A MEDIA reception at the Irish Consulate in New York.
gioA heartfelt tweet from a major champion. A golf day for members at a swanky California country club. A trade stand at the Evian Masters in France. And an Irishman winning the US Open.
Five quite separate events from the last 18 months, yet all inextricably linked in the scramble by Irish golf courses for a slice of the action in a global golf tourism business valued by the International Association of Golf Tour Operators at $30 billion (€23.3bn) a year.
Whether it is the mystique of an Open venue in historic Scotland, the prospect of playing this year’s Ryder Cup course in Wales, the sun and hospitality of a Spanish, Portuguese or Floridian resort, or the intrigue of unvisited courses elsewhere in the world, the Irish golf travel industry has intense competition for the travelling golfer’s disposable income, which is diminishing in such hard times as these.
The Irish have long travelled that extra mile to attract golfers to these shores, which is why when the five-star Lough Erne Golf Resort launched its Nick Faldo-designed championship course to the American market in February 2009, it sent its general manager Jonathan Stapleton and some of his team to court the US media at an Irish Consulate reception in the Big Apple.
Which is why Tourism Ireland takes a stand at the annual PGA Show in Orlando, Florida, and with regional umbrella groups such as South West Ireland Golf (SWING) and North & West Coast Links Golf, makes its pitch to thousands of visitors, including US PGA club professionals, tour operators and media.
It is a strategy employed various times throughout the year in many locations, including the Masters, the PGA Tour’s Honda Classic in Florida, the European Tour’s French Open and at last week’s LPGA Tour event, the Evian Masters in France.
And it is why SWING’s Paddy O’Looney has spent the last 21 years staging SWING Ireland Golf Days to woo wealthy golfers at their own clubs. This year’s visits have included the PGA West, La Quinta and Citrus clubs in Palm Springs, California, while North & West Coast Link’s John McLoughlin hosts an annual tournament for the North American Golf Tour Operators Alliance on his region’s best courses.
This week’s 3 Irish Open at Killarney, with its live coverage on the Golf Channel in the US, will be another marketing tool in the push to get overseas golfers to Ireland, which ranks second behind Scotland in terms of visitor numbers from North America and ahead of Spain, then Portugal.
To some, including Killarney Golf Club secretary-manager Maurice O’Meara, it is more specifically an opportunity to showcase not just his own courses but the south-west region as a whole, while others, including O’Looney and McLoughlin, believe that what is good for one region is beneficial to all.
So is this a tourism turf war between competing regions, pitting Ballybunion against Royal Portrush and Ballyliffin against Lahinch, or an allied assault on the world’s golfing holidayers?
Killarney’s O’Meara detects a price war between the regions that the north and west has been winning of late.
“North & West Links have been working very actively and aggressively in the market, they have fantastic links courses and they’re offering very good rates, and no one can argue with that,” O’Meara said.
“We have consciously adjusted our rates – you can play three rounds (one on each of Killarney’s three courses) here now for the price (€150) that one round (on the Killeen course) was three years ago (€130) and the sooner that other golf clubs realise that, the sooner the south west will get back on the map.”
Killarney is one of the dozen courses represented by SWING and O’Meara believes there is strength in numbers.
“We’re trying to row back on that,” he said of the individual approach, “and do it consciously through SWING and we’ve all got to work very hard together.
“We all have to make money, but it’s rate driven at the moment – and it will be. There’s been a balancing of the scales, and while I don’t think they’ve (North West) quite caught up with us yet, they’re nearly there and we have to look at what they’ve managed, and do the same thing. One of the problems nationwide is that there are too many courses, too many hotels all trying to eat from the same pie. We can work better together though, people are realising that now. Business is business.”
North & West Coast Links’ McLoughlin, whose portfolio of 12 member clubs stretches from Connemara to Ardglass, denies being engaged in a price war but says the region’s competitive prices go with the territory.
“Even in the best of times you were still picking up our golf courses for €45-50 in some cases. So we’re probably a third to a half of the cost of playing golf elsewhere in Ireland, yet we’re not compromising on the quality of the experience.
