Friday 2 December 2016

Home and Away: Hope springs

Ten years is not that long a time in the history of a golf club, but forDunmurry Springs, emerging from its first decade has been a triumph of hard work and determination

Published 25/08/2016 | 02:30

Dunmurry Springs can offer incredible value to members
Dunmurry Springs can offer incredible value to members

There are 110 golf courses in Dublin and 23 more in the Kildare area. In fact, there are more than 20 courses within a 30-minute drive of Dunmurry Springs, the much-loved, Mel Flanagan designed course just outside Kildare town.

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With that level of competition, its very much a question of survival of the fittest and, in boxing parlance, Dunmurry Springs is pound-for-pound a heavy hitter.

First opened in 2006, it is one of the great success stories of Ireland's recent golfing boom and bust. It is the poster child for a private course with a small membership, as it has survived the economic pummelling that comes in the wake of a huge financial crash.

If there's a club that learned how to belt-tighten - without losing quality, while still attracting enough foot traffic to keep the doors open - it's Dunmurry Springs.

As its innovative general manager Sean O'Gallchoir explains, it's all about "balancing the books and controlling your costs" and that's something that promoters Sean and Simon Holohan have learned the hard way.

"The concept for Dunmurry Springs originated back in 2002 and 2003, when design and planning work started for a quality 18-hole golf course," says Sean, a Donegal native with a flair for marketing.

"The business plan was not a new one: sell share memberships where the share capital raised for about 400 members would cover the construction costs of the golf course and a clubhouse and then run the business with a 50/50 split of green fee and subscription income."

Despite a background as a golf course contractor and an accountant, respectively, Sean and Simon were still taken by surprise by the financial tsunami.

Construction work started on Dunmurry Springs in summer 2003 and when it opened for play in May 2006, the first signs of the recession were already visible.

While the first phase of share memberships, priced at €5,000 and sold during the construction phase, was sold out in a matter of days, sales of subsequent phases slowed to a trickle by mid 2007.

The club's focus shifted from capital income to revenue income, as the business had to be profitable to survive, regardless of the outstanding construction debt.

Schemes and incentives were devised to keep the income coming in. Firstly, they moved from a share membership to an associate membership, allowing new members to join without having to buy a share.

The club was then the first to introduce and advertise weekly and monthly membership rates, avoiding lump-sum subscriptions at the start of each year.

Other schemes allowed share members to nominate two, rather than one, golfer each year and with that move Dunmurry almost doubled its annual subscription income.

Things went so well that the clubhouse was built in 2010, but with the worst of the crisis still to come, more imaginative schemes would be needed to survive.

"The real squeeze on golf businesses was from 2011 to 2015," Sean says.

"Golf clubs were starting to panic, committees would meet once a month and their immediate solution always appeared to be reducing fees, both subscription and green fees, and thereby increase income. However, with a smaller and smaller pool of customers in the market, it only managed to put more pressure on hard-pressed clubs.

"We were lucky in that we were new, so we didn't have high staffing levels, we didn't have historical commitments. We could react quickly to market conditions and if necessary adjust our costs on a monthly basis.

"We couldn't believe how other clubs were so slow to cut costs, but then many clubs have a long history and members expect a certain level of service, so cutting back on costs was not always immediately feasible.

"Simon equates those years to a boat in a storm - you just had to batten down the hatches, ride out the storm and make sure you emerged on the other side, regardless of how battered and bruised you were.

"It is very easy to lose your focus and spend money on your clubhouse or ancillary items. With 140 acres, a clubhouse, car park and service yard, it is very easy to spend a few thousand euro in some corner without anyone even noticing," Sean adds.

"The philosophy in Dunmurry is that any available funds get directed to the maintenance of the course and it is only afterwards that other expenditure items are considered."

The car park remains unsurfaced, but it's not something that golfers complain about when they visit.

In fact, the reviews of the course are generally excellent, with a host of PGA professionals quick to give glowing testimonials having played it every year in the annual Irish Club Professional Championship.

Waterville's David Higgins called it "a super test of golf" and "well worth a visit", while Colm Moriarty added: "I really enjoyed the golf course, it certainly won't be my last time here.

"It's not just enjoyable for professionals or better players, it's somewhere that can be enjoyed by a wide range of players. It's not just a stand up and smash it golf course. You need to plot your way around it."

Kilkenny Golf Club's Jimmy Bolger was blown away by the greens when he won the Irish Club Professional Championship there last year, while Glen Robinson was also impressed.

"I played Dunmurry Springs for the first time in September 2015 and wasn't expecting much as I'd never heard of it before," he said.

"After playing three rounds in the Irish Club Professional Tournament I liked it more and more each time around. Excellent design, in excellent condition and some challenging holes for both pros and amateurs. Nice homely, friendly clubhouse, too, and not oversized like most these days!"

With the economy improving, Dunmurry Springs has upped its game in attempting to grow its membership, but it remains committed to maintaining that balance between attracting huge numbers of society golfers to play a course measuring 6,200 yards from the white tees, while still offering its members quality playing time.

"We put a lot of work into data collection and lead generation and I would have a database of some 20,000 golfers," explains Sean.

"We send out around 80,000 emails a month. You really have to be proactive and we are popular with golf societies because while the course is not overly long, it's an excellent design and it's challenging but fair."

It's also open 12 months of the year because Sean had a verti-draining business and the course is very well drained, with slits one metre apart and sand-based greens.

"Only snow stops us opening so we appeal to that younger, active age group of 30 to 50-year-olds and we have a small but active membership. We are a young, progressive club," adds Sean.

The club had just 170 members at the end of last year and recruited 94 new members by offering a one-off membership rate of €600 this year, taking numbers to around 250.

"We are happy enough with that," Sean says. "We don't want 500 members, but we will bring in 100-150 societies a year, which is a lot more that the neighbouring courses. Cill Dara might take 30 societies, Royal Curragh 50, Naas 70. We have fewer members than all those."

It's all about the value to quality ratio for Dunmurry Springs and when their competitors are charging subscriptions of €1,200 to €1,500 a year, their subscription of €770 for 2017 will do well.

"We are growing, but we don't want to go much over the 300 mark," Sean says. "We want to get the members out on Sundays and we give a lot of value with our membership."

The package includes reciprocal agreements with Seafield and Druids Heath, which means that members of Dunmurry Springs can play those courses for free from Monday to Friday.

There is also a free fourball voucher for Bunclody Golf and Fishing Club in Wexford worth €160 and two free passes to the Curragh races.

With a database of 2,200 golf societies, O'Gallchoir's little black book must be the most valuable in Ireland, but it's been a labour of love to compile.

"We work hard at it," he says. "I might send a society a free twoball voucher for the captain and secretary and then when they come up I'll make sure I ask them how their day was and how they found the course.

"I'll ask if they have any questions, what they might like for their society and where they had any dates in mind. You can't just sit back and wait for the phone to ring."

Dunmurry Springs, Co. Kildare

Dunmurry Springs Golf Club, Dunmurry Hill, Kildare Town, Co. Kildare.

Tel: 045 531400

Website: www.dunmurrysprings.ie

Email: info@dunmurrysprings.ie

Green fee rates: €25 midweek & €40 at weekends.

Societies rates: €20pp midweek & €32pp at weekends.

Buggy hire: Yes.

Club hire: Yes.

Electric trolleys: No.

Range Balls: No.

Signature hole: 3rd, 466 yards, Par 4.

Professional Tip: "This is a ball striker's course which rewards good course management. Finding the fairway is key at the third, where a lake protects the approach. With a bunker between the water and the green, there really are no prizes for being short here, so club up," says David Cully.

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