The letters to the editor arrived in bulk – filled with reason and humor. From across Ireland, golfers turned to the editorial pages of The Irish Times to voice their collective frustration with what many have deemed an illogical second shutdown of golf courses throughout the Republic.
Despite operating smoothly with honored protocols in wide open outdoor spaces for five months since golf courses reopened after the initial COVID-19 shutdowns were lifted in May, the government bundled golf in with the mandatory six-week Level 5 shutdown in the 26 counties that make up the Republic of Ireland effective immediately Oct. 22. At the same time, team sports such as rugby, soccer, hurling and Gaelic football are allowed to continue.
“When this news came out it sent shockwaves of disappointment across the entire country, followed by feelings of disbelief, disappointment, anger and frustration,” said Conor Russell, the director of golf and head professional at Portmarnock Links near Dublin. “We still hoped they would have the common sense to keep golf courses open and to stick by protocols like members-only and 5k rule. We did all the right things initially. You can go for a walk in the park, play Gaelic football or rugby at the moment, but golf is closed. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Ireland isn’t completely on an island when it comes to shutting down golf courses because of coronavirus surges. Wales last week imposed a strict “circuit-breaker” shutdown for two-and-a-half weeks. Melbourne, Australia, and its famous sand-belt courses, just emerged from a three-month shutdown that marked the longest any golf clubs in the world have been shuttered.
“We’re quite optimistic that golf might reopen within four weeks, if they listen to us and realize that golf is a necessity for your mental health and getting out and about.” – Conor Russell
But the shutdown of one of the safest outdoor recreational activities during a pandemic drove the Irish golfing masses to their keyboards and stationery to fire off missives in local papers.
“The decision to not allow golf clubs to function over the coming weeks is not only an attempt to fix something that isn’t broken but it is also breaking something that has done nothing but help to maintain the upbeat mental and physical agility of so many of all ages over the past few months,” wrote Tom Tiernan of Ennis, County Clare.
“Rather than banning golf, the Government should be encouraging the population to take up golf. No need to urge people to stay two metres apart, when a golfer is wielding a driver or an iron club,” offered Alan McCarthy of Dublin.
“The mental health aspect of playing golf seem to have been totally underestimated by the government, or is it a case that golf is being harshly treated due to its association with Golfgate? … No other explanation seems to make sense,” said David Mulcahy of Newbridge, County Kildare, referencing a scandal in which government officials breached their own restrictions for a large golf outing.
And my personal favorite from Ronan McDermott of Rathgar: “Sir, – The Government, in deciding to close the golf courses, may have been unaware that I was in the form of my life. Or perhaps, more worryingly, it knew, and just didn’t care.”
Those initial letters have now blossomed into various petitions signed by tens of thousands of Irish golfers pleading for the government to reconsider the shutdown that threatens the health and well-being of the clubs and the players who have flocked to them as an escape from pandemic isolation during the summer.
“There’s a bit of a fight on at the moment and who will come out the back of it, who knows?” said Russell. “We’re quite optimistic that golf might reopen within four weeks, if they listen to us and realize that golf is a necessity for your mental health and getting out and about. At end-of-day (petitions) could be as useful as an ashtray on a motorbike, but you’d hope that people’s comments would be listened to.”
Golf as essential for well-being has been on display since May when it was the first sport in Ireland to start back after the initial eight-week pandemic shutdown. While the top-tier golf destination courses like Ballybunion and Lahinch have lost millions of Euros in revenue from international travelers cancelled bookings in 2020, courses have seen an encouraging influx of players on the domestic market taking advantage of empty tee sheets usually filled with international players during the summer.
Russell said more than 20,000 new or returning golfers took up the game over the summer, with an average of 60 new memberships per club across Ireland. Portmarnock Links added 110 new members and had a waiting list of 350 applications when play resumed in May.
Even more revealing, members played 30 percent more than in previous years despite the shutdowns, boosting retail golf sales as well. While the domestic play doesn’t make up for the lucrative lost traveler green fees, it bodes well for the domestic health of clubs.
“We have to be as innovative as we possibly can and have to reach the low-hanging fruit in front of us and that’s the domestic market,” Russell said. “Whilst it’s been a very challenging year, we’ve never had as busy a year numbers wise. There’s been a lot of positives come out of this scenario. It’s not all about revenue. The pandemic has brought a huge amount of new golfers to the scene in Ireland.”
