Sunday, January 30, 2011

Doors Closing on Ireland’s Golf Courses

[Photo: Approach to Bunclody's par four 2nd. Plans to build houses here have evaporated somewhat, but the course is superb]

The writing on the wall started in early 2008, when some of the hotly anticipated golf course developments began to falter. Padraig Harrington’s Marlbrook, Retief Goosen’s Carrig Glas, Ernie Els’ Kilmore Quay were just a few.

In the Celtic Tiger years the new style and raison d’etre of many golf courses was no longer golf… it was to add sex appeal to a property development. Houses, not golf, were centre stage and names like Harrington and Goosen were being spread about like honey for the bees. And we were the bees being sucked in. In the boom times, people found this irresistible.

So, when the property market went belly-up, thanks to our bankers and our government (with an honourable mention to the world economy), these courses were the first to die a painful and public death.

The Numbers Game

Then it came down to clock-watching because surely some of Ireland’s new courses would flounder as well. Of the little economics that I recall from my college days, I remember that supply vs. demand is at the heart of survival. At the start of 2010 there were 352 eighteen hole golf courses in Ireland. That is an increase of 139 courses (or 65%) since 1990. The number of people playing the game also increased over the period, by close to 100%.

To put that in numbers (from the GUI), there were 111,000 GUI members in Ireland in 1990. At its peak, in 2007, there were over 209,000 members. It appeared, statistically at least, that demand and supply were matching each other.

[Photo: Approach to Limerick County's par four 12th]

But at the end of 2007, there was a parting of the ways. While the number of courses continued to rise, the numbers playing golf began to fall. 8,000 golfers dropped off the membership in 2008, and 2009 saw a further decline. The number for 2010 has not yet been compiled. With this shift in demand, somewhere a club had to break.

[Photo: Approach to Killeen Castle's par five 12th. Host to the Solheim Cup in 2011]

Courses in Trouble

Luttrellstown led the pack but survived at the last moment, becoming a pay-and-play course from the start of 2010. As one of Dublin’s best parkland tracks it has been doing very well since this repositioning. Elsewhere, there was a wave of receiverships, banks withdrawing loan facilities or cash simply drying up. Tulfarris, Citywest, Beaufort, Moyvalley, New Forest, Knockanally, Macreddin, Kilkea Castle and Turvey had their troubles. Sadly, but not surprisingly, rumours started about other courses like Rathcore, Farnham Castle, Killeen Castle and Galway Bay, simply because they were new, were closed for upgrading, or because someone heard it from a friend of a friend of a friend. Rathcore is one of my favourites and in the next edition of Hooked I have added four words to my review: ‘best value in Ireland’. It is not, I have been assured by Rathcore’s Austin Lyons, in any trouble.

[Photo: The par four 6th at Rathcore]

Then the courses in receivership started to operate like hotels in similar circumstances: undercutting their rivals with cheap rates to attract the punters. Some posters on had a dig at Tulfarris, saying it was terrible that people were visiting the club at the expense of others. I agree and disagree. By keeping a course open it keeps people employed and keeps paid up members happy. Surely that’s a good thing… or is it?

The trouble is that when courses like Tulfarris get ‘propped up’ by the receiver, it is to make as much cash as possible to pay off creditors. This is harsh on nearby courses who are using a traditional business model of a members club, and simply can’t justify dropping their green fees to the same levels – especially when green fees across Ireland have already dropped by over 50% in places. Tulfarris is a beautiful course in a stunning location and it would be a shame to lose it. But now it comes down to the receivers, and the number of green fee-paying golfers who want to pay €30.

The Changing Face of Golf

Of course, clubs running out of, or owing, money is only one factor in the evolving golfing market. There are golfers who simply can’t afford to play any more, while other golfers have realised that the fall in green fees and the highly resistant annual subs make going it alone a viable and attractive proposition. Why pay the annual sub for 30 to 40 rounds of golf at the same course when you could take that money (which doesn’t have to be paid as a lump sum) and spread it around different courses, all of which are offering excellent value for money? You can get out on good courses for €20 to €30 these days, or you can splash out for €60. I know someone will argue that giving up GUI membership means giving up an official handicap (and competition entry rights) and that getting on to a golf course at weekends is difficult… but let’s not forget how eager many courses are for green fees and how many golfers will go out and play when the smallest opportunity presents itself (or when a mate is paying).