“But there’s no price war. Because we’re located in the north-west, we’ve always had a bigger job than anybody in selling the links golf courses. So it’s always been a policy in our 21 years in business and it comes up every year in our board meetings, that we’ve got to make sure that we keep our prices affordable.”
For this week everybody is interested in seeing Killarney put on a good show for the golfing world and SWING’s O’Looney has more reason than most to be excited at the return of the Irish Open.
An accomplished amateur golfer, he played in the 1991 tournament there, the first of Nick Faldo’s back-to-back victories on the Killeen course, and he believes the quality of the event and its new date in the European Tour calendar can boost the attention it receives around the world, exposure he calls “very exciting”.
Yet despite the tournament’s, and Killarney’s, credentials, the courses most in demand are Ballybunion, Lahinch, Royal County Down and Royal Portrush, which regularly appear in top 100 world golf lists of US golf magazines and transfer to the wish lists of their readers.
“The main golf destinations in Ireland are essentially the south-west, the north and the north-east,” says O’Looney. “So there you have the ‘name’ clubs like Portrush, Royal County Down and Portmarnock and then our courses like Waterville, Lahinch and Ballybunion, all of which are featured in the top 100 in the world lists.
“There’s that snob value attached; because they’re rated in the top 100, invariably people come and play them.”
The point of being a collective like SWING or North & West Coast Links, of course, is to represent all their members, not just the marquee names.
“If you can hook them with one or two (big-name courses) then when they’re in the area we tell them these are the other courses you must play,” explained McLoughlin. “So if you are playing Royal Portrush then you should also play Ardglass, Portstewart, Ballyliffin, Portsalon, Rossapenna. These are courses that wouldn’t be on your hit list, but as we always say, Royal Portrush wouldn’t have joined our marketing organisation if it wasn’t happy that the other golf courses weren’t of an equal standard.
“A lot of Americans like to come and play links only but we’ve always adopted a policy that if they come play five or six courses we’ll always include one of the Killarney courses because it gives the American visitors in particular a flavour of what they’re used to in a fabulous setting.
“So I would always, when I’m suggesting itineraries, include a parkland course, whether it’s Dromoland, Adare or one of the Killarney courses. And invariably they thank me for it.”
Harrington’s preference for playing the Irish PGA at the European Golf Club in Wicklow’s Brittas Bay ahead of his Open title wins, McDowell’s US Open victory at Pebble Beach Golf Links being attributed in part to his upbringing at Royal Portrush and McIlroy’s attachment to Lough Erne have all done their bit to add cachet to those already respected courses.
Yet it is not just Irish success that has brought good fortune to Ireland’s best courses.
Five-time Open champion Tom Watson’s return to form against the odds at the 2009 Open at Turnberry gave an unexpected boost to Ballybunion’s profile thanks to his role as honorary captain in 2000.
Similarly, the appearances of Tiger Woods, the late Payne Stewart and Mark O’Meara on pre-Open acclimatisation rounds in Ireland’s south-west has done wonders for the likes of Waterville, while world number one Woods’ recent participation at the JP McManus Invitational Pro-Am placed Adare Manor at the centre of the golfing world.
And when Stewart Cink played the Greg Norman-designed links at Doonbeg en route to his 2009 Open victory , his tweet – “Played Doonbeg yesterday with the kids. Their first links. Course blew away my expectations. Only eight years old and looks ancient” – reached more than a million followers.
McLoughlin and O’Looney do not buy into the theory that one region could work against another to further its course.
“We have five regions and therefore five choices, all offering wonderful golf but different experiences, and I think that’s a major strength for Ireland,” SWING’s O’Looney says. “If they come to me this year, they’re going to come back, through me again, to other areas and vice versa.
“And when we go to the same shows with Tourism Ireland, I’ll be handing out the North & West Coast Links brochures and John McLoughlin will be handing out mine. We’re selling the whole country.”
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