Hooked, Kevin Markham looks at how golf in Ireland has evolved.

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Golf in over the last decade a changing landscape for better - and for worse

Ten years on from the publication of his book, Hooked, Kevin Markham looks at how golf in Ireland has evolved.

Golf in over the last decade a changing landscape for better - and for worse

Ten years on from the publication of his book, Hooked, Kevin Markham looks at how golf in Ireland has evolved.

Ten years ago, I was sitting in the carpark of Massereene Golf Club, outside Ballymena, contemplating the end of my 14-month journey around Ireland.

Every 18-hole golf course had been played (349 back then) and I was looking forward to getting home and parking up a worn out 30-year-old camper van.

The joys of Irish golf were new to me then, an exhilarating rush of perfect greens, avenues of tall trees, towering dunes and views that showcased Ireland’s endless beauty.

Many new courses had just opened - or were due to open - (Lough Erne, Killeen Castle, Bunclody, Concra Wood) and the future looked so, so bright. In terms of statistics, between 1990 and 2008, the number of golf courses on this island increased by almost 50% and many more were planned.

It’s hard to believe now but there were plans for Retief Goosen, Nick Faldo, Ernie Els (twice), Ian Woosnam and Pádraig Harrington to attach their names to new courses and projects.

There were plans too for new links courses on the Dingle Peninsula (as many as four) and as far north as Castlerock, in Co Derry.

Yes, the future looked very rosy indeed.

Collins Press, in Cork, had agreed to publish ‘Hooked’ and, as I headed home from Massereene, I knew the hard work was about to begin.

And then the financial crash happened and the world – and golf in Ireland – began to change in so many ways.

In an instant, plans for those new golf courses died a death while the links courses floundered on the back of the crash, as well as countless environmental constraints.

From my perspective, it was hardly the right time to bring out a book on Ireland’s golf courses but, after 14 months and 11,000km on the road (and 3,500km walking the fairways), it made no sense to put it on the back-boiler.

The decade since has been turbulent to say the least.

The number of golfers has declined steadily and the outlook remains uncertain. The drop of over 20% in paid-up GUI/ILGU members (equivalent to almost 50,000 golfers) has not been matched by course closures, which weighs in at a paltry 6%.

When the third edition of Hooked was published in 2015, the number of 18-hole courses had declined from 349 to 340.

It wasn’t a simple case of nine courses closing – the number was 16 – as other courses had opened, be they brand new (ie Cobh) or nine-hole courses extending to 18 (eg Mountbellew).

That number of 340 has since declined further, but not by much. Yes, Hogs Head and Adare have re-opened in the past two years, but closures continue to take their toll, with Knockanally, Co Kildare, closing just last weekend.

Golfers have also become more nomadic in nature which skews the figures as they may no longer be affiliated to the GUI. It has made life difficult for golf clubs but it indicates how the new age of playing golf will be shaped.

This is one of the challenges facing clubs… how to make membership more relevant, more attractive and more affordable.

To that end, golf clubs are now pursuing alternative channels to boost income and retain membership. It is fair to say that in the good times, many golf clubs were content to sit on their laurels and smile smugly at the length of their membership waiting lists. That attitude had to change post-2008 — at least for most clubs. Since the crash, clubs have become more proactive.

For members, there has been a big emphasis on social nights (dances, quizzes), member-get-member campaigns, and reciprocal playing rights between clubs (eg Ballyneety has reciprocal playing rights with Athlone, Cobh, Rush and Waterford); for new members, joining fees have been abolished (or tied into the annual sub), new age categories have been introduced (eg under 30s especially), and extended membership periods

are being offered for early payment.

On the flip side of this is our governing bodies. The introduction of the Confederation of Golf in Ireland (CGI) has been a resounding success, especially for the ladies’ game. Long-term, that can only be good for the sport.

Even so, there is an imbalance in how golf clubs are dealing with the current state of the game in Ireland. There are still serious problems to be tackled and the problem is that these challenges are not spread equally across Ireland’s golf clubs. Far from it.

In that regard, I see Ireland comprising five levels of golf course.

