NEWPORT, Wales – The borders are reopening, as is international golf tourism. And many golf enthusiasts, who long for a reward after the long Covid-19 break, have vacation on the bucket list in their sights.
But golfers from the US and elsewhere who are ready to finally embark on their dream trip to the famous Irish and Scottish coastal links golf courses are faced with a new dilemma in 2022 – a near-lack of availability of tee times on the most famous golf courses such as St. Andrews and Carnoustie in Scotland or Ballybunion in Ireland.
As a result, destination marketing organization Golf Ireland has changed tactics and is now encouraging its US tour operator partners to focus on selling less prestigious golf courses, including, if possible, high-end inland resorts that US golfers generally do not appeal to .
However, tour operators may find it difficult to make such a move away from the lure and boasting of A-list courses.
“It’s an extremely difficult year booking overseas,” said David Redmond, owner of Maryland-based Epic Golf Travels, who traveled here in late October to meet with golf sellers at the International Golf Travel Market conference . Given the high demand and limited availability, he said, “I think our customers have to be satisfied with a marquee course and then four or five courses or six excellent courses that are about as much fun as the marquee courses.”
The drivers of the availability challenge are the golf trips to Scotland and Ireland in the two summers, which had to be postponed due to the pandemic.
But there are other dynamics that could make tee times a more precious commodity in the long run in the most desirable Scottish and Irish golfing destinations. Golf, in particular, saw a significant surge in popularity worldwide during the pandemic.
In the US, rounds played in the summer of 2020 increased nearly 20% compared to 2019, before declining only slightly this summer, according to the National Golf Foundation. In the UK, golfers rose an exceptional 68% in 2020, according to the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, which rules the country’s golf.
Less known but high quality courses
Meanwhile, the list of major golf courses on which high-end golf tourists want to base their trips is small.
Together, Ireland and Northern Ireland have nearly 500 golf courses, including nearly 60 ocean links courses, the classic, rugged, dune-lined courses that attract US golfers. But less than 10 of them are the very famous courses that drive international demand.
Similarly, Scotland has more than 100 links golf courses by the sea, less than 10 of which have attracted the most attention in the golf tourism market.
U.S. golfers will struggle to get tee times on bucket list golf courses like Northern Ireland’s Royal Portrush in 2022. Photo credit: Robert Silk
David Connellan, a salesperson for Golf Ireland, said the organization had begun addressing these challenges by encouraging tour operators to highlight and sell the many high quality Links courses in Ireland that their customers may not be aware of.
For example, next year it might be impossible to find someone on Northern Ireland’s Royal County Down ranked the best golf course in the world by Golf Digest, but Portstewart, a global top 100 course on the island’s north coast, might be easier .
Golf Ireland, Connellan said, is also placing increased emphasis on the overall Ireland experience, including luxury accommodation, fine dining, World Heritage sites and distillery and brewery tourism. And it also encourages tour operators in the US to sell upscale golf resorts inland, such as the five-star Adare Manor Hotel in Southern Ireland, which will host the Ryder Cup in 2027, a premier professional golf event.
“Get out of the wind for a day,” Connellan said. “Put Adare in the middle of your trip as a day of relaxation.”
Capacity will also be an issue at Scotland’s most prestigious links courses in 2022, said Keith Campbell, Visit Scotlands market development manager for golf, although he said the organization has been pushing international partners to sell a wider range of golf courses for several years.
“It’s no secret that there are only a limited number of tee times at St. Andrews,” said Campbell, referring to Scotland’s most famous golf course.
As in Ireland, he said that many of the lesser-known golf courses were Scotland’s jewels, citing Eyemouth Golf Club, a beach about an hour east of Edinburgh, as an example.
On the sixth hole he said: “Tee over the North Sea to the fairway.”
“But the average American may not know this unless they’re working with an operator,” said Campbell.
This is how tour operators see it
Redmond said he can successfully sell Americans on these less famous oceanfront courses, but it’s also important to highlight a trip with marquee courses.
Conversely, he said that despite the best hopes of destination marketers, he cannot sell Scottish or Irish golf resorts inland as such facilities are widespread in the US.
A golfer tees off at Portsalon Golf Club in County Donegal, Ireland. Photo credit: Robert Silk
Redmond isn’t the only US tour operator working to overcome the tight supply problems in Ireland and Scotland for 2022. Ryan Jacobs, a travel specialist for adventures in golf, said about 25% of the new bookings he is currently making for these destinations are for 2023, largely because the courses his clients want to play will be unavailable next year.
But he added that small groups of four people and less will find a few more options than larger groups, as will groups willing to travel in the April and October off-season.
Looking towards the 2022 season, Jacobs said earlier planning might be needed for people who want to play the most famous Scottish and Irish links. Before the pandemic, he said, customers could usually book their trips nine or ten months in advance.
“Now you could plan for 13, 14, 15 months and have that mindset,” Jacobs said.