Positivity on the fairways but golf must move with the times

Fota Island: More than €1m was spent on new equipment in 2018. Picture: Kevin Markham

Irish golf saw its fair share of ups and downs during 2018. The Dubai Duty Free Irish Open was a huge success at Ballyliffin, several clubs celebrated significant anniversaries and the golf course at Adare re-opened to global acclaim. The headline feeling was positive… but here are the 2018 report cards from nine golf clubs, covering every tier of Irish golf.

Fota Island

With the tree-lined landscape that stretches across the island of this five star resort (some 780 acres of it) it is hard to believe Fota Island celebrated 25 years in 2018.

Overall progress in 2018?

The summer of 2018 saw a weekend extravaganza to mark the 25th anniversary. Membership also continued to grow and the famous lilac jumper was replaced by a blue alternative.

Most successful initiatives?

“The course stood up very well in the summer weather,” says Seamus Leahy, the resort’s director of marketing. “Both the irrigation system and Con O’Driscoll and his team came into their own. The course was in magnificent condition as a result. We saw significant growth in visitors from northern Europe and our British golfing friends continued to arrive.”

What was done differently?

Over €1m was spent on new equipment, with fairway mowers, heavy loaders and speciality maintenance equipment improving the course’s already excellent presentation.

Most significant achievements?

“Our 25th anniversary was the most significant achievement with our club going from strength to strength. The Golf Academy also introduced a new nine-hole membership model.”

Greatest challenge?

“The weather. Preparing and presenting a course to exceptional standards is always a challenge but especially when faced with the extremes faced in 2018. The course maintenance team did achieve this in spite of the conditions.”

Membership update?

Every category has grown but the addition of the nine-hole membership option in conjunction with Fota Island Golf Academy and the Barryscourt nine-hole course has had a major impact. Membership is growing month on month.

Core plans for 2019?

“Our main focus in 2019,” says Leahy, “is to bring more continental golfers to the resort. We have focused on various channels to attract more of our golfing neighbours, including working with groups such as Cork Harbour Islands and Pure Cork, or with international tour operators who bring customers directly.”

Overall feeling on Irish golf at the moment?

“Without question  Brexit is a real challenge,” Leahy states. “Coupled with increased Vat on food and accommodation, plus increases in minimum wage, all these factors are making it more difficult to present a product in a cost effective and attractive manner to potential overseas visitors. The industry needs to guard against old bad habits of pricing ourselves too high and encouraging the visitor to look elsewhere.

“On the other side, the channels to market need to be watched carefully, with some large product aggregators selling off product too cheaply and keeping too much for themselves. This will put smaller membership clubs under more pressure.

“It is questionable that these models benefit the industry in the long-term and I suspect the reduced income that these smaller clubs will effectively gain from these global channels will mean that although we may see more golfers playing, the revenue will be extracted from the real area of need. This is the major challenge for the golf industry going forward.”

Faithlegg

Faithlegg, a charming resort parkland outside Waterford city, also celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2018, marked by a Pro Am in July, and Celebratory Dinner in the Faithlegg Hotel.

Overall progress in 2018?

Faithlegg House Hotel and Golf Resort was rebranded ‘Faithlegg’, which encapsulates both hotel and golf. This coincided with the recent investments by FBD Hotels. On the course, improved conditions and

aesthetics attracted new members and improved the customer experience for visitors and societies.

Most successful initiatives?

Members and visitors get to play a full 18 holes, 12 months of the year, despite weather conditions. This has a lot to do with excellent drainage and a fairway sanding programme which was introduced last year.

What was done differently?

“On the course I would say 50% of the improvements we’ve made are not big money items but smaller things we were getting wrong on a consistent basis,” says Karl Cullen, Faithlegg’s director of golf.

Most significant achievements?

“We are delighted to appear in Ireland’s Top 100 Courses, in Irish Golfer Magazine,” says Cullen. “This is a first for us and it’s rewarding to know that all the hard work and investment into course and facilities has been recognised by an external panel of judges.”

Greatest challenge?

Retaining and growing membership, and attracting Societies to the club in a declining golf market. “It’s extremely tough out there” Cullen states. “We recognise that the only way to meet this challenge is by providing a better product and to keep improving it.”

Membership update

A join-early membership scheme was introduced in September 2017, offering 16 months of new membership for the price of 12. This attracted 54 new members. This successful initiative was repeated for 2018/2019.

Core plans for 2019?

All Societies that play Faithlegg in 2019 are being invited back in November to compete for a chance to win a three-night stay in Portugal or Spain. “We also want to increase and retain members,” says Cullen.

“Our membership packages include added extras for the Leisure Centre or for lessons.”

Overall feeling on Irish golf at the moment?

“Society has changed greatly in the past 10-15 years and it is definitely a challenging time for Irish golf,” says Cullen. “However the golfing bodies are very aware of this and are examining what can be done to stop the decline. The main thing is to get people to fall back in love with the game, from juniors to adults.”

