The front nine: How Ireland's golf clubs managed tricky conditions in 2019

As the year comes to an end it is an opportunity to ask: How was 2019 for Irish golf clubs? Positive vibes continue, boosted by the €2.34m (up from €1.96m two years ago) recently awarded to golf clubs under the Sports Capital Programme.

However, difficulties remain. Here, nine golf clubs review their year. Part II next week

CASTLETROY, CO LIMERICK

The 16th at Castletroy
The 16th at Castletroy

This smart suburban parkland is sweetly routed through ever-maturing flanks of trees. The space has been used beautifully.

Overall progress in 2019:Progress was achieved in retaining membership levels, continued improvement on course playability and sustainability, enhancement of member services, and the continued successful growth in Junior Golf programme.

Most successful initiatives: Membership initiatives saw new members replacing those lost. The Ladies ‘Get into Golf’ and the Prospective Members Open Day both proved highly successful. The course improvement programme of the past two to three years paid big dividends with significantly improved conditions.

What did you do differently? The club trialled a new course layout and a morning 9-hole member competition was also introduced. Interestingly, given the successful membership programme, the club reserved ‘new member’ tee times on competition days to help integrate new players at the club.

Most significant achievements of 2019: Hosting the AIG All Ireland and Munster Mixed Foursomes finals, and Ladies ILGU Munster Cup. Green fee revenue rose significantly and there was a 45% increase in intermediate membership… a much sought after age bracket (22-29). Junior Girls playing numbers increased from two to 22 and Junior Membership reached capacity.

What was the club’s greatest challenge? The key focus was to retain membership levels and ensure the financial health of the club which improved. A new catering service for members was successfully introduced.

Membership update: The wins and losses mean the club is the same, numerically, but the new members have reduced the average age of the club. The ‘Get Into Golf’ scheme saw six new lady members join and junior membership reached capacity.

Plans for 2020: The club will make further improvements to course facilities, with the clubhouse also being eyed up for refurbishment. New short course options for members will be pursued as will the drive to attract new members and create strong corporate packages.

What’s your overall feeling on Irish golf? “It’s exciting times for the game of golf at the moment,” said Gary Howie, PGA Club Pro. “We in Castletroy Golf Club are particularly looking forward to meeting all the visiting golf enthusiasts during the JP McManus Pro Am in Adare next July.”

MALONE, BELFAST

A premier parkland in Northern Ireland, Malone boasts considerable beauty on the outskirts of Belfast.

Overall progress in 2019: A busy, successful, but challenging year, which saw the loss of the course manager. Several senior members of green staff and a very hands-on greens convenor ensured the usual high standards of course maintenance.

Most successful initiatives: Green fee income exceeded targets, largely due to the number of corporate golf days hosted during the summer, as well as the increased number of golfers ahead of The Open.

What did you do differently? Facilities continue to be upgraded to retain existing members, attract new members and enhance the visitor experience. A programme to improve Malone’s practice facilities has therefore been implemented under architect Ken Kearney. This includes an upgraded short game facility and a long game/warm up range area.

Most significant achievements of 2019: The club was re-certified under the Quality Assurance scheme via Tourism NI and IAGTO. This recognises that Malone actively engages with tour operators and is a visitor-friendly members’ club. The Golfer’s Guide to Ireland recently awarded Malone the ‘Best Parkland in Ulster’ award and Paddy Dean the ‘Golf Manager Award for Ulster’.

What was the club’s greatest challenge? “The biggest challenge,” says general manager Paddy Dean, “is balancing the expectations and needs of members against those of visitors and corporate customers. At the busiest times it is becoming more difficult to keep members happy in terms of tee time availability, whilst also trying to increase alternative revenue streams beyond member subscriptions.”

Membership update: Malone is in a strong position and there are limited vacancies for full membership. The club, however, remains keen on attracting more female golfers and encouraging the children of members to join.

Plans for 2020: A major bunker renovation/improvement programme begins in early 2020. Several GUI and ILGU events will be hosted, including the Irish Senior Women’s Close Championship.

What’s your overall feeling on Irish golf? In recent years the big clubs have prospered whilst a lot of smaller clubs still appear to be struggling. Although the overall feeling on Irish golf at present is positive, the gap between clubs that are struggling and those at the other end of the spectrum would appear to be widening.

