Golf’s membership dilemma

Club membership numbers are dropping but plenty people are still playing golf. Kevin Markham weighs up the membership route against the nomadic green fees option.

The picturesque 15th hole, with the clubhouse in the distance, at Lee Valley Golf Club, Co Cork

The membership figures recently released by the Golfing Union of Ireland (GUI) do not make happy reading. 

The headline stats indicate since the 2007 peak, more than 20% of Irish golfers have left GUI affiliated clubs. That equates to almost 50,000 golfers in a decade.

Such headlines, however, hide the complete story. Just because a golfer gives up club membership (and his GUI membership/fee) it doesn’t mean he or she stops playing golf. 

A lot of golfers have decided to join local societies or become ‘golfing nomads’, playing wherever the mood takes them.

But, as the American Express strapline says ‘membership has its privileges’. With the main golfing season upon us here are 12 of those privileges to encourage you to renew or start your club membership.

1. Golf on tap

When you become a member you can play golf at your course whenever you want. Late summer evenings are perfect for slipping out to play a quick nine holes. 

If you can get out of work early on a Friday, what better way to celebrate than by heading for the first tee? Why not sneak in some much-needed practice ahead of the weekend medal or hook up with a member you’ve bumped into on the tee. All of this and not a green fee in sight. 

There’s also the pro, the shop, the bar and restaurant, and the practice facilities which you can use freely. A pro can offer not only advice and lessons but give you the opportunity to test new equipment on your course.

2. Golf at weekends

Most people work Monday to Friday, so that leaves the weekend to play golf. If you’re a member of a club then you can book your preferred tee time in advance and know you’ll get a game. 

What’s more, most member clubs offer limited green fees at weekends because members take priority, so non-members can struggle to get tee times.

3. A sense of community

Golfers come from different walks of life but once you pass through the gates the only thing that matters is you all want to enjoy the golf course and the facilities on offer. 

It creates a positive vibe, a friendly atmosphere and a great buzz in the bar after your round. New members are typically taken under the wing of a long-serving member, which eases introductions and helps new members settle in quickly.

4. Bring your friends

When you belong to a club you can invite your friends to join you for a round at a substantially reduced rate. Instead of paying the regular fee of €60, your mates could pay €15. 

Rates vary by club, obviously, but it is always a good deal which will keep your friends happy. Who knows, maybe the quality of the course/clubhouse will convince them to join. At the very least it should lead to a return invitation.

5. Make friends

When you belong to a club for any length of time you’ll meet golfers you will happily tee it up with again and again. Strong, lasting friendships are formed. After all, you’ll be spending four to five hours in their company so you might as well play with people you like!

6. Team participation

Clubs have numerous teams they put forward every year — for low and high handicappers alike. You don’t have to participate but plenty of golfers love the inter-club rivalry and competitive environment, be it at local or national level. 

It might just bring out the best in you. You may also get to play some of Ireland’s best courses absolutely free… in the name of ‘practice’.

7. Challenge yourself

When you visit a golf course you are normally directed to play from a particular tee (eg the whites) but at your home club, playing with friends or by yourself, you are not restricted. 

Why not play the par threes from the back tees and the par fives from the red tees one day… and then switch the next. You’ll play two different courses which will help improve your game and knowledge of the course.

8. Club competitions

The weekly weekend and midweek competitions will vary in format and interest — from scrambles and fourballs to individual strokeplay, stableford, V Par and even three-club competitions.

9. The club’s future

When you belong to a club you become more interested in its future success. Even if you don’t want to be on committees/councils, simply by being a member you are entitled to your say — whether it’s to point out that sand has become compacted in a particular bunker or to suggest how junior golf in the club could be expanded. 

With members from all those different walks of life your club will possess a vast range of knowledge and expertise… and opinions!

10. Junior programmes

If you have kids of your own, what better environment to introduce them to the game than your home club. Everything they need, from the pro to the practice facilities, to the restaurant, is in one place. It may be a cliché to say kids are the future of the game but it’s true.

The average age profile of most Irish golf clubs is in the 60s. That doesn’t bode well and while young boys and girls might well stop playing after a few years to pursue other sports/interests, it is more than worth the investment to introduce them to golf as young as possible.

Consider that golf and swimming are two sports you can participate in from the age of 4 to 94. Your kids could easily come back to the game at some stage and play alongside you.

11. The clubhouse

You will get discounts on food and drink in the restaurant/bar. Perfect for when you sit down with 40 to 50 other people to watch Shane, Rory, and the rest of the world’s best golfers fight it out at Augusta.

12. GUI benefits

GUI-affiliated clubs give you a card which has its own range of benefits (assuming you’re fully paid up).

Insurance is an important one but you will also benefit from special GUI discounted green fees at most Irish clubs. Sometimes 15%, but up to 50%. Your official GUI handicap allows you play Open competitions around the country. Many courses around the world insist you have a handicap certificate.

  • In the interests of balance, here are some counter- arguments for the nomadic lifestyle:

1. The money

Yes, an annual sub can take a large divot out of your earnings so assessing value is a balancing act. 

Naturally, if you play only three times a year and your annual sub is €600 then it is hard to justify paying €200 a round… especially when that same money could cover 20 green fees of €30.

If you never use the clubhouse or practice facilities, or you’re not interested in the weekly competitions and the social vibe, then a nomadic approach has its attractions.

2. Your time

Taking four to five hours out of your day to play golf can be a big commitment, especially if you have lots of other things to do. Many are happy to pay a green fee when the opportunity arises.

3. Small groups

If you prefer playing alone or with one very small group of friends then it may be preferable to pay green fees and visit different courses.

4. Course variety

Some golfers love playing the same course time and again… others want the constant variety that green fees offer.

5. Elitism

Some clubs do still carry the ‘elitist’ tag and there are plenty golfers who don’t enjoy that kind of environment.

Plenty of people argue that golf is too expensive and ask how clubs can justify the fees they charge. In response, a golf course is much bigger than a GAA/rugby pitch, so much more complex than a tennis court or swimming pool. 

A golf course contains different but specific types of grass, and it is adorned with trees, streams, lakes, bridges and paths… all of which have to be maintained. 

The grass on the green has to be treated and mowed constantly, drainage issues have to be tackled promptly and bunkers upgraded at regular intervals. 

Throw in all the green keeping equipment, the fertiliser/soil costs and the upkeep and running of the clubhouse and you can see how maintaining a golf club is expensive.

The cost of your membership is a very important part of keeping your course in the best condition possible… for you, the member.

From a personal perspective, I see the benefits of membership outweighing those of the nomadic lifestyle. For one thing, being a member means you are committed to the game and you will make an effort to play on a regular basis. And that is good for your mental and physical well-being.

Golf clubs are keen for you to take up membership and are promoting their offers widely at the moment. Many include tasty extras, eg playing rights at other clubs, hotel/gym discounts, so take a look at what’s available. You might find the perfect fit.


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