Golf courses moved into the next phase of their roadmap out of pandemic with a leading club general manager talking optimistically of a strong future for the sport in Ireland.
Clubhouses reopened on Monday for the first time since courses, clubs, and driving ranges were shut down due to the Covid-19 outbreak on March 24. Though play did resume for members living within five kilometres of their clubs on May 18 under Phase 1 of the Irish Government’s lifting of restrictions, Monday marked the first day in which visitors were welcomed alongside members, travel restrictions within Ireland were lifted, and competition golf could resume.
The Golfing Union of Ireland and Irish Ladies Golf Union has also allowed a shorter interval for fourballs on timesheets, bringing the gap between tee-times down from 14 to 10 minutes and clubhouse restaurants and bars operating as restaurants are open under strict guidelines outline by Fáilte Ireland, all good news for golf club treasurers and general managers such as Cork GC’s Matt Sands.
“We’ve had a lot of members in for tea and a scone or a sandwich and it’s great to see them back,” Sands said following his first lunch back in the Little Island clubhouse overlooking Cork GC’s Alister MacKenzie course. “There are still issues to deal with like social distancing and no showers in the clubhouse but the travel restrictions have gone and we just have to get on with it.
“We haven’t played competitions yet but we’re starting on Wednesday with an invitation fourball, and we’ve singles on Friday, Saturday, Sunday so we’ll be back into the swing of things. We’re all looking forward to a bit of normality. A lot of people have missed having a card in their hand.”
The enthusiasm from members for golf’s return has taken Sands by surprise, particularly given the unexpected quarters from which it has come.
“It’s been extraordinary. We’ve had full timesheets every day virtually since May 18, 8am to 8pm, which is 160, 170 people a day, which is phenomenal. We expect it to die off a little bit as people go back to work but while visitors are back now, it should return to the normal that we were used to, or the new normal.
“The surprising thing is that it’s not the regulars necessarily who have come back in great numbers, it’s actually the non-regular golfers who are playing far more golf than they previously did. And there’s good demand for membership, which is the case for right around the country.
“Every manager I’ve talked to has said that is the case where they are. It seems people playing team sports have looked at it and reckoned their sport has gone for the year and are looking elsewhere. We’d hope to hold onto a percentage of that custom, which is good for golf. Golf is winning a small bit and some good might come out of the lockdown.”
The absence of incoming foreign tourism for at least the rest of 2020, however, has made golf clubs reliant on green fees turn their focus towards stay-at-home golfers and Sands is optimistic that Irish visitors can make up at least some of the expected shortfall.
“It will be all local trade probably for the rest of year, and we’ve done a special package through SWING, the golf travel company, between ourselves and the Old Head for two nights B&B at a Kinsale hotel and that’s really going well so we’re grateful for the local, Irish business. We’ve a few societies booked in as well so it’s starting to look up.
“There’s very much an appetite from staycation golfers. People have probably decided they’re not going to travel abroad and so they’re looking for options at home and short golf breaks seem to be one of the options that they’re looking at. So we’re hoping that we’ll get a bit of an uplift in business like that but it still won’t make up for the loss of our main overseas business. That’s gone for the year I think.
“We’re not on the same scale as the Kerry courses or Lahinch but we’ll make the best of what we can out of it for the rest of the year.”