At Royal Portrush Golf Club, the stands are gone. Last summer, the 18th hole was packed with people cheering Shane Lowry as he sank his final putt and became British Open champion; now the only figure to be seen is a solitary golfer in the distance.
“This year we were gearing up for, I don’t know if it was the busiest green fee summer in the club’s history but we were effectively fully booked,” says the club’s manager, John Lawler.
Golf clubs in Northern Ireland have been allowed to reopen for members only since May 20th; up to three people can play at any one time as long as social distancing and hygiene measures are followed.
Out on the course, it is clear everyone is glad to be back. It is a hot, sunny day; club captain Ian Kerr emphasises it is not just the good weather which has brought the club members out. “Okay, it’s great, but the only difference is you can play in shorts today. If it was raining and howling, people would still be out there.”
At Royal Portrush, more than 80 per cent of the visiting golfers come from overseas, mainly from the United States. Even when the course reopens to visitors – in the North, the official lockdown exit plan does not include dates, but in the Republic they can play from June 29th – it will take longer for them to return.
American tour operators have indicated that it will be next year before their trips resume “to any meaningful extent”, the North’s Minister for the Economy, Diane Dodds, said last week.
This has had a “significant impact” on bookings at Royal Portrush; the “vast majority” have been moved into 2021. “Some of our tour operators, they’re particularly hardy people, and they’ve said, ‘if we can get there, we’re coming’, and we’ve said, ‘if you can get here, we’ll welcome you’,” says Lawler.
Instead he anticipates that, with people more likely to holiday closer to home, there could be an increase in Irish golfers. “I think people will start exploring the [Irish] courses.”
In many respects, the club is in a fortunate position. The Open has left it with financial reserves and, “While this year may not look very pretty from a profit and loss point of view, we can weather the storm,” says Kerr.
His concern is that other clubs will not. “I sit on the Golf Ireland board and I get an overview of the impact this is having on Irish golf, and it is profound.”
There are clubs “in real distress”, he explains. “The whole sector has great uncertainty hanging over it as to when they can get back to normal and start trading again.”
In this, says Lawler, having specific dates to work towards would help; this has been echoed in recent days by the hospitality industry in the North.
“I can imagine how difficult it is for government to give clarity around dates but certainly from our perspective if there was a way of having a date in mind – with an enormous asterisk beside it saying this may change – that itself would give a focus on when we need to be ready for the next steps.”
What happens at Royal Portrush affects the wider economy on the North coast, which is heavily dependent on tourism. Last year, the Open delivered a £100 million boost to the North’s economy, and it remains to be seen how badly seaside resorts like Portrush have been hit by the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
“The rule of thumb is that for every £1 spent on a green fee I think it’s £4 spent in the wider economy,” says Kerr. “The club is one of the largest employers locally, and there is a knock-on effect in terms of hotels, restaurants, taxi and bus companies.
“We just hope they survive so that whenever things pick up they will get a share of the benefit whenever the Americans and our other overseas visitors coming again.”
It goes without saying that this is not the year anybody planned.
Bringing the Open to Royal Portrush was the culmination of a 10-year project; in the wake of a successful and busy year, the idea had always been to “take a breather” and begin work on a long-term strategic plan in which the club takes stock of its achievements and lays out its ambitions for the years ahead, which will include another Open.
Lawler believes that in 2021 “we will see a recovery of sorts”. He is part of a Tourism NI steering group which is seeking to plan the industry’s recovery, and while he acknowledges it will not be the 2021 they had planned, “the demand for people to come and play golf, fortunately, will still be there”.
So it has proved; the club is already taking new bookings for next year. “Hopefully with that will come the wider impact where people will spend two to three days in the area,” says Lawler.
For the meantime, there is an acceptance that this will be “a quieter summer”. The staff, Lawler says, will miss the “tremendous energy” around busloads of Americans “who are incredibly excited to be here” arriving at the course. “It’s incredibly motivating, and that energy won’t be here this summer.”
Yet there will be other benefits. “It will be a summer where members make up the majority of the rounds of golf, and that presents an opportunity as well and a chance to engage with members after a busy couple of years and explore some innovations.”