Golf tourism on rise in Ireland

A mean Atlantic southwesterly howls up the sand dunes, blasting a wintry chill across the grassy headland. Out on the exposed hills a slow procession catches my eye. Leaning into the gale is a hardy knot of Arctic adventurers, pressing on and pausing, driving forward for all their worth. They're buttoned from head to toe in woolens and waterproofs yet they're out enjoying themselves, chasing after a small white ball. There's no doubt golfers are a breed apart.

Do they ever look excited at the first tee? Oh Jesus, yeah, replies Martin Shorter, director of golf at the recently-opened Doonbeg club in Co. Clare. Shannon airport is in close proximity to us so American visitors will get off the plane and want to play here or Lahinch on the first day they arrive. It's 8:30 in the morning and there they are, dead tired but they can't wait to tee off. You see the sleep in their eyes but the adrenaline is kicking in and they can't wait to go.

While Mark Twain famously observed that golf is one sure way to spoil a good walk, a growing number of strollers will risk dragging a set of clubs along with them. There has been an upsurge in the number of golf courses in Ireland, but aside from local interest, the game's growing appeal has generated a new form of business golf tourism.

According to Damien Ryan, director of golf at Bord Failte, about 58,000 visitors played the game in Ireland in 1988. Last year we put that figure at 250,000 and our plans are built around 2006, by which stage we aim to bring 400,000 golfers a year to Ireland.

It's an ambitious target but the figures tell their own story. At present there are about 440 golf courses in Ireland with quite a number of high-profile courses such as the K-Club, Mount Juliet, Doonbeg, Carton House, Druid's Glen and Fota Island developed in recent years.

Those who care little for the small ball game might feel we have more than enough courses thank-you-very-much but the demand is such that it's not so easy getting out to play. Even with so many new courses springing up, the waiting lists for club membership are getting longer, not shorter. Private membership can cost over $20,000 what's more, you'd be lucky to get it, especially anywhere within driving range of Dublin.

We have a private members' club here but visitors are welcome, explains Alan Reardon, club secretary at the famous Lahinch Golf Club in Co. Clare. We're full all the time I mean between 23-24,000 visitors go through here but we have to turn away over 8,000 more every year. The demand simply outstrips supply.

If all their birthdays have come together it has taken quite a while for clubs in Ireland to grasp that potential. There was never a shortage of courses as such, agrees Bórd Fáilte spokesman John Brown. But one of the problems was that 99 percent of the clubs were run by their own members and obviously member-run clubs weren't so open to the idea of tourists.

Golfing holidays began to boom in Spain and Portugal while renowned venues in Ireland, Scotland and England lost out. They had something to sell but weren't willing to sell it or didn't know how.

To their credit however, administrators of the game got together to review the situation and sort out a cohesive marketing plan. They saw how they could accommodate visitors by

opening off-peak playing hours to non-members. The income from green tees would defray running costs and visitors got to play. Whether the move was prompted by goodwill or business acumen it has certainly paid off. In a game notoriously unforgiving on close calls, it was a win-win situation.

Local clubs set up regional associations to promote their interests abroad. It was Denis Brosnan's idea modeled on the way the Kerry Group was formed, explains Paddy O'Looney, chief-executive of Southwest Ireland Golf Ltd. (SWING). When he brought the milk co-ops in Kerry under one umbrella they became a force to be reckoned with. He applied the same principle to golf tourism.

SWING was formed in 1988, incorporating nine clubs Lahinch, Ballybunion, Waterville, Dromoland, Dooks, Killarney, Shannon, Tralee and Dingle and pooling resources to cultivate a growing overseas market. Clubs around the country formed similar marketing groups such as West Coast Links, IGTOA, Green Isle Golf, Shannon Golf Partnership and others to make their own pitch for business in an increasingly competitive and profitable arena.

But there was no point luring tourists if facilities weren't here for them. At national level Bórd Fáilte's Operational Program for Tourism (1989) provided £9 million in funds to develop new pay-and-play' clubs as well as encourage established clubs to open up for tourists. A second tranche (1994-99) completed the agency's structural development of golf tourism.

We're putting Ireland up there to make us the Number One destination in Europe, contends Damien Ryan. One of the biggest pluses for us now is we have a lot of commercial courses here, which makes it more accessible than with member clubs.

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