Chilly times for clubs as numbers fall
SLIP-sliding away in these chilly times -- literally and metaphorically for golf -- are thousands of people who had been card-carrying members of clubs throughout the boom years.
Nationally, the GUI can state that their membership of golfers aged over 18 has dropped from 173,274 as of October 31, 2008, to 156,151 by the same date in 2010.
That's a loss of 17,123, or around 10pc over two years.
Where are they gone? Are they playing golf still or have they opted out of the game completely?
The only certainty is that their money has been taken out of their former home clubs.
Perhaps one snapshot of a Dublin club illustrates the range of withdrawal -- from payment if not from playing the sport -- among the 'disappeared'.
I won't name the club because the AGM has not yet been held, but the treasurer's report reveals that, over the last two years, 109 have left it.
That number is made up of 69 ordinary, or 'full' members, seven five-day members, 16 associates, nine juveniles and eight pavilion members.
In addition, there are 25 members on 'leave of absence', which means that 134 people are no longer on the books and paying subs.
This has totalled up to a reduction in subscription income of almost €94,000 -- a hefty blow indeed.
Cost-saving measures were put in place to dilute the impact of this loss of income, but every effort that can be made to retain a member is worth trying in order to see the club through the recession.
Overall, the GUI figures would suggest a loss of, on average, 40 members per club, but that could be greater as there is no way of knowing how many dual members have reduced their commitment to just one club.
As the GUI only charges one fee per golfer -- at his designated home club -- that's what shows up in the official figure.
It's estimated that male golfers with dual or treble membership total around 4,500 of the golfing population, so if they reduce their commitment to just one club, that won't show up on the GUI books.
It will, however, affect the income at the other clubs where membership was formerly held, and in that respect, the biggest effect would be felt in the traditional holiday areas in Connacht, Munster and Ulster.
The ILGU's best estimates of female golfers with dual membership is also around the 4,500 mark, but the key figure for the women's Union is that they now have 45,000 paying members, down from around 50,000 two years ago.
Between the GUI and ILGU, there are still over 200,000 adult golfers who pay an affiliation fee to each Union.
As for the 'nomad' or floating golfer, who all clubs would like to attract as either members or green fee customers, there's good and bad news. Yes, they are out there, and no doubt their numbers will be swelled by those who have left clubs but who still take to the fairways on a casual basis.
Unfortunately, a figure often bandied about, that there was anything up to 200,000 social golfers in the country, turns out to be a myth.
The best estimates of the nomad population, as revealed by Frank Bowen of the GUI at the recent 'Road to Recovery' golf conference in Dublin, is that there are 50,000 people who play golf that are not affiliated to a club.
"When we were doing our booklet, which is over a year ago now, there was a kind of a thought process out there that, in rough terms, there were 250,000 registered golfers, male and female between the two Unions, and there was another 200,000 people out there who played golf on some kind of a regular basis.
"We did one very simple thing. We consulted with our registered societies and we found that on average they had 50 members.
"About 10pc of them were members of more than one society, but interestingly, 74pc of them were actually members of golf clubs.
"And of 30,000 (society) members, only 7,000 of them were in fact what we would call the casual or nomadic golfer.
"We felt there might be another couple of thousand societies in a literal sense attached to GAA clubs or rugby clubs or gyms or whatever, and did a quick calculation.
"So our best estimate of casual or nomadic golfers out there at that time (a year ago) was something in the order of 50,000-plus.
"Their numbers might have increased somewhat with the decline in club membership but, as we would see it, there are not 200,000 people out there playing casual golf.
"It's a much smaller number," stressed Bowen.
Meanwhile, Pat Ruddy, owner of the European Club and a keen participant in the development of the game in the last 40 years through his work as a golf journalist, has called for GAMA -- the Golf Asset Management Agency -- to be set up.
He spoke at the Leinster Branch AGM and noted that with only 5pc of the population playing golf, there was considerable scope for the game to grow, despite the financial situation in the country.
Ruddy also suggested that it would set back the development of the sport if, as had been suggested at the recent golf conference, 50 golf facilities needed to close to stabilise the market.
He said: "The GUI might consider, and this is the thrust of this message, establishing a golf brains trust -- GAMA if you like -- to examine the situation in great detail, and see whether there are means by which any ailing and failing golf courses can be saved and utilised for low-cost public golf in the long-term interests of the game and its growth.
"There can be no threat to existing golf clubs from a growing golfing population. In fact, growth is the only way forward."
On a more immediate note, this week's meeting of the East of Ireland Alliance at the European Club has been postponed from its normal Wednesday outing to next Saturday due to the harsh weather on the east coast.
The Alliance has had nine outings so far this season and produced a remarkable list of big-name winners, including former Irish Open champion Shane Lowry, Irish Amateur champion Dara Lernihan, the Irish PGA champion David Mortimer, former South champion Simon Ward and local hero Pat Errity, who has just turned professional and qualified to play the European Seniors Tour in 2011.