CONCRA WOOD, CO MONAGHAN

A lakeland wonderland designed by the Christy O’Connors.

Overall progress in 2019: The club made good progress despite challenges such as weather, currency fluctuations and Brexit. After successfully securing the future of Concra Wood in March 2018, the club consolidated the business in 2019, keeping things tight to ensure its survival.

Most successful initiatives: 2019 saw the construction of seven new bridges around the course and floodlighting for the short game facility. A drainage programme targeted 10 fairways while bunkering is also being enhanced to enable faster drainage.

What did you do differently? A ‘Get into Golf’ coaching programme for ladies resulted in 30-40 new members, as well as lowering the age profile. Junior Easter and Summer Camps, in addition to an eight-week coaching programme during July and August, resulted in 37 regular junior participants. Interest has been considerable, helped by a swing-room with modern technology, such as Trackman 4.

Most significant achievements of 2019: After a hectic 2018 (buy-out of the club and hosting the Challenge Tour), 2019 was a quieter year. The club attracted positive publicity in the USA, thanks to American journalists who were blown away with the course design, the spectacular views and, most of all, by the hospitality on offer.

What was the club’s greatest challenge? Weather, currency, and Brexit — all three are constant headaches at a club located on the border.

Membership update: Membership numbers remain consistent at over 400, with growth in beginner ladies and juveniles.

Plans for 2020: Fairway and bunker drainage is central to the club’s efforts to improve course conditions and attract more winter revenue. The club will also be attending the Munich Golf Show for the first time, as Germany is the biggest market for European golfers.

What’s your overall feeling on Irish golf? “I think the golf industry is still going through hard times,” says Conor McKenna, PGA Club Pro,“with membership a constant battle and fewer people playing. Established clubs such as Seapoint are going through hard times. The other problem I see is the lack of young golfers wishing to turn professional. Every pro in the country is on the lookout for assistants, including myself.”

DROMOLAND CASTLE, CO CLARE

The front nine: How Ireland's golf clubs managed tricky conditions in 2019

A top Irish resort parkland laid out in front of one of the world’s most exclusive castle hotels.

Overall progress in 2019: Throughout 2019 the club continued to invest in its golf product by updating machinery and enhancing the training of staff. A state-of-the-art 1,000 sq ft golf shop was also opened which will stock leading golf brands. Membership numbers have also continued to grow.

Most successful initiatives: The development of the new golf shop was a huge benefit to the overall golfing experience while there was strong growth in the Intermediate membership category.

What did you do differently? The entire resort looked at a new and sustainable culture. On the golf course, the focus was on conservation areas and water usage. The club is formulating a clear plan to make the course as sustainable as possible.

Most significant achievements of 2019: Dromoland Castle Resort was recognised as the seventh best resort in the world and second in Europe, in the Conde Nast Reader’s Choice Awards. The clubhouse’s Fig Tree Restaurant won the Golfer’s Guide of Ireland 2020 Golf Restaurant Munster Award.

What was the club’s greatest challenge? The weather. The club went from the extremes of last summer’s drought to this year’s mixed climate. Opening a new retail element to the golf experience offered its own unique challenge.

Membership update: Golf club membership has shifted since the Celtic Tiger, with people wanting total golf experience and value. An Intermediate Membership category is encouraging Junior/Student members to become full members and also to attract a younger age profile.

Plans for 2020: The club will continue to invest in the golf course with new machinery but it is also mindful of the future. A ‘Green Team’ has been established which will work closely with each department to create an even more sustainable Dromoland Castle.

What’s your overall feeling on Irish golf? “Golf in Ireland should be on a high after last summer, following the Irish Open, and Shane Lowry capturing the Claret Jug,” says Eamonn O’Donnell, director of golf. “These are fairytale stories and have put golf on the front pages. Add the amalgamation of the GUI and ILGU in 2020 and there are exciting times ahead. However the fall in club memberships remains a concern.”

MULLINGAR, CO WESTMEATH

One of the oldest and maturest parklands, Mullingar is always impressive.

Overall progress in 2019: The club’s membership base remained consistent. This increased the level of stability for the club. Green fee revenue increased by 22%.

