Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Curse of the Celtic Tiger on Irish Golf

Dunmurry Springs, par three 15th, green to tee
I had a good-natured Twitter spat with someone the other day, regarding the cost of green fees at Ireland's golf courses. He was English and he said that it was time for Ireland's golf courses to 'get their prices right and not rip off (golf tourists) like the past'.

An unfair comment on three fronts:
  1. Green fee prices have fallen dramatically in the past four years (frequently by 40-50%)
  2. There has ALWAYS been value in Irish golf... if you knew where to look
  3. GB green fees are not exactly 'bargains'
'Sadly, damage was done when Eire courses priced us brits out of the market' was one of his comments, implying that golfers from Great Britain turned away from Ireland as a golfing destination when the Celtic Tiger ran rampant. The figures bear it out too, with GB golfing tourist numbers declining after 2008. Even today, when almost every other market is delivering growth, GB numbers remain in the doldrums. It is worth remembering, too, that golfers from GB once made up 66% of all visiting golfers.

So, what next?

Mount Wolseley's 2nd hole, green to tee

Crazy Golf

I won't deny that things got a bit crazy in the early 2000s as it became evident that everyone had so much money that no price was too high. I played with seven builders at Mount Wolseley in 2006... and they'd all thrown €500 into the pot, giving the lucky winner €3,500. The K Club was charging €380 a round at its peak; the Old Head famously charged €1,000 for a line, whether it was for 1 golfer or 4. Even my humble home course charged a green fee that was out of kilter with the golf experience on offer.

And then it turned out that we didn't have that much money after all and Ireland (and much of the world) came crashing down. For a while, our golf courses didn't take on board the severity of the situation. To be honest, plenty of them still haven't which is why we hear that so many clubs are in financial trouble. I think it's fair to say that many of our golf clubs aren't forward thinkers, they're not innovative and they're unwilling to think outside the box.

The par three 5th at Greystones
But I digress, because what golf clubs have done is to bring down their green fees. Some of the big, top-tier boys haven't because they're protecting their reputation and they're pulling in the American visitors anyway (links courses most notably), but almost everybody else has reacted. The K Club has fallen to €195, almost a 50% reduction... still eye-watering I admit, but a substantial change nonetheless. And on most good, second-tier golf courses you will easily get out for €20-€30 during the week. Beech Park, Carrick-on-Suir, Ballinrobe, Tullamore, Portarlington, The Curragh, Greystones, Dunmurry Springs* and Rathcore all fall into this bracket, as do so many more.

[* Dunmurry Springs currently have a 'complementary green fee offer']

Finding Value

Again, this slightly misses the argument about Celtic Tiger green fees... but the truth is that even during the boom times you could find great value in Irish golf if you knew where to look and when to play. You could play Carne, for instance, one of the greatest links on the planet, for €35, while Royal County Down, another of the world's top courses, could be played for £50 in February (and still can). There were Early Bird rates, Open competitions, a round plus breakfast all offering exceptional value. There were 'Passports' to three or more clubs, and then there were the golf 'Challenges'. All of these still exist and are better value than ever.

The par three 4th at Royal County Down
Why don't the British know about these amazing value offers? Clearly they don't if my Twitter conversation is anything to go by, but that's the trouble with perception. Every country has the big, expensive trophy courses and these tend to steal the limelight in promotional campaigns. That will, unfortunately, never change. If you have the crown jewels you're going to put them on display, aren't you! But our tourism bodies have to promote the great value available elsewhere because not everyone wants to see the crown jewels. Indeed, GB golfers are known to be looking for value, so this is what we need to be promoting in GB right now.

Flip of the Coin

And then there's the flip side of the coin - the price of playing golf in GB is not exactly cheap. Here are five trophy courses:
Wentworth is £360 at peak season, Woburn is £169, Carnoustie is £147, Gleneagles is £175, as is Royal St Georges.

But, as for Ireland, do a little digging, plan carefully and you can play good and great courses for a fraction of those prices. Silloth-on-Solway charges £56 at weekends in peak season and is a links beauty (my review here), while the excellent and renowned Royal Porthcawl (review) can be played for £60 off-season. I haven't played widely enough in GB to comment on that £20-£30 bracket, but it is undoubtedly there.

Silloth on Solway - view back down the 1st to the clubhouse
In conclusion... to our golfing friends in GB, I say this: there is and always has been value in Irish golf, because a golfing holiday in Ireland can take in the good and the great courses for surprisingly low green fees... if you're prepared to make the effort to find them!


  1. Kevin - I wholeheartedly agree that the recession has bought golf back into the affordable bracket for the vast majority of golfers in Ireland, both from a membership and green fee point of view.
    2 of us traveled to the northwest region on this past bank holiday weekend and played some of the top links in the country for a fraction of the cost of what some of the sunnier destinations are charging.
    Our weekend golf break took in Co. Sligo (€30), 2 rounds in Carne (€30/round) and a round in Enniscrone (€40). Ok - we had to brave some epic winds - but thankfully we dodged most of the downpours!
    I challenge anyone to find 3 better courses for that kind of value.
    A special mention to Carne Golf Club - the most spectacular and challenging links I've played.

  2. Agree about carne. Best links experience in the country and in a different planet to some of these boring parkland courses charging crazy prices. Love your book Kevin. I play plenty golf around Ireland and it's must viewing before visiting a new one