[Photo: sun sets over par three 14th at Moyvalley, where the joining fee was once €75,000]

There is a flip side to this too: some courses are now reducing or waiving their joining/entrance fee, in order to attract members. And it is working. Gone are the €75,000s and €40,000s… now if you want to pay the annual sub you’re usually welcomed with open arms at the middle and lower tier clubs.

Doors Finally Close

Despite some of these positive moves by clubs, things have finally come to a head, and January sees the start of the closures. At least two courses have closed (possibly three) and, sadly, one of them is a favourite of mine. Limerick County had a lot going for it… but not enough money. It may re-open under new management and I hope that it does, because it has more adventure than any of its neighbours.

[Photo: Approach to Limerick County's par four 5th]

Turvey, in north Dublin, also closed. If you turn up for a round you’ll encounter security guards. It’s a shame. When I played it in 2008, they were working on one of the holes – an investment that will never be realised. At least members have plenty of alternative clubs to choose from, with Beaverstown, Balcarrick, Donabate, The Island and Corballis all nearby.

Is this the beginning of the end? Of course not. There are too many stalwarts striding the fairways for the game to be damaged irrevocably, and while some more courses will have to go, hundreds will remain. As long as these clubs learn to adapt to the changing times we now face, golf will remain strong in Ireland.

[Photo: Approach to Lough Erne's par four 2nd - the last of the BIG courses to be built on the island]

After all of that, I will add that Rathfarnham – a 14 hole golf course – is currently looking for a General Manager.

O'Leary the Laughable

I've never really used this blog to have a rant... but just this once!

Michael O'Leary, you're full of crap. You lambast the government for their airport tax (a valid point, I might add), claiming it is a core reason why tourists aren't visiting our country... and yet you charge golfers €80 to carry their clubs on Ryanair. With your 'cheap seats' policy, a golfer can purchase a return flight for a quarter of that price.

Actually, I'll aim that same invective at Aer Lingus, who jumped on board the bandwagon very shortly after Ryanair introduced their fees. 'No, no, no,' said Aer Lingus, 'we're not going to be another Ryanair...' and then they go and do everything exactly the same as Ryanair. What a stunning business strategy that is!

The thing is, I really admire O'Leary. The ballsiness and brass-neck of the man is outstanding. He doesn't take lip from anybody and I imagine he'd be a great bloke to have a drink with. But he does splurge a load of rubbish on why more tourists don't come to Ireland and how Ryanair are doing everything they can to attract them. If that's the case, you wouldn't make the following pig-ignorant reply to a tour operator's criticism about the checked baggage charges applied to guitars and golf clubs:

"Maybe if you're a guitar playing golfer on the doss, you're not my market. I don't give a shite."

Thank you Michael. Now here's a picture of one of your planes taking off beside Shannon Golf Club. You know where you can shove it.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

A steal at The European... €35

[The European's par three 14th]

Most keen golfers already know about The European Club's East of Ireland Alliance competition, which takes place every Wednesday, February to April - it's a chance for golfers with handicaps below 12 to play some competitive golf over one of the best courses in Ireland (ranked 4th in Golf Digest Ireland's poll).

But now everyone can play the course for just €35 in February and March, on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. The normal fee is €100... so €35 is quite a steal - and with February just a couple of days away, here's the phone number to help you make that call: 0404 47415

And a link to their site, here

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Green Fees at Ireland's Top 25 courses

Liam Kelly, in yesterday's Irish Independent (26 Jan), did an interesting piece on how much it would cost you in 2011 to play Ireland's Top 25 courses (according to the rankings of Golf Digest Ireland). The answer, peak season, is €3,128, which is a reduction of only €500 from peak fees in 2008.

This €3,128 looks a huge figure, especially in the recession, but as he goes on to explain there are so many ways around paying these sums, that you need to consider that figure with a large pinch of salt. For instance, if you were to play the same courses in the off-season, you could pay 'just' €1,549... or half the peak season price.

