Back on the fairway: Signs are positive for golf clubs in 2018

A challenging 2017 for Irish golf demanded innovation on the course — and in the clubhouse. Kevin Markham canvassed nine clubs for their yearly report card.

As the year comes to an end, it is an opportunity to look back and ask: how was 2017 for Irish golf clubs?

There is a growing sense of positivity, no doubt boosted by the €1.96m recently awarded to 65 golf clubs under the Government’s Sports Capital Programme, but there are always two sides to the story.

Here are nine golf clubs, covering every tier of Irish golf, and their thoughts on 2017.

Dooks GC (Kerry)

This impressive links continues to grow in stature. The crumpled terrain and dramatic setting is home to 18 thoroughly entertaining holes.

Overall progress in 2017:

A successful 2017 saw green fee revenue up by 11%, resulting in a net profit of €250,000. The club worked hard to get Dooks on the main tour operator itineraries and the merits of Dooks are undoubtedly reaching a larger global audience.

Most successful initiatives:

Targeting the North American market proved a great success. Closer to home, Dooks ran a popular Open Day series called ‘Major Madness’, played on each Friday of the four Majors. The club also ran an inaugural ‘Father & Son Tournament’. These will be repeated in 2018.

What was done differently?:

Overseas Life membership was a key target in 2017… it wasn’t as successful as hoped but the foundations have now been laid. The club was also very active on social media reaching new, often younger, audiences.

Most significant achievements:

Dooks won the Kerry Shield, The Noreen Moore trophy, and the Fred Daly Plate. A major refurbishment of the ladies locker rooms took place and a new Trackman room was also built.

What was the club’s greatest challenge?

Due to the change in the economy and the seasonality of the golf business, staffing proved a problem. The club has a very experienced and fantastic core team of staff, but recruiting suitably qualified seasonal staff proved more difficult.

Membership update:

Like many clubs, membership is an ongoing problem, with the age profile a constant thorn. Despite a very competitive annual subscription of €580 (Entrance fee €2,000) the club gained 39 new members but lost 59. A successful ladies Get Into Golf programme attracted 59 participants.

Core plans for 2018:

“Our core plans are to progress the development of our commonage land and practice facilities. This will be a landmark development for the club,” says Maurice O’Meara, the general manager. “We will continue to target overseas markets and increase green fee revenue by another estimated 5%-8%.

“The gents locker rooms will also be refurbished.”

What’s your overall feeling on Irish golf at the moment?

“Following some difficult years, the market is finding its balance again,” O’Meara says. “However, with Brexit on the horizon, we have to be cautious in our optimism. Clubs need to focus on their key objectives and strive for continual improvement in product and service.”

Portumna GC (Galway)

As parkland golf goes, it doesn’t get more relaxing, more enjoyable, more charming than Portumna. Surrounded by forest the course flows serenely through an old estate.

Overall progress in 2017:

Portumna Golf Club made huge progress on all fronts during 2017: the club’s new Green Keeper/Course Manager, Kenneth Kelly, delivered a superb standard in course style and challenge; and, with the help of the CGI, Portumna implemented a change of management structure.

Most successful initiatives:

The club introduced a very successful 15-month membership deal (€495 plus GUI Levy) in October 2017.

What was done differently?

“We participated in a discount voucher scheme with Just Golf, to fill vacant tee times,” says Valerie Keogh, the club administrator.

“Over 300 visitors partook in this offer, resulting in increased income and greater awareness of the excellent facilities we offer.”

Most significant achievements:

The Men’s Club won the All Ireland JB Carr Trophy, at Woodenbridge, and also the Provincial Champions in the Pierce Purcell Shield. The Ladies won the All Ireland Junior Foursomes Trophy and were provincial champions in the Revive Active Trophy.

What was the club’s greatest challenge?

“To maintain the membership numbers,” Keogh says, addressing something common to many Irish clubs. “We would like to attract new members in the 25 to 35 age group.”

Membership update:

Total membership is approximately 500, down from 1,000 in 2008. The senior category continues to grow and the Junior Girls section has also increased slightly (reduced rates and increased coaching). Membership rates are the same as 2017, although a new €50 levy will apply to some categories.

Core plans for 2018:

Our plans for 2018 are to continue improving the standard of our course,” says Keogh.

“We will use the Capital Sports Grant of €27,000, together with the funds generated by the levy, to purchase course machinery. We hope to enhance green fee income through increased marketing and fees, in line with continued improvement of the course and facilities.”

