'Worrying' drop in NI golf club membership

By Rick Faragher

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Image caption,
Tourists want to walk in the footsteps of Clarke, McDowell and McIlroy

Twenty years ago there were lengthy waiting lists to join many golf clubs in Northern Ireland.

Today, that trend has reversed to worrying levels.

Golf is an increasingly important selling point for Northern Ireland.

Tourists from North America, Japan and across Europe want to walk in the footsteps of Clarke, McDowell and McIlroy.

Why wouldn't they? Northern Ireland's leading players have landed six majors between them in the past decade.

That's great for the famous links courses along our coast.

They host the biggest events in the game, the Irish Opens and Open Championships of this world sell themselves.

But what about the other, mostly inland, clubs?

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Image caption,
Most weeks on the European and PGA tours an NI player appears on the leaderboard

According to the all-island Golfing Union of Ireland (GUI) - which represents over 430 golf clubs with over 170,000 members - there has been a 30% drop in membership since 2004.

This is particularly concerning given that Northern Ireland has never enjoyed more global exposure on the golfing map.

Most weeks on the European and PGA tours, an NI player appears on the leaderboard.

Golf should be booming here - so why does that not seem to be the case at grassroots level?

Family dynamics

Time is a big factor: it takes about four hours to play a full 18 holes, perhaps six hours door-to-door.

Kevin Stevens from the GUI says significant changes have now been introduced, including official nine-hole competitions and rule changes catered towards speeding up play.

The positive effects, he says, are already evident.

Changing family dynamics also play a role.

At club level, family commitments are seeing players drift away from the game, especially those aged in their twenties and thirties.

Clubs like Tandragee in County Armagh believe targeting families, not just individuals, could be a solution.

Recently, the club launched family deals and a scheme to encourage mothers with children at the club to also join.

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Yearly membership, equipment and competition fees for adults can run well into the thousands

It has had some success, more than a dozen women have since become full members and will often play alongside their children, or with other members in club competitions.

The club professional Dympna Keenan also runs the junior section at Tandragee.

She says a thriving under-18 membership is clearly important to any golf club, but it is not guaranteed to continue to the senior ranks.

Good coaching and playing to a high standard, she says, is the safest bet that juniors will still be paid-up members into adulthood.

Then there's the cost. Juniors can join clubs like Tandragee for £75 a year but, for adults, it's a different story.

Yearly membership, equipment and competition fees alone can run well into the thousands.

Golf can be as expensive as players want it to be, although there are increasingly more affordable options and discounts.

The fact is, local golf clubs have had to become more flexible and accommodating.

Those that let the grass grow under the, could continue to feel the pinch as the golden era of Northern Ireland golf continues to play out.