Ire­land after the Celtic Tiger

A bust after the boom leads to bar­gains

Golf Digest (South Africa) - - The Golf Life - By david owen

n May, 11 friends and I spent a week play­ing golf in western Ire­land. On the plane to Shannon, I read Boomerang, Michael Lewis’ 2011 book about the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis. Lewis ex­plains how the Ir­ish, be­gin­ning in the 1990s, went from be­ing some of the poor­est peo­ple in Europe to be­ing some of the rich­est peo­ple in the world, and then went back to be­ing poor again – in ef­fect, by lend­ing them­selves bil­lions to buy rope to hang them­selves with.

As soon as our plane had landed, I switched my brain

Ito golf. But lin­ger­ing signs of eco­nomic folly were im­pos­si­ble to over­look. As we ap­proached Lahinch from Bally­bunion, on the third day of our trip, we drove through a blighted land­scape of bub­ble-era “hol­i­day homes,” some of which looked less like real houses than like over­size Monopoly game pieces. The Ir­ish built thou­sands of th­ese things dur­ing the boom years – known as the Celtic Tiger – and if you re­mem­ber what the coun­try­side looked like be­fore they popped into ex­is­tence you can’t help but feel sad. Not all of Ire­land’s ir­ra­tional ex­u­ber­ance was Ir­ish. Half an hour ear­lier, we’d driven past Doon­beg Golf Club, which was founded in 2002 by the Amer­i­can com­pany that owned Ki­awah Is­land Golf Re­sort. The peo­ple there hired Greg Nor­man to de­sign their course, and they built a vast, Down­ton Abbey-style gray-stone club­house and “lodge.”

They went un­der a cou­ple of years ago, in part be­cause they couldn’t hon­our guar­an­tees they had made to peo­ple who had bought their wildly over­priced apart­ments and cot­tages. The golf course and lodge are now owned by a fa­mous Amer­i­can, who bought the prop­erty out of re­ceiver­ship and re­named it Trump In­ter­na­tional Golf Links Doon­beg.

We saw an­other ar­ti­fact of the Celtic Tiger as we ap­proached En­nis­crone Golf Club, our fi­nal stop. A few me­tres from En­nis­crone’s first tee is a com­plex of build­ings that, from a dis­tance, looks as though it might be a hospi­tal, a school or a min­i­mum-se­cu­rity pri­son. In fact, it’s a starkly unattrac­tive ho­tel flanked by a starkly unattrac­tive “hol­i­day vil­lage.”The com­pany that de­vel­oped the vil­lage went out of busi­ness in 2009; the ho­tel was bought out of re­ceiver­ship ear­lier this year, for a frac­tion of what it cost to build.

Even though its en­trance makes my heart sink, En­nis­crone is one of my favourite cour­ses any­where. It’s now deal­ing not only with the af­ter­math of the Celtic Tiger but with the same eco­nomic and de­mo­graphic chal­lenges faced by golf cour­ses in other coun­tries, in­clud­ing the United States.There just aren’t as many golfers as there used to be, or seemed to be.

En­nis­crone has re­sponded, in part, by of­fer­ing an in­no­va­tive dis­count to peo­ple who are tak­ing up the game or haven’t be­longed to a club in at least five years: just €266 (roughly R4 000) for the first year – a re­mark­able bar­gain for a great links course that stays open year-round. A for­mer club cap­tain told me that mem­ber­ship num­bers are still slightly soft but that to­tal rounds are up: a hope­ful sign.

We saw ad­di­tional hope­ful signs an hour or so to the east, at Strand­hill Golf Club, the only course on our itin­er­ary I hadn’t played be­fore. We’d added it at the rec­om­men­da­tion of Kevin Markham, an Ir­ish writer whose nu­mer­ous ac­com­plish­ments in­clude play­ing ev­ery 18-hole course in the coun­try. “I love Strand­hill,” he told me re­cently.“I al­ways tell peo­ple to go there.”

The club of­fers a plau­si­ble model for eco­nom­i­cally sus­tain­able golf any­where: The green fees are af­ford­able, the course is chal­leng­ing for good play­ers with­out be­ing over­whelm­ing for be­gin­ners, and even though we vis­ited on a week­day the place was bustling with lo­cal res­i­dents. I saw a young girl re­ceiv­ing a putting les­son from her grand­fa­ther, and on the 15th hole we stepped aside so that a women’s twoball match could play through. (Strand­hill was in the process of de­feat­ing Done­gal.) In the golf shop, later, I bought a shirt for my wife, be­cause I knew she’d like the motto:“Friend­ship in Sport.” And I bought my­self a shirt, too.

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