Monday will be a red letter day for Irish golfers as they are allowed back onto their courses for the first time this year, having lost more than 30 weeks in the last 13 months to Covid-related shutdowns.
It will be a time for celebration, within the current public health guidelines of course, as the sport is one of the first permitted by government to open its doors to participants at all levels, time sheets being allocated to mixed groups of no more than two households playing courses within their counties or 20 kilometres from home.
As the chief revenue officer of Carr Golf, Ireland’s largest golf services company which works with a broad spectrum of clients in both proprietary and member-owned golf clubs, Alex Saul recognises the joys and the benefits that will bring to golfers across the country. Yet Saul also believes next Monday’s re-opening marks an opportunity for the golf industry to up its own game in order to ensure they can rebuild the growth in playing numbers witnessed when golf emerged from the first lockdown last summer and then maintain that progress.
“Golf is in a very privileged place. We will be one of the first sports to reopen and I think that opportunity to socialise outdoors again and enjoy the fairways and breathe fresh air, see some new sceneries and get the competitive spirit going is just fantastic,” Saul told the.
“We’ve seen the demand from the tee sheets since we reopened them and I think we have that to look forward to and we have an opportunity now in the coming months where golf will be in the vanguard of recreation opportunities and let’s as an industry put our best foot forward and provide a brilliant experience so that these golfers keep on coming back to us.”
With more than 60 full-time staff and a portfolio of almost 20 golf courses in Ireland, Carr Golf are at the sharp end of the industry here and Saul speaks with the experience of the effects of the lockdown, both good and bad.
“Initially when the pandemic hit last March, the traditional business assumptions kicked in as to where would golf land and as people were pressured and economic concerns kicked in that disposable income would drop and that golf would be the first to fall prey to that.
“Actually, there was such a unique set of circumstances that combined to give rise to a great opportunity for golf and brought swathes of new entrants and returners to the game. In particular, the fine weather we had last year, people having more time on their hands, flexible working and working from home, an appreciation to be outdoors and breathing fresh air, being in open spaces and socialising within your community really brought golf to the forefront.
“The question now for us to reflect on is how do we harness this into the future because the pandemic circumstance will fall away, things will return to normal and travel, recreation, entertainment, cinemas, stadiums, will be full again. Parents will be doing runs to their children’s soccer and GAA matches and there will be more competing time pressures and therefore how does golf ensure that it stays relevant and harnesses this fantastic year into something really sustainable.”
Saul believes doing that successfully will require flexibility and adaptability, and abandoning the ‘this is the way we’ve always done it’ mentality with committee rooms.
“There is still arguably over-saturation and oversupply in the market here in Ireland. We still have over 400 golf courses so the clubs that adapt in the most relevant way at the most relevant price point are the ones that will survive. So unless we continue to increase the flow of new members and new players into the game, then clubs will only survive by eating others’ market share and therefore the ones that adapt, that make themselves the most relevant will succeed in that.
"I think what Covid exposed is the flaws in the commercial model of a number of clubs and the over-reliance on particular revenue streams.