THE number of GUI-affiliated golfers in the country is steadily dropping five years into the recession. Back in 2000 the union had increased its membership through the previous decade from 111,806 in 1990 to over 190,878 across all categories and age levels.
Their numbers reached a high of over 209,453 in 2007, but once the economy crashed from 2008 onwards, golf suffered along with every other sphere of activity.
Currently, the GUI has 158,101 members with active handicaps on the GolfNet handicap system. Taking this number and adding in a couple of thousand pavilion members and others who are club members but who don't play in competitions, means that the GUI total membership is coming in just below 1997 level when they had 163,490. ILGU numbers have also reduced to around 42,000 in total from a high of over 45,000.
Despite the hardships and the disappearance of some golfing facilities, the industry as a whole is still putting its best foot forward.
Clubs throughout the country are initiating new membership categories, pricing green fees competitively and coming up with innovative ways to make the game attractive and affordable.
The recent list of the 'Top 100' golf courses in ' Golf Digest Ireland', which causes controversy at times, put a welcome spotlight on the quality of courses and fine golf available in Ireland.
Dual and triple memberships of different clubs has undoubtedly reduced as people seek to narrow their focus and save on the pocket, but there are also thousands of 'nomad' golfers availing of the cheaper green fees on the market.
Competition remains the lifeblood of the club scene in the men's and women's game and the main inter-club events for 2013 will attract the usual high level of entries at provincial and national level.
For the individual golfer with pride and ambition, there is always the challenge of improvement in their game. In the GUI, the majority of golfers play in Category 3, the 13-20 handicap level, which has 78,651 members in total. My bet is that most of those are towards the higher end of 17-20.
The other handicap statistics in the GUI are: Category 1 (+ to 5 inclusive) 5,312; Category 2 (6-12 incl) 30,418; and Category 4 (21-28 incl) 43,720. The comparable figures for the ILGU handicaps are: Category 1 (+ to 5 incl) 395; Category 2 (6-12 incl) 1,321; Category 3 (13-20 incl) 6,095; Category 4 (21-28) 11,750; Category 5 (29-36 incl) 22,947.
Plenty of challenges there for golfers of all abilities and in that respect it's worth recalling just how much improvement can be made by referencing some notable performers.
A couple of years ago we ran a handicap challenge in conjunction with the GUI, and the final was won by Stephen Ryan of County Tipperary GC. During that 2011 season he reduced his handicap from 19 to 12.
Owen O'Keeffe of Ballykisteen went from a starting handicap of 12 that year to seven, Carlow's Peter Murray had brought his handicap down to 12 from 20, Niall Carroll of The Heritage went from six to a two handicap, and Alan Tierney of Tulfarris went from 24 to 14.
I don't know how they did in 2012 but I do recall that these golfers and all the finalists got great satisfaction from improving their game in 2011.
In relation to the Category 1 players within the GUI and ILGU, it's interesting to note how few can be really good amateurs and go on to make a living as Tour professionals.
The notion of getting paid to play is still highly attractive, hence the ambition of the elite to emulate the stars of the game. Many are attracted to the life of the Tour pro, and relatively few are successful, but when it comes good, it's a great life.
Padraig Harringon, who tees it up in Durban tomorrow in the Volvo Golf Champions, has often spoken of the thrill of receiving his first big pay cheque as a professional player.
Speaking in Durban yesterday, which by coincidence was the venue for his pro debut 17 years ago, Harrington recalled: "I rang home and said, 'Mum, I've just finished 49th, I won £1,480 – and I couldn't have played much worse. They are just giving it away.' Back then, £1,480 was a fortune."
He hasn't done too badly since then, but Harrington has never forgotten that special thrill early in his career.
irish get year off
to sizzling start
ILGU players Chloe Ryan (Castletroy) and her U-18 international team-mates Jean O'Driscoll (Muskerry), Olivia Mehaffey (Royal Co Down Ladies) and Ariana Coyle Diez (Elm Park) are in action in Mexico this week.
The four members of the union's high performance squad are playing in the 72-hole Mexican Ladies Amateur Open Stroke play in Mexico City. The event began yesterday and finishes on Friday.
Mexico's Golf Federation, recently confirmed as host to the World Amateur Team Championships in 2016, is keen to showcase their facilities and organisational skills and the ILGU High Performance Committee saw their Amateur Open stroke play as an ideal opportunity to kick-start the 2013 season.
High performance manager David Kearney is providing technical and tactical assistance to senior international Ryan and U-18 internationals O'Driscoll, Mehaffey and Coyle Diez.
Apart from the individual event, there is a two-player Nations Cup category in which Ireland will be represented by Ryan and O'Driscoll.