Ballyneety GC (Limerick)

A young course and one that’s all about enjoyment… it delivers, too, with a central hill offering big shots and woodland proving a fine home to a rapidly maturing course.

Overall progress in 2017:

Two words sum up Ballyneety’s progress perfectly: beyond expectations. Following the financial contribution (matched by the club) of local businessman, Hugh O’Donnell, Ballyneety made the final payment (€140,000) to buy out the club.

Most successful initiatives:

Discounted green fees for members’ guests proved popular, especially as it helped to send out the message that Ballyneety is fully open again and now a members’ owned golf club.

What was done differently?:

The €50 Buddy scheme encouraged members to persuade friends to join Ballyneety. The more who join, the more €50s involved.

Most significant achievements:

“Completing the buyout was huge for us,” says Liam Lawlor, Ballyneety’s general manager. “It shows that we’re here to stay. We are indebted to Hugh O’Donnell for his help in getting us over the line.”

What was the club’s greatest challenge?:

Finding the final funding of €140,000 to buy back the course was, not surprisingly, the biggest challenge. “Now that we’ve achieved that,” Lawlor remarks, “our current challenge is to manage the expectations of our members.”

Membership update:

All membership categories are growing and open for new members. Ladies are joining on the back of taking lessons (via Donal McSweeney in Ballyneety’s Driving Range) and the Under 30s rate (€470pa) has proven particularly popular.

Core plans for 2018:

“We’ll be working on drainage,” says Lawlor. “We received €29,500 for course drainage through the Sports Capital Programme, and Ronan Brannigan will be helping us as we proceed with this work. We will spread the total cost of €90,000 over three years.”

What’s your overall feeling on Irish golf at the moment?

“Quite healthy,” Lawlor believes. “But there’s a bit of a disconnect between those courses at the very top, such as Ballybunion and Lahinch, and the parkland courses. The links are buoyant but some of the parklands definitely need more support. We’re fortunate to be only five miles from Limerick City and with such competitive green fees that makes us very attractive.”

Carlow GC

A classic… simple as that. Tom Simpson’s design has changed little in almost 100 years and holes are routed elegantly around a gentle hill.

Overall progress in 2017:

“The overall progress was very good,” says Anna Gregoruk, the club administrator. “We retained our membership levels and we catered for large numbers of societies and green fees. The fantastic condition of the course received a lot of praise.”

Most successful initiatives:

The Ladies Get Into Golf Programme resulted in a 20% increase in membership, and the club hopes a repeat programme in 2018, will enjoy similar success. The Parkland Pass partnership with Mount Juliet and Mount Wolseley proved particularly popular.

What was done differently?

The Parkland Pass combines three exceptional courses for just €123.

Most significant achievements:

Carlow refurbished the 84 bunkers on both Deerpark and Oakpark courses, adding 1,000 tonnes of new sand. This was carried out by head greenkeeper Tony Pender and his team. A major success was the appointment of Damien McGrane as club professional. The club’s new website was launched in 2017, and will continue to expand with online gift vouchers available next year. On the team front, the Ladies team played in the All Ireland Senior Foursomes semi-final in Belfast.

What was the club’s greatest challenge?

On a positive note, Carlow’s greatest challenge was catering for the large number of societies and green fees. “Our time sheets were full most of the time and that trend is continuing into next year,” says Gregoruk. “Many societies, Parkland Pass golfers and green fees have already booked for 2018, with some societies booking 2019, too.”

Membership update:

Going very well. The Get Into Golf Programme boosted ladies membership while full membership is growing every month. The club introduced a package of €999 for full membership, in September, renewing in February 2019. The €1,000 entrance fee is payable over 10 years.

Core plans for 2018:

“After securing €56,000 from the Sports Capital Grant, our core plan is clubhouse development,” Gregoruk confirms. “And with Damien McGrane on board the future is looking bright.”

Castlemartyr (Cork)

A stunning five-star resort with a rhythmic links-like course flowing around the hotel.

Overall progress in 2017:

Castlemartyr’s golf business increased by 67% in 2017. That’s a serious number and one due to the growth of stay and play packages, attendance at golf shows (tours from Germany and Switzerland have soared) and investment (€255,000) in the course.

Most successful initiatives:

The club offers a €100 golf shop voucher to society groups over 20 golfers. This has helped stimulate a 50% increase in bookings. A new fleet of buggies has given Castlemartyr the opportunity to do buggy deals and this has proved highly popular… especially as golfers often then increase their spend in the shop.

