How golf clubs are trying to reach the next generation of players
Courses forced to be flexible with days of mammoth entrance fees largely in the past
Brittany Lang hits her approach shot to the 18th green at Killeen Castle in 2010. The club have brought in nine-hole membership in a bid to attract new players. File photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
Golf club membership has changed in style and substance since the recession, enormously in terms of the cost base. The days of mammoth entrance fees are largely extinct with prospective members no longer required to part with between €20,000 and €50,000 to become a member.
Golfers are now being courted by clubs whereas previously applicants faced a convoluted process largely dependent on having the right circle of friends. It’s easy to move between clubs and just like switching utility service providers in the home, people search out the best value.
The inescapable reality is that supply – outside of the Dublin metropolitan area and some of the bigger private members’ clubs in Cork, Limerick and Belfast – outstrips demand and the days of a person affiliating themselves to a club for life can no longer be taken for granted.
During the economic boom, timing was everything in bringing to market high-end, resort style developments that included on-site housing, a hotel and a “championship” golf course. Mount Juliet (opened in 1991), The K Club (1991), Fota Island (1993), Druids Glen (1995), Powerscourt (1995), Adare Manor Hotel & Golf Resort (1995), Doonbeg (2001), Carton House (2002) and The Heritage (2004) sought out and secured the top end of the entrance fee market.
Nowadays Mount Juliet, Carton House and The Heritage no longer ask for “hello money,” while entrance fees for Fota Island (€8,000) and Druids Glen (€5,000) are a fraction of the original listed price. For those that followed,that resort template environment became even more challenging as the recession kicked in.
By the time Macreddin Golf Club (2008) came to market they had reduced their original price point during development of the course, a €30,000 preference share, to an €8,000 entrance fee. Today, there is none and the annual subscription is at €800 nearly 50 per cent of what it used to be and given the charm of the Paul McGinley-designed layout the current figure represents an attractive pitch.
Several clubs have closed and others have fundamentally reappraised their business model to try to eke out a future. Ireland’s relationship with golf club membership changed as people began to consider how to achieve the best value for money. It’s possible to accumulate plenty of discounted tee times in sundry clubs on a €2,000 budget.
The days of some employers, particularly those in the financial services sector, including golf club membership as a perk for some employees are largely over. In 2004, Ireland boasted 220,000 adult golfers, a figure that today is a little under 180,000.
At the height of golf’s appeal, it was a sport played by five per cent of the population in Ireland and in Sport Ireland’s, The Irish Sports Monitor report (2017) that figure is down to 2.5 per cent; incidentally that mark is up 0.2 percentage points on 2015. Contained within those figures though is a silver lining; an increase in the number of women playing golf in the period from 2015-2017 from 0.9 per cent to 1.2 per cent.
The Confederation of Golf in Ireland (CGI), an umbrella body that includes, the Golfing Union of Ireland (GUI), Irish Ladies Golf Union (ILGU) and the Irish PGA, has successfully pushed the “Get into Golf” programme, one that assists golf clubs in recruiting new members. The programme incorporates three main strands: advertising, internal and external communication and “taster sessions and awareness days”.
Pat Finn, chief executive of the GUI, highlights “equality and the production of a nurturing family environment” as central tenets to the ongoing evolution of Irish golf clubs. He explained: “I’ll give you an example. I bumped into my counterpart in the German Golf Association and in a general discussion I mentioned that he must be pleased with the figures that 40 per cent of members of golf clubs in Germany are women.
“He made the point that there is no difference between male and female golfers as far as they are concerned; they are just golfers. Female membership in Ireland is running at 23 per cent which is considerably better than Britain but we have a way to go. The CGI programme has been excellent in increasing women’s participation in golf.”
The health of the game, as with most sports, is rooted in encouraging children to play and in that respect Finn pointed to the work being done in Blainroe Golf Club, where they have increased the numbers in their juniors’ category from 60 to 200.The Co Wicklow club has brought in some interesting innovations including a commitment to giving the youngsters priority playing rights ahead of adults in Tuesday and Thursday morning competitions during the summer.
An ESRI report commissioned by the CGI found a general decline in participation with fewer people under the age of 55 playing golf. It also found that more women were taking up the game than men and that it was time constraints rather than money that was at the root of the downturn in membership numbers.
The obvious challenge for golf clubs then was along with trying to offer greater affordability that they also appealed to potential members who were “time poor”.
David Leech is the business development and membership manager at the Jack Nicklaus-designed Killeen Castle, home to the 2011 Solheim Cup. He explained: “From our point of view we have examined the trends closely over the past few years and come up with a few new initiatives.
“We brought in a nine-hole membership [€776]. We have just under 50, nine-hole members at the moment and since we brought it in 18 months ago, we have had 12 convert to full membership. It is basically aimed at the golfer who is time precious at the moment.
“Time is probably a bigger obstacle to golf club membership than finance, where it’s simply deciding on whether an individual is getting value for money. We discovered that people with young families couldn’t justify spending the guts of a day between playing and getting to and from the club. The nine-hole option is very popular. There are restrictions in terms of the times they can use. It works out about a third of the price of a normal sub [full membership costs €2,371 with levies].
“In the last year we also launched a new member initiative where we flipped the discount for new members. Previously if the sub was €2,500 you might offer it to new members for €1,750 or something for the first year. We found that as soon as the sub went back up people would jump ship then. They would get the time at the lower price and then move elsewhere.
“What we have done is to offer a four-year membership deal, whereby you pay the full sub in year one, and then if you stay and play a minimum number of rounds (15), then you get €750 off in year two, another €750 in year three and €500 in year four; a saving of €2,000 over the four years. It is now in the person’s interest to stay which is much better for us.”
There is a disappearing generation of golfers between the ages of 20 to 40 as education and family potentially takes priority so clubs are looking to try to encourage young men and women to stay around. Powerscourt is no exception as their general manager Gavin Hunt explained: “A number of years ago we introduced an intermediate membership category for 23- to 29-year-olds.
“The fee for that is €1,550 whereas the fee for a full member is €2,420. They have the same playing rights as a full member. Again this year is the first year we have filled that category. We have seen a 50 per cent rise in that category over the past two years.”
In terms of senior membership Powerscourt has been full for the past two years and that includes a system whereby about 400 memberships are leased from shareholders. Hunt continued: “Every year we have a rotation of about 70 or 80 shares for leasing. We have shareholders who are playing this year who want to lease out next year.
“We have never had a situation where we haven’t been able to facilitate someone who is leasing; there is always movement in the market every year. We would work it on the last-in first-out basis but never had that situation.”
The other innovation that Powerscourt have championed comes on foot of the CGI findings in relation to junior golf. Hunt said: “We have a full junior, student and intermediate programme but have a low number of girls playing. Part of the problem is that our junior membership only starts at 11 years of age.
“The information coming from CGI is that it is too late. You need to be getting kids at seven, eight and nine. What we are doing this year is introducing a cadet membership; you are not a member of the club but you come in for eight weeks in the summer from eight years on. It introduces children to the game and the club and by the time you get to 11, maybe golf is your first sport and you join at 11.”
The corporate market in golf is showing signs of revival and green fee enquiries have been strong. However, innovation, flexibility, and an investment in youth, as well as removing some of the stuffiness of a bygone era, are essential to attracting new hearts and minds.