Dromoland Castle

This five-star resort has been investing heavily in the past few years and the plush parkland, overlooked by the castle, is benefitting as a result.

Overall progress in 2018?

A busy year saw investment in both the clubhouse and golf course. Tarmacadam pathways, a new fleet of Club Bar Tempo golf buggies, with GPS Visage technology and new course furniture have greatly enhanced the courses aesthetics.

Most successful initiatives?

“Continuous investment always stands to us,” say Mark Reynolds, Dromoland Castle Golf Club Manager, “and we see this on the membership side. Improving facilities for members, new member benefits, new booking systems, and a focus on the training facilities in our golf academy are reasons we know why membership referrals are very strong. We are proud of that.”

What was done differently?

“Thankfully, having the resources and business strategy to allow for continuous investment. A focus on golf sales from everybody, including Carr Golf, with weekly insight and analysis of trends and leads, means we can grow in areas we wish to.”

Most significant achievements?

Dromoland Castle is the IGTOA ‘Parkland Course of the Year’ and, following the €20m refurbishment, Dromoland Castle is also ‘Ireland’s Best Golf Hotel, as announced at the World Golf Awards 2018.

Greatest challenge?

The impact of the severe weather had a huge impact on the course. The team, led by Paul Coleman, did an incredible job keeping the course open as much as possible.

Membership update

Membership has grown significantly, thanks to a better understanding of the course and facilities, and greater retention. The Junior girl section has flourished thanks to word of mouth, a good reputation, and both the Ladies Committees and Junior Officers. A new Intermediate membership category is thriving.

Core plans for 2019?

The club will be adding a Pro shop, thanks to an extended reception area. A more efficient golf booking system will be introduced.

Overall feeling on Irish golf at the moment?

“County Clare will be the focus next year with the Irish Open at Lahinch, and we will feel the buzz.”

Beaufort

Beaufort Golf Club is set among 200-year old trees, 15th-century castle ruins, fairy rings and rolling hills. It is a sweet parkland.

Overall progress in 2018

Membership grew across men, women and juniors with a successful Get into Golf for women programme, as well as Beaufort’s unique Points4Golf initiative. Overall membership grew by an impressive 25%.

Most successful initiatives

Get into Golf saw 34 women participate in the programme with 20 then taking up membership. The club has worked with EZLinks over the last two years to get an online booking system in place.

What was done differently?

“Beaufort’s unique Points4Golf initiative allows golfers who want to join a progressive club to get back to the game,” says Fiona Dunne from Beaufort Golf Club, “or start playing without paying large membership fees. Points4Golf is also popular with members who don’t have the time to play golf as much as they would like but want to maintain their handicap.”

Most significant achievements

“We increased American visitors which is a challenge when competing against the big links courses,” says Dunne. “Reviews on Trip Advisor ranged from ‘hidden gem’ of golf in the South West to ‘the best greens’ anywhere, endorsing the work that goes into club and course.”

Greatest challenge?

“The challenge for a privately owned club is competing against clubs that can avail of grants and favourable terms with the likes of Faílte Ireland. We use our resources to increase our presence on the golf scene as smartly as we can. We thoroughly research where our marketing budget is spent and everyone who walks through the door is an important customer to us.”

Core plans for 2019

The club plans to strengthen its relationships with tour operators, societies and other golf clubs. 2019 will also see the club take over Churchtown House, next door. This will offer self-catering or catered luxury accommodation for groups of golfers.

Ballyliffin

How has the Irish Open boosted your profile?

“The club’s profile nationally and internationally has been greatly enhanced,” says John Farren, the club’s long serving General Manager. “We have seen a considerable increase in enquiries for 2018, 2019 and beyond.”

Most successful initiatives?

The club’s focus on juniors and novices is proving successful. Novice Membership introduces people to golf at a reasonable rate for two years while the Youth Academy offers free instruction for junior members during the summer.

What was done differently?

There has been considerable investment on the course over the last 14 years: Old Links redesign, irrigation system, Irish Seniors Open, Glashedy rebunkering, remodelling Glashedy’s 7th, driving range, extending the course, Academy Links development.

Most significant achievements?

Aside from such a successful hosting of the Irish Open, Ballyliffin revamped their clubhouse and was voted Irish Links Course of the year by the IGTOA.

Greatest challenge?

“The greatest challenge in 2018 was The Irish Open and getting the site and access roads ready to stage the event,” says Farren. “The greatest challenge for all Irish golf courses is competition from other golf destinations.”

Membership update?

Closed at present with a waiting list to be reviewed in April 2019.

Core plans for 2019?

Capitalise on the success of the Irish Open… and the forthcoming 2019 Open Championship at Royal Portrush.

Overall feeling on Irish golf at the moment?

