Golf clubs in Offaly and beyond braced for uncertain year and future

Kevin Corrigan


Kevin Corrigan


Golf clubs in Offaly and beyond braced for uncertain year and future

Golf clubs in Offaly and beyond braced for uncertain year and future

IRRESPECTIVE of the Castle Barna Golf Club closure, which is a unique one, golf is in for a very uncertain year – the Daingean based club is being returned to farmland after the owners, Kieran and Evelyn Mangan and members were unable to agree on proposals to lease the course following the decision of the Mangan’s to retire.

Golf may be the first sport to be reopened and it is one of the few sports where it is very easy to enforce social distancing but clubs are going to take a serious hit this year. Golf clubs have two major sources of income. Their bread and butter is their yearly membership fees from members and this generally remains fairly constant, though with some fluctuations as older members opt out or pass away and they find it hard to attract younger people in their thirties and forties.

A key source for golf is income from societies and members. Most societies are pub ones and this is effectively gone for this year while at the moment, they can only provide golf for members and can’t accept visitors – it means that the peak golfing months during the summer are looking like going down the pan.

Golf Ireland (the new runners of golf in the country following the amalgamation of the gents and ladies unions) have been in negotiations with the Government and its agencies about the financial impact of the Covid-19 crisis and are hoping they will get support. Members will be allowed back to play social golf on May 18 – it will be members only and there will be no competitions in that first phase.

Clubs are now awaiting specific guidelines for the numbers allowed to play and the gap between games before they reopen time sheets – traditionally, fourballs are allowed while there is a ten minute gap between slots on each time sheet but the numbers may be reduced and the gap extended. However, there is widespread relief that golf is about to resume and that some sense of normality is beginning to return. Clubs are bracing themselves for tough times this year and harsh income and expenditure accounts at the end of the year.

According to Liam Scally of Tullamore Golf club, the closure of courses since the end of March is having a huge impact on the finances of clubs everywhere, “which may cause difficulties for many clubs to survive”.

Mr Scally outlined: “April would traditionally be a very busy month for Tullamore Golf Club, for visiting societies and visitors and these have been lost. In addition we have been unable to run our competitions including Open Competitions we had planned on the Easter weekend all of which has resulted in significant income losses. Staff employed in catering, bar and pro shop are also left out of work until these areas can be re-opened.”

A lot of their members have been laid off because of coronavirus restrictions and this has also impacted. “As the Club’s office has been closed due to lockdown this has delayed payment of some subscriptions, nevertheless, our members are showing great support in these exceptional times and all appear anxious to get back to golf. As a members club, we rely on members for the continued viability of our club.

"The Club is being managed prudently and despite all the challenges and difficult times, we are confident that we will be up and running as soon as we get the approval from HSE and Government to re-open.”

Paschal Troy, Communications Officer of Birr Golf Club, stated that they have not been immune from the current difficulties faced by most businesses and clubs in the country.

“In a suvey conducted by GUI, cash flow was identified by all clubs nationwide as a major issue. Green fees, societies, classics, memberships all contribute in this respect. For the foreseeable future visitor income will be nil.”

He spoke about the importance of support from their members.

“We are a members club, and as such every member recognises our difficulties and contributes in whatever way they can. A Strategic Management Committee led by our Captain and Treasuer are in place to recommend to Club Management the implementation of strategies and cost saving measures, to manage this current crisis. On a positive note, our golf course is in excellent condition."

Interestingly, Mr Troy pointed out that the stipulation that only members can play golf at the moment may yield to benefits for clubs. He concluded: “Our visitor numbers were up last year and pre the Covid crisis we were anticipating even bigger numbers. Golf currently is one of the few activities that can be undertaken, and given that the GUI have decreed that members only are allowed play, club membership might just get a bounce.”

For Esker Hills Golf Club, the timing has been absolutely brutal as they were anticipating their best year ever in the wake of their favourite son, Shane Lowry’s stunning British Open win last year. Visitors were booked in from throughout Europe, the USA and Canada (a group of Canadian writers scheduled to visit in August cancelled just this week but have rebooked for next year) but almost all have cancelled. In addition, their biggest golf event, their annual Augusta tournament fell by the board shortly after the shutdown while on Monday, they were set to host their annual Joe Monaghan memorial competition, with a full turnout of 132 expected to tee off but this also went.

Open week in July, another big financial source, is also a doubt at the moment as it is for all clubs. It was no surprise that frustration seeped through Ray Molloy of Esker Hills when he spoke about the matter on Monday. “I have one word, chaos. It is just mad. This was to be our biggest ever year after the feedback from Shane and it is just mad that everyone is missing it.”

He revealed that all their foreign visitors have cancelled, including groups of annual visitors from Sweden, Denmark, Germany, England, Scotland and Wales. These groups ranged in size from 12 to 32 and generally based themselves in Tullamore with some staying in Athlone. In addition other local courses such as Tullamore, New Forest, Glasson and Portumna benefitted as they played a number of rounds during their stay.

Mr Molloy spoke about how Shane Lowry’s success story and the quality of some of those courses had helped the midlands establish itself as a golf tourism destination on the international radar. “Galway and Dublin are gone too expensive. There is cheaper accommodation in Tullamore, they like the golf and it is a terrible loss to the economy.

He stated that some of the groups spend a lot of money during their stay in Offaly, referring to a group of 32 men who come each August/September from Newcastle for seven days. “You can imagine what they get up to. Their holiday is basically, golf, a steak and beer.”

