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Golf Club Conundrum

Too many clubs for too few members is unhealthy, writes Dermot Gilleece

Posted Jan 29, 2013 by Dermot Gilleece

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Royal and Ancient officials have been taking some flak for their proposed changes to the Old Course at St Andrews. These plans are being blamed with some justification, on an unwillingness for golfing legislators on both sides of the Atlantic to make meaningful moves on limiting the impact of new technology.

The very fact of having to make further alterations to the Old Course - memories are still fresh of the lengthening of the iconic 17th for the 2010 Open - is an indictment in itself.  And it further compliments an extraordinary design which allows championship golf still to be played in an area measuring only 83 acres.

In the event, it’s not the first time the R and A have got things wrong.  One recalls their document "The Demand for Golf", which was published to much blowing of trumpets in 1989.  Among other things, they set what was viewed as an ambitious target of having at least one golf facility for every 25,000 inhabitants in these islands by the year 2000. This was set against ratios of 1:12,000 in Scotland, 1:10,000 in Australia and 1:20,000 on the Eastern Seaboard of the US at that time.

The figures quoted in the report for Northern Ireland, were especially interesting.  With 58 golf clubs in 1988 for a population of 1.58 million, golfers there had a ratio of 1:27,259, which meant that an increase of 15.5 per cent was desirable by the Millennium. In fact the increase was a whopping 62 per cent and given the current number of 93 clubs, the ratio has come down to 1:17,000.

Meanwhile, the number of facilities in the Republic has snowballed from 202 in 1988 to a current 337 - an increase of 67 per cent.  In the process, the ratio of facilities per head of population has come down from 1:16,600 to a current 1:13,353.  And what was once perceived by the R and A as a serious dearth of golfing facilities, has now become a very worrying over-supply.

For instance, a study undertaken by Carr Golf a few years ago noted as many as 100 courses within an hour's drive of The K Club, scene of the Ryder Cup in 2006.  That stark statistic emphasises the reality of over-supply.  It was further established that if all the time-sheets were taken in all operational courses, and 20 days of annual closure were factored in, their utilisation would come in at 47 per cent capacity, with 10-minute tee-times applied.

From 275 clubs on the island of Ireland at the end of 1990, the number rose to 394 by the end of Millennium Year - a staggering increase of 119, or 43.4 per cent in only 10 years.  Now, for the first time in living memory, the number of affiliated golfers is falling. As a consequence, management committees are being forced to view neighbouring clubs as possible predators, especially with regard to entrance-fees, annual subscriptions and green-fees.  And depending on their location, they may eventually find themselves looking seriously at amalgamation with one or even two of those neighbours.

Of the many enlightening aspects of recent surveys is the fact that high-profile developments have been the worst casualties of the slump.  The endorsement of Nick Faldo as course designer, hasn’t saved the splendid Lough Erne resort from receivership.  Nor has its association with Seve Ballesteros saved The Heritage.  And Killeen Castle, where Europe gained a memorable Solheim Cup triumph last year on a layout designed by Jack Nicklaus, is also in serious, financial difficulties.

Meanwhile, cost-cutting in the proprietary sector is creating fierce competition for members' clubs, which had developed a dependence on green-fee traffic in recent years.   And the situation overall has been exacerbated by the smoking ban and a greater adherence to the drink-driving laws.

All of which means that certain members' clubs in Dublin are looking at the stark option of either enlarging their membership base, or slapping increases of up to 20 per cent on the annual subscription.  And in some cases it's even doubtful if increased membership would offer a solution, given the growing resistance to five-figure entrance fees.

A survey for the English Golf Union showed a worrying increase in golf-club vacancies. And many Scottish clubs have had little choice but to close their doors because of dwindling membership and declining interest.

So it appears that the old, pre-EU notion of Ireland contracting pneumonia if Britain caught a cold, still has validity where golf is concerned.  And for beleaguered clubs throughout these islands, changes to the Old Course would be the least of their concerns.

- Dermot Gilleece

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