1. High-profile Links

Yes, they blinked during the recession as their core audience of North Americans dwindled, but it didn’t take long for them to come roaring back, with green fees now above their pre-recession peak. The Open at Royal Portrush just ensures even more worldwide acclaim.

2. Unknown Links

Hard to believe we have any but Rosslare, Strandhill, Laytown & Bettystown, North West all weigh in on the ‘unknown’ scale. The general outlook is upbeat but they will be hoping to reach larger audiences in the years ahead.

3. Resort Parklands

Positive and optimistic return to form for most golf resorts… especially those that have been purchased in recent years. Castlemartyr, Fota Island, Dundrum House, Adare, Carton House, Mount Juliet, Portmarnock Links — they have all seen massive investment by their new owners and the golf courses have benefitted as a result.

4. Sub/Urban Parklands

The likes of Greystones, Castle, Monkstown, Limerick, Galway, Malone, Dundalk have weathered the storm that blew in post-2008.

Typically, these are strong member clubs in well-populated areas where joining fees once ruled the roost.

After the crash, these fees dwindled or disappeared — although less so at city courses — to adapt to the evolving marketplace. Demand, however, remained high enough to keep things ticking over and they have shown signs of growth and increased membership in the past few years. All those mentioned above would be regarded as older, more traditional clubs, where course condition is always immaculate.

5. Country Parklands

This is where the trouble lies. Country parklands are struggling most of all. It would be a sweeping generalisation to say that all country courses are struggling — just as it is to say that all sub/urban parklands are on the up — but on my recent travels, it is a common theme.

How can golf courses survive when they charge green fees of €10? There is a sense of desperation as these clubs’ catchment areas are either too poorly populated and/or there is too much competition from other clubs (or sports). They are losing members, green fees and societies and getting them back is exceptionally

difficult. There’s no doubt that more will close in the next 24 months.

As much as I don’t like seeing clubs closing, there is a strong argument for it. If 40 courses closed tomorrow, golf in Ireland would be the better for it. The members who left those closed courses would find a new club to call home. So, for example, rather than having five courses all clinging on in a small area, you’d have four courses in a reasonably stable position should one close.

What’s changing?

Membership/Nomadic Golfers

Yes, as a certain credit card advertising campaign might tell you, membership has its privileges, but the allure of such golf club privileges dimmed as financial realities bit. It was hard to justify annual subs when household bills, mortgages and family expenses had to be looked after.

And let’s not forget the issue of time.

Many walked away from the game and took up other forms of exercise (cycling, especially) that could be completed in a fraction of the time required to complete nine or 18 holes.

This all led to the rise of the nomadic golfer. How often did you hear ‘I paid my annual sub but only played three times last year’?

I suspect you’re not hearing that same complaint as frequently today. For those without a strong tie to a golf club why wouldn’t they take their annual sub and spend it on playing golf courses around the country at a time that suits them. Such a trend is unlikely to change in the near future and golf clubs need to figure out how to deal with and appeal to this new audience.

Women Golfers

Lady golfers are growing at a steady pace on the back of the CGI’s ‘Get Into Golf’ programmes. Since 2014, 4,600 individuals have joined as introductory golf club members via Get into Golf, of which 3,000 have been women and girls.

According to the May 2018 Irish Sports Monitor (ISM) report, the number of women actively participating in golf has increased from 0.9% to 1.2% of the population. This tallies well with overall participation rates in the sport which show that Ireland’s per capita participation in golf comes in at an impressive 7.9% — second only to Scotland.

What Next?

Adare (2018) and Hog’s Head (2017) have re-opened to great fanfare and their hefty green fees indicate that the top end of the market is performing well.

Both the K Club (€80m) and Druids Glen (€45m) have been put up for sale in recent weeks and their combined four courses will undoubtedly benefit from new investment, as has happened elsewhere. The hotel market is strong so expect there to be a lot of interest. Carton House was snapped up last year for €57m.

We still have some distance to go but with membership numbers stabilising there are signs that the worst is behind us.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean we won’t still lose a few of the smaller country clubs… but we’ve had too many golf courses for the past decade so perhaps that’s the natural order of things.

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