What was done differently?:

The resort wants to be seen as a golf course with a hotel (not the other way around) and this has resulted in an increase in walk-in trade. High-end American tours regularly stay at Castlemartyr, and the new approach to the golf course has seen increasing numbers of Americans playing here, hiring clubs and buggies, and buying branded merchandise.

Most significant achievements:

The investment of €255,000 in the course including (€150,000 on machinery).

Membership update:

The club removed the entrance fee and membership rocketed from 170 to 406. This included the introduction of new intermediate levels (ages 18-24 and 25-30) at the end of October, which attracted 28 new members in the first month.

Core plans for 2018:

“We want to grow lady membership,” says Breffne McKenna, Castlemartyr’s Director of Golf. “There will also be a revamp of the course with upgraded and new paths introduced early in the new year and a gorse maintenance programme. The chipping area will also be upgraded.”

Shaun McDonald will be starting as assistant superintendent to Paudie O’Sullivan in January 2018.

What’s your overall feeling on Irish golf at the moment?

“Extremely positive with golf in the region exhibiting strong growth,” McKenna replies.

Galway Bay GC

A perfect seaside setting on the Wild Atlantic Way, Galway Bay is an open, flamboyant, adventurous course tumbling down to the water’s edge.

Overall progress in 2017:

“A good year for us,” says Barry Phelan, Galway Bay’s general manager.

“We’ve been busier in all areas of the club, with more traffic coming through the doors.” There was an increase in international and GUI visitors, but a decrease from the UK.

Most successful initiatives:

The club offered an 18-month Pro Rata membership this summer which proved popular. A close working relationship with Mygolfsociety has proved beneficial for both parties... and golfers.

Most significant achievements:

Hosting the Carey Cup (Irish vs US top amateurs) over three days in May, was a major event, as were the Connacht Team finals, where three Galway Bay teams competed (Senior Cup, Barton Shield, Junior Cup). The club also won Best Customer Experience Golf Course (IGTOA Awards) and Best Golf Club Restaurant in Connacht (YesChef Awards).

What was the club’s greatest challenge?:

Increasing international visitors proved challenging but the club will have a presence for the first time at the PGA Show in Orlando, January 2018. The goal is to make Galway Bay a fixture on itineraries which take in some of the world’s best links.

Membership update:

Ladies’ and Men’s membership increased by 20% and 12%, respectively. Full annual membership is available for €990, which includes reciprocal membership at Palmerstown House and Concra Wood.

Core plans for 2018:

“Our aim is to increase all areas of our business,” says Phelan. “We plan to grow membership by a minimum of 50 and, by making new contacts at the PGA Show, we want to increase our North American visitors, too. We are also working very closely with local and regional courses to pull in more visitors, especially from the UK.”

Overall feeling on Irish golf at the moment?

“Nationally, there’s some great work being done by the CGI to help get more people into our game,” Phelan believes. “That will benefit everyone in the long run. I do worry about pricing in golf, however. Charging €15 for a round of golf is too cheap for an 18 hole course… my concern would be for the survival of some of the smaller clubs.”

Lee Valley GC (Cork)

A family affair, Lee Valley is a sweet parkland of rolling countryside, big immaculate greens and an embracing Irish welcome.

Overall progress in 2017:

“We had a good year,” says MD, David Keohane. “It wasn’t as strong as 2016, but overall we were satisfied.”

Your most successful initiatives?

A direct debit option allowed members to pay over 12 equal installments (€92 per month) with no penalties for paying by direct debit.

What did you do differently?

“We always try to think outside the box when it comes to green fees and competitions,” Keohane replies. “In 2017, we introduced the Old Head Cup, a weekly tournament leading to a play-off at Lee Valley, followed by a final at Old Head.”

The club also has a 25-seater bus and the golf, food, and transport packages for larger societies are hugely popular. It is a unique selling point and the packages are just as attractive to UK and European golfers.

For the first time in over 10 years a pro was attached to the club. Ian Stafford quickly gave the juvenile section structure and drove it forward.

Most significant achievements during the year?

The Ladies won the minor All-Ireland Trophy. It is the club’s third All- Ireland trophy in five years.

Four new tee boxes were added and 1,000 tonnes of sand was applied to fairways. Four new machines were purchased and a new short-range practice facility added.

How is your membership at the moment?

“We work very closely with our members’ club and there is a great relationship between the Keohane family and the members,” says Keohane. “Without our hard-working committees the golf club would not function so successfully.” Membership has steadied with growth in the 35 to 40 bracket.

What are your core plans for 2018?

