Irish membership decline slows but “more pain to come”
The large fall in membership numbers of golf clubs in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland has come to a halt, but the Golfing Union of Ireland’s (GUI) treasurer warns that there is “more pain to come”.
Between 2007 and 2016 male membership numbers at Irish clubs fell by more than a quarter – from 177,000 to 130,000, resulting in several clubs closing down, according to new GUI figures.
The majority of the loss came in the first few years however, with a drop of just two percent between 2014 and 2016, and barely any change in the final year.
Despite that good news, GUI honorary treasurer Rollo McClure believes the worst is still to come.
“I hope we have (bottomed out) but I can’t say for certain,” he said.
“We certainly levelled out over 2016. I think there’s more pain to come, probably more in the north than in the south, but I wouldn’t be desperately optimistic.”
GUI chief executive Pat Finn also believes numbers have levelled out, but is more optimistic about the future as, he believes, clubs have the power to change and to be more attractive to their local communities.
“I think we have bottomed out and there are incredible opportunities there,” he said.
“Golf is typically a sport that is not open and accessible — the golf club is not often the most accessible place in the community but there’s an opportunity for it to become that.
“Golf clubs are making some innovative changes in that regard and there’s a serious opportunity to target the older members of our communities and encourage them to access golf and get into it.
“Golf clubs have corrected the model somewhat and membership is more accessible. We’ve almost 200,000 club members in men, women and juniors.
“Golf is still a very popular game. There’s an awful lot to be optimistic about.”
The problems Irish golf has suffered has meant the GUI reported a budget deficit of more than £460,000 in 2016, although the body hopes to break-even by 2017, having increased the annual subscription for golf club members to the national body by £2 to £13.
Playing golf and being a member of a golf club are increasingly two separate things, however, and McClure added: “I’m not convinced there are that many fewer people playing golf.
“I just think they’ve got so much more choice now that they can go and play anywhere now for £15 and there’s a lot of 20 quids in 700 or 800 quid (for a club membership). You can play 20 times a year for half of that.”
Of serious concern for the GUI is the drop in the number of boys playing golf with junior club member numbers falling to 18,500 from 21,000 two years earlier, although McClure reported an increase of almost exactly the same percentage (eight) in student members.
“That means either all the juniors have become students or there’s nobody coming in at the bottom end,” he said.