“I suspect overall golf clubs that are not trophy or tourist venues have fared well this year, especially in comparison to many other sectors,” said Marty Carr, chief executive officer of Carr Golf, which operates 20 management/maintenance contracts in Ireland. “But there is an insatiable demand for golf at the minute and there are a lot of frustrated and pissed-off golfers out there.”
Pat Ruddy, a sports journalist and course architect who built The European Club on his land southeast of Dublin, concurs with those assessments.
“Quite a lot of golf got played through the summer and many clubs are said to have benefited from an influx of new members flocking to the relative safety of the fairways,” Ruddy said. “Hopefully they will retain a lot of those when 2021 fees fall due and people are allowed to crowd back to football and other activities.”
The timing of the current shutdown is doubly unfortunate in that clubs’ annual membership renewals generally come due in November.
“Another closure leaves the future very uncertain,” Russell said. “What will ramifications for golf clubs be going forward? The timing of the second shutdown could be potentially devastating as renewal dates loom. If we reopen for Christmas, what’s to say everybody doesn’t break out of the bubble and go crazy over Christmas and then we’re back into another lockdown situation in January?”
While the Golfing Union of Ireland oversees all 32 counties on the island, the six in Northern Ireland are exempt from the shutdown as they are part of the United Kingdom. It is the government in the Republic and Sport Ireland that imposed the ban, and the politics of its own scandal called “Golfgate” may have played a part in it.
While golf courses have not been implicated in the rising number of COVID-19 cases in Ireland, the game got bad publicity when 80-plus members of the Irish parliament Oireachtas Golf Society attended an event in Galway the day after coronavirus restrictions were tightened in August. Outcry from the scandal led to resignation of several government ministers and parliament members.
“The ‘Golfgate’ scandal certainly didn’t help or do our sport any favors,” said Russell. “It shed a bad light on golf from people you‘d least expect to break restrictions. The government tell us restrictions are in place to stop people moving around and doing non-essential activities. The problem, they say, is not about golf, it’s the socializing before and after that has given golf a bad name.”
Conor Russell believes golfers “would happily live with” a return to the earlier reopening restrictions limiting play to only members traveling less than 5 kilometers of their clubs.
Said Carr: “The political response was that a ‘one shoe size fits all’ and that all amateur sports must cease irrespective of their risk profile. I can’t help but feel that ‘Golfgate’ unfairly scarred the image of the game in the summer and as a result there was no way to make a special case for golf. It’s terribly unfortunate as everyone agrees that golf is a godsend for most of us and the mental health benefits are well touted. There has been significant noise made about the exclusion of golf.”
Russell believes golfers “would happily live with” a return to the earlier reopening restrictions limiting play to only members traveling less than 5 kilometers of their clubs. John McLaughlin, chief executive officer of North & West Coast Links travel agency, isn’t sure limited restrictions would be enough.
“I think the decision to close the courses was to keep the message consistent and not make an exception in allowing golf to continue,” McLaughlin said. “The 5k rule would also have been difficult to enforce as most people live outside that distance to their courses.
“We are hoping that as we see continued progress on the decrease in COVID cases, that sports such as golf will return quickly and allow people an outlet. This lockdown is set to last for six weeks but we are hopeful that golf courses will open faster than that.”
Despite its significant economic impact, Ruddy says the pandemic is a time for unity, and that golf must play its part.
“It has been a strange and turbulent year for golf in Ireland with two COVID lockdowns and there are many who complain loudly,” he said. “But it seems to me a time to follow our leaders. How much golf does one trade for one human life?”
At The European Club, Ruddy has used the closures (and salary subsidies from the government) to tend to improve the links, such as hand-thinning the rough that has overgrown this year.
“Every cloud has a gray (if not silver) lining if one just works when the players are away,” Ruddy said.
Whether this current shutdown is cut short or lingers longer, everyone in Ireland understands that normalcy – and revenue – won’t return until the pandemic is under control and the viral waves stop.
“It’s a new norm and I think golfers have adapted very, very well to it and respected the protocols,” Russell said. “Hopefully we can get back to living a little bit in 2021. What’s very important to the Irish golfers is a pint after their game and they’ve been starved of that, too. Normally speaking, if you were to leave the car park the lads might be talking about you. Now it’s a case that they’re talking about you if you stay. Hopefully we can get the golf going and get the pints of Guinness flowing as well in 2021.”
England Golf challenges closure of golf courses effective Nov. 5. Read letter from England Golf CEO Jeremy Tomlinson HERE.
Top: Portmarnock Golf Club, founded in 1894. Photo: Tim Clayton, Corbis via Getty Images
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