Most successful initiatives: Each year the Get into Golf Programme proves to be a very successful initiative and this year was no exception. The club celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2019, and the events surrounding this proved very popular with the club’s members.

What did you do differently? Mullingar invested in new course equipment and, combined with a different approach by the course manager, the course is now presented to a much higher standard.

Most significant achievements of 2019: The famous Mullingar Scratch Trophy was included by the GUI on the Bridgestone Order of Merit for the first time in 2019. This will ensure its continued success and sustainability.

What was the club’s greatest challenge? Key challenges included retaining and growing membership, attracting Societies to the club in a challenging golf market and keeping the younger generations playing golf through their early adult years. This remains a challenge in the absence of a third level institution in Mullingar.

Membership update: Membership remained relatively static.

Plans for 2020: Keep improving the condition of the golf course, attract younger members and increase all revenue strands.

What’s your overall feeling on Irish golf: “The unknown consequences of Brexit are a real challenge,” says Donard MacSweeney, the club’s general manager. “Elsewhere, the increased Vat on food didn’t help the club as our catering is handled in-house. Golf also needs to be made more fun and enjoyable by utilising multiple tee options and shortening course for various social/golf evenings and abilities of golfer.”

TULFARRIS, CO WICKLOW

This lakeland odyssey is wrapped around Blessington Lakes and is thriving under new ownership.

Overall progress in 2019: There was considerable resort development. The owners, PREM Group, have invested over €6m, much of which went into the course. A new clubhouse enhances the arrival experience and the renovated driving range is now floodlit. A golf academy with resort professional Tom O’Neill has also been added. Additional works include upgrades to bunkers, greens, fairways and enhancements to the general course aesthetics.

Most successful initiatives: The CGI ‘Get into Golf’ programme saw more ladies looking to play golf. Many of them joined the club following the programme. There has also been strong growth in the resort’s play, stay, and dine offering.

Most significant achievements of 2019: Hosting the EuroPro Tour for the second year (out of three) was a huge success with Tulfarris broadcast to 400m homes via Sky Sports. This gave the resort huge international exposure.

What was the club’s greatest challenge? With 450 courses in Ireland it is hugely competitive to attract and retain members, especially with fewer young people committing to membership — preferring instead to pay and play. Links golf may be the preferred option for overseas visitors, particularly from North America, but it is important to showcase the benefits of parkland golf as an alternative.

Membership update: There has been steady growth in membership in recent years. A new intermediate category allows junior members to transition to full membership. This is currently the bestselling category.

Plans for 2020: Continued investment in the course and resort. The resort and its touring professional, Simon Thornton, will build the profile of Tulfarris, and good relationships have already been forged with tour operators, Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland. This will help put Tulfarris on the map as a premier parkland course.

What’s your overall feeling on Irish golf? “Irish golf is in a good place and we have an excellent reputation,” says Jim Murphy, CEO of the PREM Group. “We need to look beyond the domestic market and attract overseas golfers, while clubs also need to focus on retention of their membership base to ensure stable incomes year on year.”

ROSCREA, CO TIPPERARY

A parkland routed over mostly level terrain with sweet changes in pace.

Overall progress in 2019: A difficult year. As for so many small clubs in small towns around the country, 2019 was a struggle as efforts focused on retaining and building membership, as well as maintaining standards, with limited resources.

Most successful initiatives: The club introduced an Under-30s category in 2019. This is attracting younger golfers with a €300 sub and will, it is hoped, appeal to new golfers as well as those returning to the game. The CGI ‘Get into Golf’ proved successful with 18 new ladies joining. Within the club, the Winter League remains popular with a new option to play on any day of the week.

Most significant achievements of 2019: The Winter League’s flexibility will benefit members while the ‘Get into Golf’ efforts have attracted new members. It is hoped that the new Under-30s category will prove similarly appealing.

What was the club’s greatest challenge? Finding new members remains the biggest challenge when small towns don’t have the numbers to keep a small club such as Roscrea thriving. Addressing the cost of playing golf and the time restraints of modern society adds to the complexities.

Membership update: Membership has remained relatively static with gains and losses equalling themselves out.

