14 weeks over the course of two lockdowns but, on the other, the majority of clubs were busier than they have ever been, particularly in the summer months.
Many clubs saw their net membership numbers increase more than ever before and Golf Ireland estimate that total membership numbers in Ireland increased over 10 per cent to around 195,000.
However, with closures meaning 14 weeks of no green fee or society income while still paying maintenance costs, cash flow took a hit and the focus for clubs now is on retaining as many members as possible. With courses currently closed and little indication of when they will reopen, loyal membership is more important than ever but there are a number of challenges.
In general, asking people to pay an annual subscription fee in January when it’s wet and cold and dark by 4.30pm is difficult. Add in the fact that members are currently being asked to pay for a service they can’t use and it becomes a different ball game altogether.
For members who live in a different county to their golf club, last year was even more difficult with those in Dublin, Kildare, Laois, Offaly and Donegal facing tighter restrictions at various times. For instance, a golfer who lives in Dublin but is a member in a golf club in Kildare would have been unable to travel to their club for just over 22 weeks of last year.
Given the circumstances, many clubs are now seeing only a slow trickle of membership renewals while some have lost members who have opted to join somewhere within their own county. For some, the prospect of renewing membership now – without knowing when it can be used – isn’t worth it and waiting until courses reopen to assess options seems like a more practical idea.
Clubs are now under pressure to compensate members for time lost last year and some have opted to extend the calendar year. For instance, Mount Juliet has offered two months off its renewal fee while Arklow has taken a similar line in offering three months off for renewing members. Similarly, Castleknock, Corballis, Elmgreen, Seapoint and Hollywood Lakes – all managed by Carr Golf – offered members 13 months for the price of 12.
At Palmerstown House, members were reimbursed for the weeks lost during the first lockdown while all membership renewals for 2021 will run until the end of January 2022 and may be extended further depending on how long courses will remain closed. The owners of the Kildare course have also pledged to invest €500,000 into the course and clubhouse this year with the 10th hole being redesigned to create an island green.
Jamie Stafford is the owner and operator of Newbridge Golf Club in Kildare where net membership increased by over 100 in 2020 and members have been given until May 1st to renew as compensation for time missed on the course but also for other reasons, as he explains.
“It’s a different set-up, we’re privately owned and I own and run the course so it wasn’t that I had to go through committees and stuff. I discussed it with the captain and the vice-captain but it’s a decision that mainly affects me more than anyone in that it’s the fees which keep the business going.
“Golf membership is a funny thing in that we ask people for money in January when Christmas is just over, the weather is poor and most golf courses aren’t open between frost and whatever else. It should benefit golf, and I hope it benefits here, when you’re asking people to pay when the leaves are coming on the trees, the Masters is on TV and the weather is getting better.”
In member-run clubs the option of extending the year by four months simply isn’t a possibility for many reasons including affiliation fees, maintenance fees and the need to maintain cash flow and indeed many clubs have been unable to offer their members any reimbursement for 2021 while others have actually had to add extra membership levies to cover cash shortfalls.
Despite closures and lockdowns there’s no doubt Covid-19 brought something of a golf boom to Ireland. However, the question now is whether it can be maintained.