Winter of discontent for golf clubs
Peter Hutcheon takes the temperature at 10 of Ulster’s top courses as they count the cost of the worst winter weather in living memory
He might have written it in 1969, but George Harrison could very well have had this year in mind when he wrote: “It’s been a long, cold, lonely winter.”
The song was ‘Here Comes the Sun’ from the Beatles’ Abbey Road album and, boy, were those words music to the ears around Northern Ireland’s golf courses this week.
Finally the ‘Course Closed’ signs could be consigned to the back of the greenkeepers’ huts — at least until the summer monsoon season.
It has been just about the worst winter in living memory and coming hard on the heels of the credit crunch which had taken its toll on membership, the Arctic conditions were the last thing Northern Ireland’s beleaguered clubs needed.
At Ormeau in Belfast they reckon they have lost just about half of the available playing days to, at various times, snow, frost or rain over the past three months.
And it’s not just a downturn in green fees. Fewer players at the clubs, means fewer customers at the bars and pro shops.
Even links courses, traditionally the winter haven from waterlogged parkland courses, have been affected with Royal Portrush forced to close its doors for several days over the normally busy Christmas period.
Clubs all over the country are now praying for a good summer to help them recoup the lost winter revenue.
So far, it would seem that most have resisted the temptation to increase green fees — mindful over the negative longer term impact that could have, bearing in mind the still fragile state of the economy. Golf is still a luxury to most.
When the grey skies finally parted this week, the bright sunshine revealed, in many cases, courses emerging in pristine condition.
The silver lining is that the fairways have benefited from the golfers’ enforced absence and they are better prepared than in many years just as the clubs are being dragged out of garages again up and down the country.
UP on top of the Antrim Plateau, Hilton Templepatrick was wide open to the worst of the winter weather.
“It’s been a tough winter for everyone, and we’re no different,” says club professional Eamonn Logue.
“We lost out on a huge amount in January and February and we’ve decided to keep green fees at half price, just to try and help us get some of those lost rounds back.
“We had planned six open days around Christmas, and we lost every single one of them.
“The one good thing about it, though, is that the course has benefited from having so little traffic and now it’s in absolutely great condition.
“The course has always had good drainage and we have never, in the ten years we’ve been open, had to resort to temporary tees or greens.”
Links courses are the winter refuge for beleaguered parkland players, but even coastal courses were affected this year.
“We were actually quite badly affected with the frost and the snow,” says secretary Wilma Erskine.
“And we had to close for quite a few days around Christmas, which is very unusual for us.
“Normally we get a lot of visitors when the parkland courses become too wet, but this year was so bad, we were affected as well.
“But things are starting to look up and Saturday was the first day when we were back to business as usual.
“Last year we were down around 20%, which was what we had projected, but that should improve this year and it will take a few years before we are right back where we were again.”
County Tyrone suffered some of the worst of the wintry conditions and Killymoon near Cookstown, bore the brunt.
“We had to close the course for near enough four weeks in December and January,” said secretary manager Norman Weir.
“But if we were going to be closed, then that was the time for it.
“We lost a lot of revenue from competitions, green fees and in the clubhouse, but we lose days to the weather every year.
“We’re hoping now for a better summer and we are confident we can get back that revenue over the rest of the year.
“Out course drains very well for an inland course and the course is looking great at the moment.
“We fill our timesheets every Saturday and Sunday no matter what time of the year.
“Our first big event of the season, the Captain’s Drive, is coming up when we’ll get all the members out.”
Up on the East Antrim hills Whitehead Golf Club is exposed to the elements, but they are looking on the bright side.
They were hardly unscathed, but Whitehead’s location on the East Antrim hills helped them through the darkest days.
“In a way we were very lucky overall,” said secretary/manager Jeremy Jones.
“Last week we were just about the only club in East Antrim which was able to open.
“We did lose a lot of days in December and January — with the frost in the ground there’s nothing that you can do.
“With the snow, frost and rain in between the two months were a bit of a washout.
“Actually we were running a scheme for free golf for people to try out the course in October, November and December and a lot of people never actually got the chance to get out at all.
“We do run a tight ship and we did manage to make a little money last year and we’ll find out around the end of this month about memberships for the new season.”
The Arctic conditions hit worst of all in County Fermanagh and Castle Hume Golf Club had to shut up shop for an entire calendar month.
“We had to close from December 17 to January 17, a full month lost,” said manager Pat Duffy.
“It was the worst winter that I can remember.
“What we need is good weather the week of the Masters. That’s what gets people back out playing again, if it’s sunny when the Masters is on television. It’s amazing the difference that makes.”
At Clandeboye in County Down, the snow remained on the hills as the thaw settled in on Bangor.
“We lost nine days in December, 14 days in January and eight days in February,” said general manager Gary Steele.
“The previous year we lost just six days in both January and February, which shows just how bad it was this year.
“We are on a hill so when Bangor thawed, we still had snow on the ground.
“Christmas week, when we would expect a lot of visitors, was a total disaster.
“That revenue is gone as is income from competitions and winter league events with the corresponding loss at the bar.”
High above Belfast on the Antrim Road they made the best of a bad job.
“Probably we lost 15 to 20 days over the worst of the conditions,” said secretary/manager Pat Toal.
“There’s always an impact to adverse weather with a knock-on effect at the bar and restaurant.
“Even though we are situated high up by the sea we have heavy clay soil and impermeable rock which doesn’t drain easily, so there is no choice but to close the course after adverse weather conditions.
“But saying that, we have greens which are up with the best in the country.
“And we have made an effort in the past few years to increase our social membership with refur
bishment of the facilities and introducing a new chef to the restaurant.
“Because of the general financial situation we have waived our joining fee and we are open to membership.
“We are a prudent club and our heads are above water.”
Forward planning helped Tandragee Golf Club in County Armagh head off the worst of the wintry conditions at the pass.
“We were losing money about four or five years ago and took some tough decisions then to cut costs,” said honourary secretary Alan Hewitt.
“A lot of the work at the club is now done on a voluntary basis and that has probably helped us through the worst winter I can remember in 40 years of playing golf.
“In the worst of the weather there was no cash flow coming through the club at all.
“We only have 12 holes open in winter but we are back up to 18 again now and the course is looking in great condition.”
CITY OF DERRY
The River Foyle froze over in the worst of the conditions while the Prehen course which overlooks it was so badly affected it was closed for a solid five-week period.
“Everything was hit, from green fees, takings at the shop and in the bar,” said club professional Sam Smallwoods.
“You would have needed a ski-lift even to get up the car park to the clubhouse.
“We were up on takings in the run-up to Christmas on the previous year, but then it just dried up.
“Where we are is on the wrong side of the Foyle. You could look over the river and see the frost clearing on the east bank while we were still covered.
“But things are looking up. We had a membership drive at the end of last year which has brought in 111 new members.
“We have revamped our nine-hole course which is open to juvenile and adult membership as a feeder to the main course.”
The County Londonderry course had to close for a four-week period over the new year, but it could have been worse, says manager Michael Gribben.
“We expect to be closed at some point over the winter,” he said.
“It’s when we have to close in June, July or August that our finances are really affected.
“The loss of revenue was really to be expected, but we managed to keep the course open as much as possible.
“We used temporary greens, which some of the members didn’t like but were necessary to protect the greens, and now the course is looking in great shape.”