Monday 23 October 2017

Union numbers don't paint pretty picture

Irish golf enjoyed its finest hour with the hosting of the 2006 Ryder Cup - which included an emotional win for Darren Clarke (here embracing his European team-mate Henrik Stenson on the 16th hole) at the K Club but in the interim, clubs have felt the pinch caused by the ailing Celtic Tiger
Irish golf enjoyed its finest hour with the hosting of the 2006 Ryder Cup - which included an emotional win for Darren Clarke (here embracing his European team-mate Henrik Stenson on the 16th hole) at the K Club but in the interim, clubs have felt the pinch caused by the ailing Celtic Tiger
Liam Kelly

Liam Kelly

MAYDAY, mayday! 14,000 and one golfers have disappeared from the fairways.

Anyone with any knowledge of their whereabouts, please get in touch immediately with Central Control, otherwise known as the Golfing Union of Ireland, Carton House, Ireland.

What's that? Who's the one, you ask? Why, that's obvious. It's Tiger Woods. And you're right, he's in therapy right now. Thanks for the reminder. We'll scratch him off the 'disappeared' list on the basis that he's missing, but has presented a doctor's note and marriage certificate to explain his absence.

And ok, he's not a GUI member.

So, moving on swiftly from the tangled world of Woods, we are left with 14,000 absentee golfers who have slipped away from the GUI 'family' in the last two years.

Gone with them are affiliation fees of around €180,000 that they would have paid to the governing body of men's amateur golf in Ireland, not to mention the money they would have been paying in annual subscriptions. Throw in a few grand for competition entry fees, restaurant levies and spending on drinks, snacks etc, and you can see that loss of income to Union and golf clubs is quite substantial.

Bit of blow, yes? Here's the rub -- nobody knows where it will end.

And the question must be asked: is the Irish love affair with golf over?

As golf is a numbers game, let's see what the statistics reveal of how the game wove itself into the patchwork quilt that became the New Ireland over the last 25 years.

In 1986, the year superstars Jack Nicklaus and Seve Ballesteros played an exhibition dubbed the 'Toyota Challenge' at Royal Dublin, the GUI had 258 clubs and 97,769 members in all categories, including juniors.


Four years later, the respective figures were 272 and 111,076. Golf was on the move, with new concepts in 'luxury facilities' such as Mount Juliet and The K Club just on the point of opening. Druids Glen was to follow in 1995, and by then many traditional clubs had begun to upgrade their on and off-course facilities in line with the rising expectations of members, and the enthusiasm shown by converts to the game.

By 1996, the year Tiger turned pro and the world waited to see how this amateur phenomenon would perform in the paid ranks, the GUI had 349 clubs and 155,326 members.

Tiger's arrival, the increased exposure given to golf on Sky, plus the rising economic tide, fuelled the desire for men and women to take up the game. Golf became sexy, if that's not an unfortunate word to use in Tiger's case, and he had a lot to do with that.

In Ireland, the game had always been perceived as a snobby sport for the elite, but that was far from true.

There was a tradition of landed gentry and 'professional' people such as doctors and lawyers playing golf, and it was true that in the major population centres, membership was not easily acquired. But one aspect stood out -- the interest of the golfer in his or her club, and the egalitarian element whereby the business tycoon and the 'ordinary' man could share a common bond for a few hours on the fairways.

And why not? Pretty well all Ireland's heavy hitters and big-time businessmen over the last 60 years came from humble beginnings. This country didn't have much of an elite class left as it picked itself out of the ashes of the War of Independence and the Civil War.

Those who made it big, such as the Dunnes and the Smurfits, worked hard to build their businesses and had a vision and entrepreneurial spirit.

Many more from towns and villages and cities shared that work ethic, and when it came to leisure, they eventually had money and status and looked to golf for business contacts and social interaction.

What was different by then was the exposure to travel and the broadening of international awareness gained by the high-flying businessmen from the 1960s onwards.

By the mid-80s, even though the country was battling recession, a few, such as Tim Mahony and Michael Smurfit, realised there were enough people around with money who would pay for a different kind of golfing experience. They saw the possibility of elite and luxury facilities catering to those who were prepared to invest big sums to step away from the herd.

In that sense, we saw a separation into an 'us and them' aspect in Irish golf, and let's not kid ourselves, those who invested in the big-name places were there to make money.

Corporate Ireland was beginning to boom, and the K Club and Mount Juliet and Druids Glen could now offer a special day out for companies and clients. In fact, you'd wonder how the country got as wealthy as it did, given the packed car parks every day of the week in golf clubs all over the Republic, particularly at the top clubs.

The GUI began to move with the times and expanded to cope with the explosion of interest in golf. A new general secretary, Seamus Smith, was appointed in 1996 and combined with the rise of progressive and enthusiastic honorary officers, the Union brought in a modern outlook.

As the golf clubs were founded and affiliated, they came into the GUI fold, to the extent that when the new Millennium dawned, the 400-club mark was in sight, with 391 affiliated entities catering for 190,878 members.

It took another two years to announce that exactly 400 golf clubs were in operation and 207,681 males were in the GUI ranks.

By 2006, after 10 years of Tiger, and eight of the Celtic Tiger, the Union figures were 417 clubs and 206,926 men. That was Ryder Cup year at The K Club and unsurprisingly, in 2007, the GUI individual membership peaked at 209,453 playing out of 421 clubs.

Little did we know it was the beginning of the end of the dream.

In that 'dream world' golf became 'a product', membership was 'an investment', property developers raced to build courses around which they could profit from expensive housing; and huge joining fees, even for moderate facilities, were the norm.

In that dream world, club committees went mad with building massive clubhouses that now mostly stand empty.

Between the start of 2007 and the end of 2009, the scale of the decline in golf financially has been staggering, with 2008 the turning point, not only for the general economy, but also for Irish golf.

Now, there's a new reality out there, one that is very harsh, but it's not Doomsday yet.

Golfers will continue to play the game. The GUI will continue to have hundreds of clubs under its jurisdiction, but the money madness is gone.

Entrance fees are disappearing, green fees are dropping, and as some facilities inevitably fold, their golfers will happily be absorbed by neighbouring courses.

Just as Tiger has to rehabilitate himself, Irish golf is undergoing its own form of reality therapy. It hurts -- but the only way out is to work through the pain.

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