[Enniscrone's par three 3rd]

One thing is immediately noticeable from the rankings/green fees... you won't get better value than the links of the north west: Carne, County Sligo, Donegal and Enniscrone. Add in Strandhill (next door to County Sligo) and you have the most spectacular run of links courses anywhere. And with the Atlantic Coast Challenge (see below), offering up three of these courses for just €125, you should take the opportunity to pay this corner of the world an overdue visit.

Friday, January 21, 2011


Back in my school days I remember our English teacher talking about a book he had published. It was aimed at 6th form students studying King Lear for their Leaving Cert, and went into detail on what the play was all about and what it meant. He said that when he received his first - and, as it turned out, his only - royalty cheque, he ripped it open only to discover is was for £16. All that work and his return was a measly £16. Sure, sure, he had the satisfaction of seeing his book published, but...

I received my first royalty cheque today, so for those people who were convinced that I was going to make millions, thousands... or even hundreds from this book... my cheque is for €67.83, which equates to one tank of diesel in the camper van - enough to get me from Wexford to Donegal, assuming I don't stop or get held up in traffic.

In fairness, I received a 'modest' advance before I started Hooked. Since publication I have received Statements showing that the royalties from book sales had still not surpassed the amount of this advance. Until today. So, while €67.83 will not set the world alight, or thrill my bank manager, it is a cause for celebration. So please celebrate with me, and make that Hob Nob a chocolate one.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Atlantic Coast Challenge 2011, July 4-6

[Photo: Carne's drop dead gorgeous par three 16th]

There are a lot of golf ‘Classics’ that slink across many of Ireland's great courses, from parkland to links. When you consider that Royal County Down is one of the clubs involved you'll appreciate that this is not for 2nd or 3rd tier courses trying to increase their footfall.

If you think it’s the way to go you will have plenty to choose from. Look at it this way: you play a number of great courses at a substantially reduced price, you get to hook up with your mates for a few days (and nights), meet some new people and have the chance of winning some decent prizes. And I mean decent prizes... not the Waterford/Cavan/Tipperary Crystal, the bronze golfer lamps and the pointless vases you might have on your shelves or in your attic at the moment. Let’s just say this is as good as it’s going to get for amateur golfers like you and me.

The first one I ever heard about was the Dunmore East Classic (3 to 6 May 2011) in 1999. It plays over Faithlegg, Waterford, Waterford Castle, Tramore and Dunmore East (the joker in the pack). Perhaps the success of the event – you couldn’t get a slot six months in advance – had something to do with the many other events that have cropped up since, from north (Kingdoms of Down) to south (Tramore), and east (Budweiser International) to West (Atlantic Coast).

Having taken my father up to the north west at the end of last year, you won’t be that surprised to hear that the Atlantic Coast Challenge gets my vote as the best classic around. You’ll play County Sligo, Enniscrone and Carne golf clubs (on 4-6 July 2011) – three clubs that are firmly in my top ten courses in the country.

It was a revelation playing Enniscrone again, after several years, and for those golfers who complain that it is ‘tricked up”, get over yourselves and revel in the beauty of the place (and read my last blog). Yes, there are blind shots and raised greens, but on dunes this majestic and invasive that’s hardly surprising.

[Photo: Enniscrone's par four 13th, green to tee]

Carne… well, it is just unbelievable and if you haven’t played it before you will never know what to expect. It will be one amazing hole after another on the edge of the world. [Photos courtesy of Carnesore Boxer]

County Sligo is the highest scoring course in Hooked. It has certain things that make it one of the best experiences to play: for starters there’s the location and the variety of holes... and a stretch for home that can break you in the wind.

This is Irish links golf – this is links golf – at its very best.

So, what are the details you need to know:

Prize Fund: €2,500

Individual & Team Event

Entry Cost pp: €125

You can book through the websites:

[Photo: County Sligo's 15th green, looking towards Benbulbin from 16th tee]

Now all you have to do is figure out where you’re going to stay. I’d suggest Enniscrone as it is the most central location, although Sligo offers the best choice of accommodation. Carne, sadly, is just too far. Of course, you could move day to day but that doesn’t make much sense. What does make sense is ringing up your mates and booking a slot as soon as possible.