“There will be a significant capital investment plan for the course,” Keohane says. “We plan to upgrade more tee boxes and start to redevelop our bunkers. Heavy sanding of the fairways will also continue.”

Overall feeling on Irish golf at the moment?:

“Overall, my feeling of golf at the moment is very positive. People are back working hard and golf is the perfect getaway from this. Once you get inside the gate, you turn off your phone, hit a few golf balls, have some laughs with your friends and relax.”

Cobh GC (Cork)

This hillside course overlooks Cork Harbour. As Ireland’s youngest course, it is maturing nicely.

Overall progress in 2017:

Overall, the club made tremendous progress, including significant development to the clubhouse, car park and roadway into club.

Most successful initiatives:

Advertising on the club website and Facebook, as well as other advertising avenues, proved particularly successful in building green fee business as well as growing the membership.

What was done differently?

“We saw a significant increase in green fees and societies,” says Pat Feen, the club captain. “The combination of golf and meals proved to be a particularly attractive option in our lovely upgraded clubhouse.”

Most significant achievements:

The club hosted the Junior Cup in July and won the ‘Zone’ final. The course was in superb condition, by all accounts. A course record of -6 (66) was set by Gary Ward in the Senior Scratch Cup.

What was the club’s greatest challenge?

As with many clubs, increasing the membership and continuing to improve all aspects of the golf course took time and effort.

Membership update:

The club’s Male and Junior categories are very strong, with an increase in the number of lady members who are new to golf. “We are pleased with holding our membership numbers quite well over the low season and we value how our members continue to grow numbers by referrals and word of mouth,” says Feen. A special €650 full 2018 membership offers a discount of €150 and runs until the end of December 2017. No entrance fee.

Core plans for 2018:

“Retention of our existing membership is a core focus and we are confident that the improvements we have implemented will significantly increase our adult membership base,” Feen reports. “Everything is pointing to growth for 2018, thanks to our location (catchment area), the quality of our maturing golf course and exceptional value for money. Part of our future plans is to implement a schools’ programme to introduce young boys & girls to golf and early golf club membership. This coincides with our Sports Capital Grant which will allow us to significantly improve our all- weather practice and coaching facilities.”

Ballykisteen GC (Tipperary)

This Tipp resort was taken over by Great National in late 2016. It continues to mature and it is defined by its water features and easy rhythm.

Overall progress in 2017:

Revenue and green fee income have increased alongside investment.

What have the new owners brought to the resort?: “Great National have instilled a new passion and ethos that has benefited the resort and course,” says Marian Riordan, the resort’s PGA Golf Professional.

“They looked at what was required and they invested accordingly. Bringing in Carr Golf Services to oversee green-keeping and golf course maintenance, in February, was a massive step for them. Yes, it meant there was considerable change but the transition was very smooth.”

Most successful initiatives:

Societies continue to be essential to the resort and offers targeted at these golfers are evolving.

The resort started an important sanding programme in October, which will be an ongoing initiative.

The resort hosted a EuroPro Tour event in May. It was broadcast on Sky, which raised Ballykisteen’s profile considerably.

Most significant achievements:

The men’s section won the All-Ireland Fourball Championship.

The Ladies section continues to grow, with the Get Into Golf programme of five years ago kick-starting membership.

In 2017, the Ladies club reached the final of the AIG Junior Foursomes in Belvoir Park.

Membership update:

Ladies and Juniors are growing categories and the Distance Membership (over 60km) at €350 inclusive has proved popular.

“We have grown our ladies’ and men’s full membership and I like to pay attention to the retention of this category,” Riordan adds.

“I do my best to get the golfer involved and integrated into the club.”

Core plans for 2018:

“Carr’s involvement will be huge for us as we look to improve the course still further,” says Riordan.

“Our key goal is to get the product right. That’s what Great National are striving for and we’re very much being guided by Carr and the work of the green-keeping staff.”

What’s your overall feeling on Irish golf at the moment?

“There’s a massive challenge there and a lot of competition from other sports, especially from a young age.

“Golf has lost some of its appeal to grab the attention of that younger golfer. Golf clubs/resorts/members and committees need to get more involved with all members, especially novices, not just the core competitive golfer.

“More involvement is required, too, whether it’s a family day or a scramble. To survive we need to retain, and to do that we need to engage with all potential new members, otherwise we could lose them altogether.”

THE VERDICT

Overall, you’d say that the feedback is more positive than negative but it must be noted that some clubs declined to be involved after enduring a difficult year. It is no surprise that they wouldn’t want to publicise it.

So, despite the positive vibes there are still clubs and regions where golf continues to struggle.



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