Golf shutdown following Prime Minister's address surprised Ulster officials

Royal Portrush staged last year's Open Championship
Royal Portrush will miss out on the anticipated influx of US visitors in the coming weeks after hosting a hugely successful Open Championship in 2019

Golf's Ulster governing body was taken by surprise by Prime Minister Boris Johnson's announcement on Monday which led to the sport being shut down because of the coronavirus crisis.

The Golfing Union of Ireland Ulster Branch had expected to be told the sport could could continue with additional social distancing measures.

"Up until last night we were preparing a press release continuing with playing the game but things changed so rapidly," said Ulster Branch Executive Officer Kevin Stevens.

"We all felt golf was a sport that could be enjoyed hopefully through this epidemic but things change very rapidly.

"Now is the time to support our health service. We need to stay indoors and not go out."

Following the further instructions on social interaction announced by the Prime Minister, the GUI's Ulster Branch announced on Tuesday morning that all golf clubs in Northern Ireland had to shut and this was followed later in the day with a similar directive for Republic of Ireland clubs.

"It's a step that we've taken very reluctantly," added Mr Stevens.

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Coronavirus could force closure of struggling NI golf clubs says GUI official

Crisis could hasten closure of golf clubs

The Ulster Branch official says the current crisis will only increase "discussions around closure" already in progress in a number of Northern Ireland clubs prior to the pandemic.

"Our clubs financially are suffering. There has been a reduction in the numbers of members over the past number of years.

"There have been a number of clubs that have been suffering financially.

"Discussion around closure was always on the horizon and this will only bring that to the fore again."

Given golf's contribution to the Northern Ireland economy in recent years, most notably last year's Open Championship at Royal Portrush, Stevens believes it will be incumbent on the government to look at supporting the sport when the current crisis is over.

"At this time with so much upheaval going on, that lack of revenue will be felt very hard.

"Therefore we will look to government in the future to support our clubs in a similar way that the sport of golf provided so much income to the economy through things like the Open Championship.

High-spending US business being lost

"Now isn't the time to look at this but we will be talking to government about supporting our clubs into the future to ensure that they are sustained and able to provide this great sport in our country.

"We know that some of the measures they have announced for business (during the coronavirus crisis) do apply to sporting clubs.

"The rates holiday will apply to sporting clubs and we're hoping other measures the government bring in will also apply to sporting clubs."

The loss of high-spending US visitors will hit Northern Ireland's leading golf clubs particularly hard over the coming months but Stevens remains optimistic this market will be restored when the crisis concludes.

"We have a wonderful offering to give them and once golf is restored back to its place again in the community, we can again market what we have in this country and in the province in particular.

"It may not happen immediately but we would expect that business to recover."