Golf Ireland chief executive Mark Kennelly praised Irish clubs for their resilience and compliance during the Covid-19 pandemic and forecast a strong rebound from the financial hit suffered during lockdown.
Kennelly is overseeing the merger of the Golfing Union of Ireland and the Irish Ladies Golf Union, agreed in January 2019, into a unified governing body for golf on the island of Ireland, which will launch on January 1, 2021.
He has been Golf Ireland’s first full-time chief executive since last December with the coronavirus pandemic following shortly after, golf courses shutting down from mid-March to the end of lockdown and Phase 1 of the Government’s roadmap out of it on May 18.
“I’d be very proud of the way golf has responded,” Kennelly told the Irish Examiner. “We closed down the clubs in advance of the full lockdown then negotiated with the Government to allow essential maintenance to take place during lockdown and then we put together detailed protocols to seek an early resumption of golf.
“It’s hard to believe now, in the latter half of July but golf has actually been back since May 18. We have been very impressed by the level of adherence to the protocols that have been put in place and I think it’s been very clear to the health authorities and to the wider community that the resumption of golf has been very well regulated at club level, that to the health and safety of golfers and the wider community has been paramount in the way golf has conducted itself since May 18.
“We have had really tremendous cooperation because the measures we’ve introduced have limited capacity of golf clubs and in the early phase the ability of players to play as much as they would have liked was quite constrained because of the measures which are still in place. The universal feedback we’ve been getting is that compliance remains very high.
“So apart from being the first major sport to resume, golf has resumed without incident to the point we’re now getting ready for some inter-club championships to begin in August which is really tremendous.
“When we were looking ahead in March it was quite a bleak outlook and many thought there would be no chance of having championships or inter-club events this year and now they are going to have them, all going well, with the public health situation.”
Kennelly said financial aid for clubs was imminent.
“We do acknowledge there is a financial hit. In the next couple of weeks we hope to provide some help through some funding we’re going to be getting from the R&A. There’s the Government’s Resilience Fund For Sport, we’re talking to Sport Ireland about ensuring golf shares in that but that’s more likely to be after the summer.
“We’re very conscious that some clubs have been very badly hit by no international visitors but then you have clubs who are quite dependent on green fees and societies and so on and have been very badly hit, so we’re very conscious of that.
“On the other hand, there does seem to be some evidence of an uptake in membership so we’ll certainly be helping clubs to hold onto the additional members. So it’s not all bad news.
“We’d have feedback that younger people who would normally play field sports during the summer have opted to join golf clubs. One of the restrictions we included in our protocol for the first two phases was that it was members only, largely to ensure we had proper contact tracing but also to help showcase the benefit of golf club membership.
"There certainly seems to be some evidence that has worked and new people have been attracted while people who may have become lapsed golfers are coming back to the sport.
“We’re going to be encouraging and helping clubs to hold onto those new members and we have some visitor income coming back now and golf is now playing a big part in the reboot of domestic tourism.
“Lots of clubs are improving their offerings for the domestic golfer and even when we get into the autumn when typically, large numbers of Irish golfers would go to Portugal and Spain on breaks, I think there’s going to be a lot less of that this year so there’s an opportunity for golf courses around the country to cater for that market.
“We’ll have a lot more domestic tourism and I think golf is responding to that.”