Golf on the cheap

And she’s buying a fairway to Heaven: a golf club — even a posh one. John Cradden reports on how to tee up a bargain golf deal

Thursday May 05 2011

WHEN the Celtic Tiger roared, so did the fees to join golf clubs. Just three or four years ago, if you wanted to play at one of the top private courses in the country, it would have cost you a pretty penny.

Also, the image wasn’t much of a draw; for some “joining the club” meant watching endless ranks of slightly overweight middle-aged men.

But really, golf clubs are more fun than that.

Huge numbers of women and younger people have signed up, lured by the fresh air and the chance to get a bit of exercise.

Also, with many clubs battling the recession, bargains are popping up everywhere. With the collapse in fees, there’s never been a better time to find a clubhouse deal.

In many cases, that means paying an annual subscription, many of which are now at rock bottom prices. One estimate says 70% of clubs have reduced their green fees recently, some by as much as 50%.

At The Heritage golf club in Co Laois, for instance, the ‘green fee’, ie the charge to non-members for playing a round of golf, was once €135. Now it’s as little as €40.

At the Moyvalley golf club in Co Kildare, based on a 550-acre course designed by Darren Clarke, you would have had to pay a joining fee of €75,000 when that course first opened in 2006. Now it’s a big fat zero.

It’s the same story at Druids Glen in Co Wicklow, which once charged a €45,000 fee for membership, while Tulfarris golf club in Co Wicklow used to set its charge at €15,000.

In one west-of-Ireland club, eager golfers once paid up to €12,000 for a “share membership” which could be sold back to a club for a premium after five years. Now the shares are virtually worthless and new members can join by paying an annual sub of just €600.

Of course you can always pay to play at one of the country’s 100 local-authority courses for green fees starting at €20, but joining a private club is still the most popular choice for a serious golfer, offering familiar surroundings and social facilities.

So just how do you avoid the big joining fees and negotiate a reasonable annual rate?

1. I’d like to pay a reasonable annual sub, but not the big ‘hello’ money

As we have seen, fees are dropping significantly. Moyvalley no longer has a joining fee, just an €850 annual sub, while Tulfarris now offers memberships for an annual sub of €1,155.

The annual subs themselves have also been slashed too — at Dublin’s Citywest golf club, the annual fee used to be €1,600, but this has been reduced €1,100, while it has a pay-as-you-play option starting at €500. In Co Cavan, the Slieve Russell club no longer has a joining fee, just a €1,250 annual sub.

Be aware, though, that older, more prestigious courses are still charging to join, based in the first place on reputation, sound financial footing and their strong memberships.

2. How many clubs are out there?

There are about 400 clubs in Ireland. In the mid-Noughties, the Irish golfing world was riding high on the hype generated by the hosting of the Ryder Cup in 2006. Today, thanks to the recession, there are a good number of ‘zombie’ or ghost golf courses that are struggling to keep afloat.

Excluding local authority courses, according to a recent report on the Irish golfing industry by financial consultants FGS, 100 brand new courses were built between 1995 and 2010. There are now too many courses, and up to 50 need to close to make the industry more sustainable.

3. The club I am interested in is in receivership.

Despite being in receivership, most of the new courses across Ireland remain open and have been directed to keep revenues coming in by slashing prices and creating special offers, which in turn has put price pressure on other longer-established and traditional clubs.

That means there are great bargains to be had in almost every county. Kevin Markham, a keen golfer and author of Hooked: An Amateur’s Guide to the Golf Courses of Ireland, says: “For instance, Moyvalley started their membership rate (joining fee) at €75,000, reduced it to €40,000 then €10,000, €4,000, €1,250, €850 and now it’s zero.” It’s the same story in other places.

4. Should I do research and talk to existing members before committing?

Why not? While there may be a financial risk to joining a club that might end up closing, you can easily lessen the risk by checking out the club’s situation and financial standing.

The risk of closure could be higher with newer clubs. “The newer courses, without such a strong membership base, have to pursue more financially focused tactics, such as removing fees altogether, or offering an annual rate,” adds Markham.

5. Can you take out a five- day subscription, rather than a full membership?

Absolutely. Patricia Green, from Lusk, Co Dublin, has been playing golf since she was 18. Originally from California, she came to Ireland in 1969 and despite intending to join a golf club here, she was shocked at the prices of entry and gave up playing as a result.

“Golf in America was a sport that could be played by anyone. In Ireland this was not so until only about two years ago,” she says.

Patricia took up golf again in 2004 after she retired and moved to Lusk, Co Dublin, where she joined the public course in Corballis.

After five years, she was advised by her doctor to find a non-links course because of problems with her feet, so in 2009, she looked around for an affordable club in Co Fingal, where there were about 27 to choose from, she says.

After playing nearly 15 courses and reviewing prices, she joined one course on a five-day membership for €1,400 a year, which included membership of the Irish Ladies Golf Union (ILGU) and bar fees.

A year later, local competition had seen prices at the nearby Balcarrick become too attractive. “I paid €750 for five-day membership in Balcarrick which includes ILGU membership and there are no bar fees.”

“There is no joining fee and that is true as well for Donabate. Unfortunately, it is not true for other clubs in Fingal yet.

“I think seeing the receivership and for sale signs at some clubs might put the wind up other clubs to do away with these joining fees.”

6. I know about the private clubs and the fall in charges — but I still want the cheapest option

That’s a public-run course, operated by a local authority. An excellent example is Corballis Golf Links in north county Dublin.

Situated on a pristine stretch of links land, it offers the experience of playing on a top quality links course at more affordable prices. Fingal County Council invited Nicklaus Design Services to redesign the course, which re-opened in 2009, and you can pay as you play with green fees starting at just €20.

Patricia Green adds: “I also know a lot of people, men and women, who get their handicaps from country golf clubs and now only play on open or council courses so they pay no yearly fees or subs to any club.”

7. It all looks a bit posh and formal. Do I need to have all the expensive, fancy gear?

Not at all. Most clubs have a smart casual dress code but it’s easily adhered to and usually involves not wearing jeans. And, shock horror, some supermarkets have occasional offers for starter golf sets.

Aldi last year offered a set of clubs for €150, so keep an eye out for special offers and the small ads for second-hand sets.

This article first appeared in the Irish Independent

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