Cold comfort as clubs face up to golf's big squeeze
The recession has given Irish golf clubs a reality check, writes Dermot Gilleece
Picture this little domestic scene: beaming husband tells seriously unenthused wife how he's been offered membership of the local golf club for €20,000 followed by an annual subscription of €1,500. "In the current climate, she'd run him out the door, and rightly so," said Declan Branigan.
After a period of largely unrestrained increases in the cost of golf in this country, the industry is experiencing a shuddering jolt into reality. There is even a hollow ring to the well-loved saying in Kerry that committed golfers are waterproof, war-proof and recession-proof.
Significantly, the only leading clubs on the island showing increased green fees from 2008 are in Northern Ireland, which is officially out of recession. Royal Co Down have upped their premium rate from stg£175 to £180 and Royal Portrush has risen from stg£135 to £140. In all other cases, prices are either unchanged or down markedly.
For example, Mount Juliet has dropped from €160 to €120; Killarney's Killeen Course, the venue for this year's 3 Irish Open, comes down from €130 to €90 and Co Louth, which played host to the championship last year, drops from €150 to €120. In terms of quality golf terrain, however, the most dramatic reduction has been at Portmarnock Links, where this year's fee of €50 compares with a whopping €140 two years ago.
"I can't see us ever getting back to those sort of figures," said Moira Cassidy, director of golf at the Links. "We believe our current fee represents really good value, given the standard of what we have on offer here and we've done it to get visitors on the course and into our hotel."
In a buyer's market where the customer has never had it so good, virtually every outlet will be prepared to offer further reductions for group deals, or in some cases, on an individual basis.
Meanwhile, it is interesting to recall that even at the height of the Celtic Tiger, golf tourism remained vulnerable to international events. I remember Dr Michael Smurfit's concern about the possible duration of the Gulf War in 2003, given plans to open the new Smurfit Course at The K Club that year, during European Open week.
As to The K Club's position as the country's costliest golf facility with a green fee of €265 that year, he said: "Essentially it comes down to costs. And I suspect that our maintenance costs are considerably greater than those at The Old Head, for instance. Either way, I would like to think that we'll make an extra effort to deliver value for money."
As it happens, their top rate this year is €280 for the Palmer Course, compared with €350 two years ago.
Branigan, the country's leading agronomist, has been observing first-hand the impact of these straitened times which he sees as two-fold. On the one hand there is the desperate scramble for green-fee revenue in a depressed market and on the other, there are the crippling maintenance costs caused by the elaborate, country-club nature of recent developments.
While acknowledging a place in the market for facilities such as The K Club, Mount Juliet and The Old Head, it is clear that too many developments have been linked to real estate. Inevitably, the collapse in the housing market leaves them facing a grim battle for survival. One such establishment bucking the trend, however, is Mount Wolseley in Tullow, Co Carlow, which retains its relatively modest weekday/weekend fees of €50/€70 for a highly-rated course designed by Christy O'Connor Jnr.
"When we opened back in 1996, we got the last of the Fáilte Ireland grants and I remember thinking at the time that this was the end of golf-course construction in Ireland for the foreseeable future," said Mount Wolseley owner, Donal Morrissey. "I thought we had reached saturation point, and so did the people who were disbursing the grants."
With no bank borrowings, Mount Wolseley's arrival on the scene 14 years ago brought the number of Irish golf courses up to 350. The current number is 426, an increase of 22 per cent. During that period, green fees rose by four times the rate of inflation. In fact, costs on average almost doubled during the short period between 1998 and Millennium year.
"I hate to say it but I think there must be casualties," added Morrissey. "People acted in good faith. They thought they were doing the right thing and who am I to say they shouldn't have done it? According to the Bacon report, the hotel industry is over-supplied to the extent of 15,000 beds. Maybe we should have had a similar report on golf. Either way, it's clear we have a serious over-supply of courses."
The nature of that over-supply, with a fixation on so-called championship standard layouts involving high maintenance, is adding to the problem by as much as €250,000 a year in certain cases, according to Branigan. "I know of three developments that are going into liquidation," he said. "These courses were built at enormous cost without any consideration for what the ordinary golfer actually wanted. Essentially, the average handicap player simply wants a place to play, but if you decide to spoil them, you had better be prepared to accept the consequences.
"From a product that was relatively cheap and simple to deliver 30 years ago, we have luxurious clubhouses where heat and light bills run to €50,000 a year and staff numbers have gone through the roof. And out on the course, you have greens being hand-mown in the mistaken belief of delivering better putting surfaces.
"Hand-mowing 18 greens will take three men a combined total of eight hours, whereas one man could do all 18 on a ride-on mower in three and a quarter hours. And contrary to common belief, a hand-mower is actually heavier per square inch than a ride-on mover. We even have the lunacy of hand-mown tees, for all the difference that's going to make to the average golfer.
"A lot of investors saw golf courses as a licence to print money, without taking the trouble to study the economics involved. Now they're forced to accept that entrance fees are effectively gone, for the simple reason that people no longer have the money. Meanwhile, designers will have to look at more sustainable layouts and players need to accept that the presentation of Augusta National is something to be seen strictly on television and not on their own, modest track." He concluded: "Golf in Ireland is at a crossroads and we need to think long and hard about where we're going."
It is generally the case that regions which have to battle hard for a share of the market in the best of times try even harder when times get tough. This is certainly true of facilities in the North West and West of Ireland which seem determined to be as competitive as possible at this time.
Co Sligo GC has to be seen as excellent value, for instance, at €70, as is Enniscrone at €75, Carne at €65 and Connemara at €55. And I can imagine a strong response to combined rounds at Ballyliffin's Glashedy and Old Links for €100 on the same day and to Strandhill's offer of golf and a meal for €40 on Mondays.
I recall British colleagues of mine reminiscing affectionately about games of golf at remote Irish courses where they left their green fee in a milk bottle outside the locker-room door. While it's good, from a commercial standpoint, that we moved on from those gentle times, much of our current difficulty has to do with a ruinously quick pace of progress.
Now, we can count the cost at our leisure.