Rough not so tough as green shoots begin to show

Evidence would indicate that, after a turbulent few years on the economic front, things are bottoming out

 A view of the par 4, 4th hole at The Old Head Golf Links towards the Old Head of Kinsale Lighthouse. Photograph: David Cannon/Getty Images

A view of the par 4, 4th hole at The Old Head Golf Links towards the Old Head of Kinsale Lighthouse. Photograph: David Cannon/Getty Images

 

The glass half-full philosophy is back in Irish golf, it would seem. Where once you needed a magnifying glass to see any green shoots, the evidence – from the clubs themselves – would indicate that, after a turbulent few years on the economic front, things are bottoming out. It’s not boomtown exactly, far from it, but innovative measures adopted by many clubs in attempting to attract new members and to retain existing ones are at least stemming the haemorrhaging.

There is a starkness about the membership numbers in clubs the length and breadth of the island if taken merely in a black-and-white context: the Golfing Union of Ireland, which governs the men’s game, has seen membership fall from a peak of 177,000 in 2004 down to 135,000 at the last count, while the Irish Ladies Golfing Union’s membership has fallen to 38,000 (with a further 4,500 registered juniors) which equates to a drop of 20 per cent in the past six years.

As Pat Donnellan, himself a three-time All-Ireland winner with Galway back in his footballing heyday in the ‘60s but nowadays the force behind Bearna’s beautifully sculpted course through bog, rock and gorse on the fringes of Connemara, put it, “you could fill Croke Park with the number of people who have left golf clubs in recent years”.

The GUI and ILGU numbers detail those players who have retained membership of golf clubs, a combined total in excess of 200,000 and, in itself, still a sizeable contingent. A twist of the recession, though, is that a good number of those who gave up golf club membership have continued to play, the so-called “nomadic” golfers who – although no longer playing club golf – have availed of the much-reduced green fees on offer in clubs to play social golf or in groups.

As Rollo McClure, the treasurer of the GUI, honestly admitted, “people are deciding there are other ways to play golf instead of being a member of a golf club”.

The main revenue stream for clubs, however, is through annual membership fees. So, the challenge to clubs is to attract new members – particularly in the age-group of 20 to 40 years, referred to time and time again by those who responded to an Irish Times questionnaire as the “lost generation” – and, to that end, the advent of the Confederation of Golf in Ireland has been rather timely.

“A particular problem is between the ages of 20 and 40,” agreed McClure, adding: “A lot of people have left golf clubs, partly because of money, partly because of time, partly because of new family commitments, and that’s a big problem. If you have those people leaving clubs, where is the future?”

The CGI is a new organisation – a coming together of the GUI, the ILGU and the PGA – whose aim is to advance golf on the entire island going into the future. John Treacy, the CEO of the Irish Sports Council, welcomed the setting up of the CGI as a “very welcome and very positive development” for the sport in Ireland.

The role of the CGI is wide ranging, from creating and implementing a development plan for golf in Ireland to interacting with the Olympic Council of Ireland now that golf has been brought into the fold for the Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, but also in providing advice and help to clubs.

John Roche, the Director of Golf and Business Development with CGI, remarked: “Our remit breaks into two areas, to procure development of the sport itself and, then, the actual club services. Going out to clubs, educating clubs in what’s best practice. How they should retain members. What they need to do to encourage people to play the sport. And then putting a series of programmes in place that create a better awareness of golf, (for) improved participation in golf and to get people to stay in golf. That’s not just juniors, it is men’s, it is ladies, it is the whole spectrum. It is a two-pronged attack! It is basically to create customers and then make sure that places where we take customers are fit and ready to work with them.”

For some clubs, it has been a question simply of surviving; of belt-tightening and more, but the lifeblood of any business – and golf clubs, be they proprietary or members owned, are that – is maintaining revenue streams and clubs have had to be innovative and creative.

The responses to our questionnaire from many clubs suggest a willingness to target that critical 20-40 age bracket with the introduction of a new “beginners” membership category, aimed at attracting people in from other sports who may never have played golf before. These “beginner” packages offer a reduced annual fee in the first year, gradually increasing to full membership over a period of mainly three years.

An excellent example of innovation comes from Kilcock Golf Club in Co Kildare which has introduced what it calls a Flexible Membership starting at €349. This membership category gives the golfer a pre-loaded card with 349 credits from which items are debited. A round of golf, for instance, will cost 10 or 15 credits Monday to Friday depending on the tee time with golf also available off-peak at weekends. For those who play a lot of golf, full membership at €799 is available.

Highfield Golf Club, also in Co Kildare, has been re-energised by offering its own version of what it terms a “Flexi Membership.” As Avril Duggan of Highfield explained: “There is a lost generation of golfer who plays as a junior then is busy with work, life, relationships, children and cannot justify golf membership commitment or time to play but is still very much a golfer . . . we have introduced a Flexi membership to appeal to this group with an option to upgrade to unlimited full membership.” The cost of the Flexi membership is €195, which gives GUI/ILGU affiliation and ten green fees.

Another example of thinking outside the box comes from Howth Golf Club in Co Dublin, where a six-week introduction to golf membership is aimed at getting prospective golfers to nibble before joining the feast.

Roche, of the CGI, recognises that some clubs are being creative but emphasises others “are going to need some help in order to do that because the market has changed”. To that end, the CGI will have a team of development officers on the road to help clubs realise the importance of attracting new consumers in a changing market place.

“Part of our job is to sit down with them, do business planning with them, do market development with them, help them in areas like social media, help them in areas of marketing, committee structures, governance, so it will be a complete suite of offerings to the clubs that will plug into programmes that will try to get more people to play the sport,” said Roche.

Recently, Marty Carr, of Carr Golf Services, organised a series of half-day sessions around the country where, he noted, the feedback was “mainly positive, having these industry discussions with experts are helpful. Clubs (then) understand that the problems facing them are industry wide and not unique.” Carr pointed out, however, that a number of clubs requested maintenance audits and seemed keen to discuss debt restructuring with David Farrell, the representative of Farrell Grant Sparks, who was one of the speakers.

The nomadic, green-fee golfer is a growing species which is benefiting from lower prices at good courses. Paul Thompson, of justtreats.com, one of the companies offering golfing deals to this breed of player and consequently a revenue stream for clubs in what he would see as a win-win for the golfer and clubs, makes the point that “buying habits” of such golfers “has moved from simple phone inquiry to the club and word of mouth, to detailed online research, price comparison and deal comparison”. There is a need for clubs to be more savvy when it comes to marketing themselves.

The reality is that there remains an over-supply of courses. However, the argument of the past few years about how Nama courses were sucking the lifeblood out of those operating as businesses has been diluted somewhat by the reselling of a large number of such facilities.

Times are tough but not, it would appear, as tough as they were. Perhaps, the worse is over.

Sinead Heraty, the chief executive of the ILGU, paints perhaps the most upbeat synopsis of all in highlighting the success of their recent programmes to attract more young girls to the sport and of a stabilisation in the membership. Of that 20 per cent loss of members over the past six years, the ILGU’s analysis has shown many to have had no handicaps at all (indicating they were lukewarm golfers in the first place) or had handicaps of 36.

The numbers leaving have stabilised, down to a trickle, and the increase from the youth programmes have been extremely encouraging. “There are definite green shoots,” she said.

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