It was widely accepted that green fee dollars from American visitors meant cheap club membership for home golfers, especially at some of the leading links courses in Ireland’s southwest. But not any more. In fact, the current recession has threatened the very existence of these facilities.
Lahinch, founded back in 1892 and Phil Mickelson’s all-time favourite links, is notable among clubs which have been forced to take radical steps to ensure survival. And as part of this survival strategy, membership subscriptions will continue to rise until green fees recover towards former levels.
The club recorded an operating loss of €551,323 in 2008, followed by a deficit of €476,580 in 2009. Through an increase of 17 percent in members’ subscriptions, however, they managed to return to profit last year. And a further five percent increase was agreed for this year along with the introduction of a three-day week for staff from January to March and from October to December.
Though planned expenditure of €140,000 on clubhouse refurbishment and an irrigation system has been shelved, the club insists it is very much open for business. Which will come as a relief to its many admirers, including the aforementioned winner of four major championships.
As part of their preparation for the 1991 matches against Britain and Ireland at Portmarnock, the U.S. Walker Cup team acclimatised on the other side of the country, at Lahinch. And Mickelson loved it. Almost three years later, he gave the ancient links another timely boost when, on being asked by an American magazine to name his favourite parkland and links courses, he chose Augusta National and Lahinch.
The response from Lahinch was to make him an honorary overseas life member. And in accepting the distinction, Mickelson wrote a warm letter to the club captain, saying: “Some of my fondest memories of great golfing holes in the world, include the number four and five holes at Lahinch.”
In July 2001, Lefty was back there in a group of seven. And before he, caddie Jim McKay, his father, Phil Sr., and Mark Calcavecchia teed off in a four-ball, the club made a point of having the new, short eighth hole in play, so that Mickelson would be the first to hit a shot to it. So it was that after using his rangefinder, he found the heart of the green with a seven-iron of 173 yards. Then, on his return to the clubhouse, there was the overdue ceremony of presenting him with a club blazer. By way of response, Mickelson expressed wholehearted approval at the changes to the course in a major remodelling by architect Martin Hawtree.
He later reaffirmed this in a poll conducted after the 2005 Open Championship at St. Andrews, by including the same two Lahinch holes, now numbered three and four, among his three favourite links holes in Britain and Ireland. Meanwhile, a congratulatory letter from club official Alan Reardon after the 2004 Masters triumph, brought this prompt, written response: “Amy and I are very grateful for friends like you. Let’s hope the next major win will come a little sooner than this one did!”
In common with countless distinguished players to have graced its fairways, Mickelson doubtless has his own favourite Lahinch story. My own favourite came from Joe Carr, who captured the South of Ireland championship there on three occasions.
Predictably, it concerned the South and Newlands member Joe O’Reilly, a friend of Carr’s who also happened to be a Dublin bus conductor. As a very capable scratchman at the time, O’Reilly was involved in a match with legendary local figure Mick O’Loughlin. Carr recalled: “When Joe and Mick were playing the old 12th hole, O’Loughlin hooked his tee shot onto the beach and with the green hidden from view, went up to check his target before walking back along the sand to his ball. He then played a wonderful recovery onto the green and holed the putt for a three.
“There was consternation, however, when O’Reilly promptly claimed the hole on the grounds that O’Loughlin had employed an outside agency, by using his own footprints in the sand as a line for his second shot to the green. But O’Loughlin insisted he had done nothing wrong and with the argument raging, they were brought before the championship committee which carefully considered the situation.”
Carr went on: “Mick being a great favourite around Lahinch, they were anxious he wouldn’t become the victim of an injustice. On being gently asked if he had played over his own footprints when executing his second shot to the 12th, O’Loughlin admitted that he had. In that case, they said, he would have to be disqualified. Whereupon Mick stormed: ‘Does he (O’Reilly) expect me to stick some seagull feathers up my arse and fly back to my ball?’ Whereupon the committee felt obliged to reconsider the matter and proceeded to reverse their ruling in O’Loughlin’s favour.”
There’s optimism in Ireland that the recent visit of Barack Obama could do wonders to revive tourism from the U.S. Naturally, Lahinch will be hoping to get their share of golfing visitors, if only from those anxious to view the scene of such marvellous happenings.