How vision and passion put swinging southwest on the map

SWING’s 30th anniversary celebrations were full of optimism, writes Kevin Markham
How vision and passion put swinging southwest on the map

Ballybunion Golf Club played host to the recent 30th anniversary celebrations of SWING (South West Ireland Golf CLG), Ireland’s largest and best known golf vacation handling agency.

It would be easy to look on this as an event of mild significance… but nothing of outstanding importance. There are, however, many strands to this tale and they all weave together like Rapunzel’s hair. They provide a story of strength and vision that runs deeper than you might believe.

That some 70 people attended the event from SWING’s collective of golf clubs, golf media and Fáilte Ireland reinforces this belief. The growth of golf on this stretch of Ireland’s southwest coastline would not have reached the dizzying heights and acclaim it has achieved without the work of SWING. No one was claiming that SWING alone was responsible for such success, but it remains one of the catalysts and the work and vision of both Denis Brosnan, of Kerry Group, and the late, great Paddy O’Looney, was the starting point, back in the mid-1980s.

SWING was set up to market the big five southwest courses: Ballybunion, Killarney, Lahinch, Tralee, and Waterville. The early aim was to promote the premier clubs in the southwest to a global audience at a time when there was little golf tourism in Ireland.

With visitors like Herbert Warren Wind and Tom Watson spreading the word and with names like Alister MacKenzie, Tom Simpson and Old Tom Morris appearing in the design column, the southwest had the pedigree but not the bullhorn.

The course at Tralee, designed by Arnold Palmer and Ed Seay, had opened only a couple of years earlier (1984) and was set to make waves so broadcasting that Ireland’s southwest was open for business was a captivating message.

And who better to deliver it than Paddy O’Looney, a chief executive, a talented amateur golfer, a friend to the golfing world and Ireland’s first golfing ambassador. It was a huge loss to the industry when he passed away in December 2017, but he helped to put this small corner of the world on a large map of global golf destinations, and we thank him for his passion and for what he achieved.

When SWING first started the five-member clubs contributed €5,000 each, with Fáilte Ireland contributing €10,000 and both Shannon Development and the Kerry Group providing additional resources.

One of the first marketing steps was to print 100,000 brochures in three languages. It was a bold first step, almost a statement of intent. By 1992, staff had grown to seven. By 1996, 23,000 rounds were booked through SWING. And in all of its 30 years SWING has never had a bad debt. That’s saying something when you consider that in 2008 SWING lost 60% of its business as the recession began.

But the golf recession is over, at least for the biggest bucket list courses, and today the value of overseas business, especially from North America, stretches into the millions. Golfers, after all, are among the highest yielding visitors to Ireland, and these North American golfers contribute significantly to Ireland’s annual golfing turnover of close to €270m.

It is worth noting that this figure has grown by 33% since 2012, and that some 200,000 overseas visitors per annum participate in golf during their visit.

At the anniversary dinner, held in Ballybunion’s restaurant and overlooking the Old Course’s new 18th hole, speeches were made and tributes paid to Paddy O’Looney. There was also a feeling of optimism for the season and the years ahead. Here are a few tidbits from conversations held that night.

  • Cork Golf Cub has seen a gradual increase over the past two years, in the region of 5% per annum. This is despite a decline in UK golfers, affected no doubt by Brexit.
  • Ballybunion’s business is up 10% on where it was this time last year. There is an expectation that the recent significant development of the course will see business rise by at least 15% this year. The opening of the courses at Hog’s Head and Adare, as well as Glin Castle for accommodation, will be a further boost to the golf sector.
  • Ceann Sibeal, a course less well known than the bucket list links but stunning nonetheless, has seen a 10% growth in visitors in each of the past two years. SWING has been very influential in this increase.
  • The last few years have all been positive at Tralee, and the first quarter of 2018 is slightly ahead of the same period last year. Bookings through SWING remain strong, especially with 75% of Tralee’s green fee business coming from North America.

SWING has evolved dramatically over its 30 years, playing a much bigger role in bringing international golfers to Ireland.

It now represents 13 southwest clubs but offers advice, planning, tee time reservations and golf packages not just to the southwest but throughout Ireland.

As golf tourism in the southwest has ebbed and flowed over the past three decades, so too have the fortunes of SWING… and this relationship, this symbiosis, will continue and flourish as brighter futures lie ahead.

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