All their Irish societies and green fees have been cancelled since St Patrick’s Day, though some have made provisional bookings for later in the year. Mr Molloy hopes some of these will materialise, though he expects numbers will be down with people over 65 with underlying conditions unlikely to stray far from home.

The uncertainty is creating an anxious climate for golf. Stated Mr Molloy: “With golf, we just don’t know where we are going but hopefully. . . I am glad to see we are reopening in two weeks for members. With golf there is no problem with social distancing. The overall picture is we just don’t know.”

He knows that their clubhouse, bar and catering facilities won’t reopen until August. Before these unprecedented events, Esker Hills was doing very nicely. “We were grand, we were surviving and we were facing into our best ever year,” reported Mr Molloy, who pointed out that they are not dependant on the American market like some Galway and Kerry clubs. He spoke about the quality of their course and Tullamore and concluded: “We are lucky with the quality of the courses here. We know that if we get people to Esker Hills once, they will be back. Maybe not next year but in a couple of years time. People are happy to come to the midlands. Golf tourism is on a strong footing here and Shane is a big part of that.”

Absolutely no golf club will be dancing on the grave of Castle Barna Golf Club but ironically, some of them can expect an uptake in members following its closure. Clubs in the wider Tullamore and north-east Offaly, including Tullamore, Portarlington, Edenderry and Esker Hills could all get former Castle Barna members seeking deals – the majority of Castle Barna members will still want to play golf and many clubs will now put together attractive deals to cover the remaining of this year and perhaps next year.

New Forest Golf Club near Tyrrellspass could be one of the big beneficiaries. Having just about stayed afloat after the 2000s recession hit home, they rebranded themselves as as New Forest Estate in 2015 and both the golf and dining/weddings/accommodation side of their operation have been building very well since then.

Castle Barna Golf Club had a thriving juvenile section and New Forest will be trying to attract many of these while Tullamore and Esker Hills Golf Clubs have also done trojan work with younger members in recent years. Jimmy O’Sullivan, General Manager of New Forest Estate remarked on Monday: “2020 was promising to be the busiest year ever across all the areas of the Estate since it was rebranded New Forest Estate in 2015. Golf membership, society bookings and green fees were all up on previous years and the new eight bay LED floodlit driving range was very popular.”

He talked about the growth of their dining and wedding facilities as well as the impact the shutdown has had on them.

“Weddings had gone from a few small weddings a year to having over 30 large weddings with more than 160 guests booked for this year. New Forest Restaurant regularly serves 250 guests on Sundays and was fully booked on days of local Communions and Confirmations, Mother’s Day had been booked out by the end of February.

“Corporate bookings and business meetings had increased substantially for this year. Apart from mid-week the accommodation in the Courtyard Lodges was fully booked for most of the year. 2020 was to have been our busiest year ever for coach tours most of which were from the continent. Such was the level of bookings across the various areas of the business, there were only 3 weekends left for the entire year which were available for any large event."

The Kerry native, a long time resident in Offaly and a bubbly presence on the midlands catering scene, said: “Rumours of Covid-19 started in January and by mid-March businesses had been told to shut down with no real idea for when they could open again, since March is normally when business starts to get busy it was a devastating blow for the 2020 year.”

He paid tribute to Castle Barna Golf Club. “Castle Barna Golf Club closed recently with Covid-19 probably the final straw. Kieran and Evelyn had built the business over the years into a very popular golf club with a great membership and popular with societies, it is sad to see any business close especially when you know all the hard work there has been to build it up.”

Mr O’Sullivan talked about the future.

Discussing the golf side of affairs, he said: “We have an excellent team of green keepers led by Donal Shine who are maintaining the Golf Course and Grounds ready to reopen when we are permitted. The whole Estate looks stunning at the moment and it is a credit to the team who look after the 300 acres of New Forest Estate.

“Stephen Barrett our PGA Professional has put in place all the required protocols for golf during Covid-19 and all payments can now be made online in anticipation of golf reopening. He has also been busy developing new ways to keep contact with our members such as online quizzes and trick shot videos.

"Stephen also runs online tutorials for our juniors he has also welcomed the junior section of Castle Barna golf to New Forest. Mark Kelly has built a wonderful junior club at Castle Bearna and it will be great to see them develop as golfers at New Forest.”

They have offered deals at the moment.

“Because of Covid-19 we have introduced some additional options for Golfers to join New Forest Golf Club and there will be no increase in membership rates in 2021

“1. Become a member of New Forest Golf Club by paying €100 per month for June, July or August 2020

“2. Become a member of New Forest Golf Club until 31st December 2020 for €475

“3. Become a member of New Forest Golf Club until 31st December 2021 by paying €80 for 15 Months by Direct Debit.”

New Forest, however, is suffering as most weddings have been cancelled and their booming restaurant remains shut and will be for the next couple of months. They have rearranged wedding dates where possible and Mr O’Sullivan said: “It is hard to know how social distancing will impact weddings going forward but New Forest House is fortunate to be situated in the heart of a 300 acre estate and have a number of large private function rooms ensuring privacy for groups, also there are separate entrances and car parks for golf and weddings again ensuring privacy.”

He hopes they will be able to reopen their restaurant and accommodation as soon as the Government gives the go ahead.

“With social distancing being part of life for the foreseeable future New Forest is fortunate to have seven large separate private dining/function rooms which will allow us to adhere to whatever new rules and regulations are imposed on restaurants and to give customers piece of mind. The Courtyard Lodges at New Forest have been developed from the Estates original courtyard buildings and are individual units each with its own front door so again we will be able to comply with whatever new rules are imposed on the accommodation industry due to Covid-19.”