“I think Irish golf is in a very good place with participation levels recovering and international visitor numbers increasing,” Farren says. “Smaller clubs are struggling to maintain standards and memberships, with very limited resources, whilst resorts and larger clubs are doing well again. There are challenges with Brexit but these will be overcome and it is nothing we haven’t dealt with before in this part of the world.”

Rosslare

The links at Rosslare suffered from last summer’s drought, which was a challenge for all courses. Picture: Kevin Markham

This sweet, low-lying links packs in a lot of excitement over a course that has old-school charm and design aesthetics.

Overall progress in 2018

The club saw a net increase of about 5% in membership. Visitor numbers were also up with a noticeable increase in UK trade.

Most successful initiatives

“We had a great return from our Ladies in Golf programme,” says Jamie O’Sullivan, the club pro. “We then decided to run a Men in Golf programme which was also very successful. Our close relationship with partner Hotels — Kellys Resort, Coast Rosslare and The Talbot — also proved beneficial in increasing green fee revenue.”

What was done differently?

The club encouraged children of a younger age to participate through more fun and games in coaching and practice sessions. Greater emphasis was placed on Social Media and the club launched a more modern website.

Most significant achievements

Ian Lynch won The North of Ireland Golf Championship, Paul Murphy won the Irish Faldo Series, in Mount Juliet, and John Brady represented Rosslare again, for Leinster and Ireland.

Greatest challenge?

Maintaining membership numbers which will enable the club to maintain its 30 links golf holes at a high standard. Keeping the younger generations playing golf through their early adult years remains a challenge, as does the threat of Brexit.

Membership update

Local initiatives involving local schools increased junior membership.

Core plans for 2019

“We want to introduce younger members to Rosslare,” says O’Sullivan. “And increase the footfall of visitors, making their experiences more memorable.”

Overall feeling on Irish golf at the moment?

“Golf in Ireland has certainly suffered over the past decade. It became saturated and a race to the bottom. Clubs and golfers need to understand that this cannot prevail. Golf hasn’t gone away and is certainly making a resurgence but it’s imperative that we focus efforts on the younger adults.”

Mountain View

No other course in Ireland is so aptly named. This family-run business shows how golf can be for everybody.

Overall progress in 2018

In 2018, the club membership base remained consistent. This increased the level of stability for the club.

Most successful initiatives

“The most successful initiative was to completely redesign the bar/restaurant and maximise the panoramic views and the space,” says Michael O’Neill from the club.

“We employed one of Kilkenny’s greatest chefs, Maria Raftery, who opened Mountain View to a completely new audience. We also entered the wedding and events market.

What was done differently?

The club’s diversification means Mountain View is no longer exclusively golf-oriented.

Most significant achievements

“We also purchased land which we will be developing for accommodation.”

What was the club’s greatest challenge?

To convince members that diversifying was important to sustain the game of golf for all.

Membership update

Membership has remained consistent.

Core plans for 2019

To firmly establish a secondary business catering for non-golfers.

Overall feeling on Irish golf at the moment?

“Irish Golf needs a lot of work,” O’Neill believes. “The GUI needs to recognise that the game must move at a faster pace, quicker formats, etc. Time is of the essence for golfers who want to play a round in two-and-a-half hours and go… whilst maintaining their handicaps for a year.”

Luttrellstown Castle

The walled Luttrellstown Castle estate stretches over 567 acres. The course flows through mature woodland, next to the River Liffey.

Overall progress in 2018

The club grew membership substantially, building up strong ladies and men’s categories. The new driving range opened and includes an Academy Membership option.

Most successful initiatives

The club continued to grow membership in addition to maximising green fee revenue through corporate, society and visitor campaigns. There is a new golf booking engine.

What was done differently?

The club recently re-joined IAGTO (International Association of Golf Tour Operators) which gives the club access to building and strengthening relationships with European Tour Operators.

Most significant achievements

“With our new driving range we are now focusing on developing the game through various tuition programmes,” says Liam McCool, the club’s director of golf. “Facilities include five covered bays and an extensive grass area for up to 20 players to hit at any given time. This is complemented by a three-hole academy course.”

Greatest challenge?

Not only is the Irish golf market extremely competitive but people also have less discretionary income to play the game.

Membership update

The membership breakdown was approximately 75% men and 25% ladies. There is an active competition schedule including many social scrambles which helps create a vibrant club atmosphere.

Core plans for 2019

“Building up relationships with tour operators is very much on our agenda for 2019,” says Cullen. “Creating more brand awareness about our product and what facilities we have to offer is also one of our main goals for the future. And growing our European business is key, especially with our close proximity to Dublin airport.”

Overall feeling on Irish golf at the moment?

“Golf for many years has been labelled as stuffy, a label it needs to shed quickly to grow again. Golf has to move with the times and today people are more casual than ever before.

“It’s important we attract more women, juniors and families through Get Into Golf programmes,” says Cullen.

“We need to encourage people to reengage with the game, make it more fun and enjoyable by utilising multiple tee options and shortening course for various social/golf evenings.”

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