The numbers don’t lie. More people have played golf in Ireland in the past year than perhaps ever before. Membership in clubs across the country has grown dramatically over the past year, with many golf courses increasing their numbers by over 100, while Golf Ireland reports a 10 percent increase in membership for 2020.
Just this week the R&A teamed up with Golf Ireland published a study This shows that the number of golfers across Ireland rose by 219,000 to 540,000 over the past year. The median age of golfers in the UK and Ireland has dropped significantly by five years to 41 years, with the majority of golfers now under 55 years of age.
The timesheets filled up all last summer when they opened, and although closed for a total of 209 days Between March 2020 and April 2021, many golf courses exceeded their average annual number of laps in various phases.
The longest individual closure of all golf clubs in the last 14 months – between December 31st and April 26th – can be viewed by the clubs in two ways, firstly, the first months of the year are usually the quietest for courses, however on the other hand, there are also the months in which clubs look for subscription renewals from their members.
While retention rates were lower than hoped for the first few months, most of the clubs the Irish Times spoke to report a sharp surge in membership from March, and particularly when the government announced that golf could reopen in April 26. Some Clubs that only had a retention rate of around 50 or 60 percent in January and February of this year quickly climbed to over 90 percent, and the number of applications from new members also increased.
Carr Golf manages and maintains a number of golf clubs across the country including Castleknock, Elmgreen, Corballis and Seapoint Perspective were felt in participation, they were not felt in profit. “
The question for golf in Ireland now is how to ensure that these increased participation rates remain high and that new golfers do not drop out of the game once life returns to normal and people have more social and sporting opportunities.
A look at golfers who played Craddockstown last year when the courses reopened in May. Photo: Laszlo Geczo / Inpho
One area clubs focus on is doing more for their members. A big change in golf in recent years is the dwindling number of members who play only a few times during the summer and the increase in members who want to play at least once a week.
That means the courses are busier and members get more value for their subscription fee, but it also means more competition for place on the timesheet. Last year, most high-membership clubs saw their weekend competition timesheets fill up within minutes of opening, leading many to limit the number of rounds members were allowed to play each week.
This year, most of the busy member clubs are offering members more time tracking and reducing the time spent on clubs and green fees, although both avenues generate significant revenue. For example, while clubs used to set off 75 percent of working hours for members and the other 25 for green fees and companies, many today work on the basis of more than 90 percent for members’ tee times.
“I think it’s about prioritizing and improving member access and getting in touch with members to say, what are the elements of the past year that you enjoyed?” Saul says. “Is it more tee times? Is it some of the more informal aspects of socialization that have been brought in? We saw it in some of our clubhouses where the clubs really enjoy the outdoor barbecues and the more informal things that are now going on in the back of the 18th green.
“A lot of the members who have joined us in the last 12 months didn’t necessarily have a history of the game so come in, they have a high handicap and while we greet them the reality is that they are not real welcome. The older member, who has eight handicappers and plays in the group behind them, wants to break through. I think we have to find a way to welcome high handicappers into the game.
“If I go to my local GAA or rugby club, they don’t kick me out with the first team. They coach me, they teach me, and they put me up with a group of peers who are on my level and I step up with them and work my way up the pyramid in the club. Golf doesn’t do that very well. It gives you your card, says you are in competitions that you like, and you just don’t have that particularly enjoyable experience for people who can’t play the game at the same level. “
With more participation, opportunities arise and while predicting the demise of golf before the pandemic was almost fashionable, the sport now has a chance to harness and cement its long-term health. More informal socializing in clubhouses during the pandemic could well accelerate the sport itself, moving away from some of the more formal, stuffy traditions of the past towards a more inclusive and accessible future.
The R&A report released this week includes some specific recommendations for clubs to consider for member retention, including “Feeling welcome and valued; a friendly culture and relaxed atmosphere; Participation options based on ability and experience, good customer service; to have an efficient booking system; and the quality and maintenance of the course. “
In recent years, clubs have begun testing more nine-hole and even six-hole competitions based on the European Tour’s Golf Sixes format, which gives golfers options for less time-consuming forms of play while the influx of people takes in in their teens, 20 and 30 last year, means golf hoodies are as common in the clubhouse as a jacket and tie.
Last year, Tyrrell Hatton held the BMW PGA Championship trophy in his hoodie in Wentworth. Photo: Ross Kinnaird / Getty Images
In Glasgow recently plans were announced to build a community golf course consisting of “a family-oriented venue with access to a nine-hole course, par 3 course, putting greens, short game area, adventure golf and 25-bay floodlights” Driving range so that visitors can enjoy a wide range of golf activities, including shorter forms of sports. “
In the US, the hugely successful First Tee program combines the introduction of disadvantaged children to golf with a life skills curriculum that “creates learning experiences that build inner strength, confidence and resilience that children can use in everything they do. build up”.
Over here, clubs from Ballyliffin in Donegal to Douglas in Cork have taken advantage of free land to build par-3 courses for members and visitors alike which provide a perfect informal environment for people of all ages to jump into the game.
“I think it’s natural progress, but only if we deal with it as an industry,” says Saul. “If we are too tied to our traditions and traditional formats, then I think we will miss this opportunity.
“The US market long ago understood that this was the movement – all of your major golf resorts like Pinehurst, Bandon Dunes, Sand Valleys and the like all have exceptional par 3 courses. They generally have a nine hole course and usually a really high level putting complex. Not a putting green but a complex where people can play in their flip flops with a beer in hand. I’m not sure if we’ve got here yet, but that’s the direction of travel. “
Covid-19 has given golf in Ireland a great opportunity. With all the sound bits about “Growing the Game” action has to follow words and now seems like the perfect time to do so.