The jury is still out on whether golf club membership numbers for Irish men have bottomed out but the powers that be at the Golfing Union of Ireland are confident that does not necessarily mean those people have turned their backs on the game.
Golf industry figures around the world spend much of their time debating the best way for golf to continue being a relevant pastime in a world in which the demands on people’s time — and the variety of leisure choices available for those precious free hours — have never been higher.
Certainly golf clubs in Ireland are never likely to reach the height of membership numbers that peaked at 177,000 at the apex of the Celtic Tiger in 2007.
The 2016 figures show a 47,000 decline from that point, with Friday’s annual general meeting of the GUI reporting male golf club memberships at almost 130,000.
Depending on who you listen to, that is either as bad as it is going to get or just a staging point to further decline.
“I hope we have (bottomed out) but I can’t say for certain,” GUI honorary treasurer Rollo McClure said following the AGM at Portmarnock Hotel and Golf Links.
“We certainly levelled out over 2016 with almost the same numbers we had in 2015 and 2% down on 2014.
“I think there’s more pain to come, probably more in the north than in the south, but I wouldn’t be desperately optimistic.”
In a more fiercely competitive climate, there has been an inevitable impact on GUI finances, with McClure reporting a deficit of €530,000 for 2016.
The GUI is nevertheless targeting a break-even 2017 having increased the annual subscription for golf club members to the national body by €3 (£2) to €16 (£13), the first increase in the sub since 2008.
Playing golf and being a member of a golf club are increasingly two separate things, however, and McClure added: “I’m not convinced there are that many fewer people playing golf.
"I just think they’ve got so much more choice now that they can go and play anywhere now for €20 or £15 and there’s a lot of 20 quids in 700 or 800 quid (for a club membership). You can play 20 times a year for half of that.”
Of serious concern for the GUI is the drop in the number of boys playing golf with Junior (U18) club member numbers falling to 18,500 from 21,000 two years earlier, although McClure reported an increase of almost exactly the same percentage (8%) in student members.
“That means either all the juniors have become students or there’s nobody coming in at the bottom end,” he said.
GUI chief executive Pat Finn had a more holistic and optimistic outlook about golf in Ireland, pointing to more attractive, shorter format competitions such as a new Nine Hole Championship and greater accessibility.
“I’m more optimistic about golf figures in the future,” said Finn.
"I think we have bottomed out and there are incredible opportunities there.
“Golf is typically a sport that is not open and accessible — the golf club is not often the most accessible place in the community but there’s an opportunity for it to become that.
"Golf clubs are making some innovative changes in that regard and there’s a serious opportunity to target the older members of our communities and encourage them to access golf and get into it.
“Golf clubs have corrected the model somewhat and membership is more accessible. We’ve almost 200,000 club members in men, women and juniors.
“Golf is still a very popular game. There’s an awful lot to be optimistic about.”
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