Plans for 2020: Maintaining membership numbers is key. The success of the Ladies’ ‘Get into Golf’ programme has encouraged the club to focus on doing the same for men. The club is also considering 9- and/or 12-hole competitions for time-poor golfers. Managing expenditure is a crucial objective.

What’s your overall feeling on Irish golf? Clearly, small clubs are struggling around the country as building membership remains a vital issue. Embracing club life is also essential to the survival and popularity of clubs and getting members to volunteer for sub-committees ensures an active club life.

CONNEMARA, CO GALWAY

The front nine: How Ireland's golf clubs managed tricky conditions in 2019

This Eddie Hackett links uses a beautifully natural terrain of dunes, rocks and hills and combines it with breathtaking scenery.

Overall progress in 2019: The course was in the best condition of its 50-year existence and Connemara rose to No 22 in the Irish Top 100 rankings. Visitor feedback was very positive and lady membership increased.

Most successful initiatives: The club moved its tee sheet provider and management software to Clubnet, which proved hugely beneficial. The redesign of the website, focusing on Connemara’s uniqueness, coincided with a 100% increase in online bookings.

What did you do differently? The tee sheet management change was a success but so too was a hands-on approach. Captain Cyril Joyce organised starters on busy days, thus avoiding unnecessarily long rounds. Simple things can have hugely positive impacts. The Sports Capital Grant for long overdue new machinery improved course condition and aesthetics.

Most significant achievements of 2019: Luke O’Neill won the German Boys, which will see him joining Kansas State in 2020. Secretary manager Kathleen Burke was awarded Manager of the Year for Connacht by the Golfers Guide to Ireland. This follows 15 years of committed service through some tough times. On the course, the introduction of Wexford sand to greens two years ago is delivering spectacular results.

What was the club’s greatest challenge? Despite having an U18 international star and four previous Irish internationals, the biggest concern for Connemara is the number of juniors. Hugh O’Neill, the resident PGA Pro, has been one of the top junior coaches over the past 20 years but his efforts generate little interest. This is an area where growth is needed.

Plans for 2020: Attendance at the January PGA Show in Orlando, alongside Galway Bay Golf Resort, should attract US visitors en route from the South West to the North. Some mostly cosmetic changes to the design of some holes are anticipated while course investment will continue.

What’s your overall feeling on Irish golf? It is difficult not to be positive about Irish golf after 2019. The Irish Open and Open Championship were a showcase of what Ireland has to offer. “Being a links course in a tourist area, makes it a little easier to be positive but if we all work together we can continue to build this industry,” says Dominic Lynch, the club’s retail operations manager. “Clubs need to put value on their product and golfers need to realise that courses won’t survive if they are not supported.”

HEADFORT, CO MEATH

The 14th at Headfort
The 14th at Headfort

This 36-hole parkland beauty mixes a new design (2000) around lakes and islands, with an original 18 holes (1928) over tree-lined terrain.

Overall progress in 2019: The club is in the second year of its new management structure which is implementing a strategic plan. Membership and green fee revenue has grown despite a challenging market. Headfort also successfully hosted the Irish Challenge on the European Challenge Tour on the New Course in October.

Most successful initiatives: An Intermediate membership for Under-35s has been well received and this category continued to grow. Society business continues to grow and, in partnership with the Headfort Arms, the club’s popularity for groups planning overnight stays has exceeded expectations. The club’s practice facilities have also been enhanced with two new short game areas redeveloped.

Most significant achievements of 2019: Growing green fee and memberships in 2019, in the face of many challenges proved very satisfying.

What was the club’s greatest challenge? Hosting the European Challenge Tour presented its challenges. It was a massive undertaking for the club with an overwhelming response from the members with over one hundred volunteers during the week. The course provided a stern test for the Tour players.

Membership update: There is a concerted effort to reduce the average age of membership and intermediate and student offerings have been well received. The club will continue to develop these over the next few years.

Plans for 2020: Continue to heavily promote Headfort as a great golfing option for members, green fees and societies.

What’s your overall feeling on Irish golf? “The average age of golf members in clubs across the country is getting higher and this represents a significant threat to the industry,” says Emmet Staunton, general manager. “However, younger people are still playing golf and it’s up to the clubs to offer flexibility and options that suit their needs.”

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