In the second of our series with Ireland’s sporting leaders, Mark Kennelly, CEO of Golf Ireland, discusses the challenges posed by the current crisis and the opportunity that comes with the game’s return to play on May 18.
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What was the moment you realised this was a challenge on an entirely different scale?

On the 11th of March we sent out advice to our clubs to change the way it was run at club level to ensure public safety and put in appropriate health measures. Then on the 24th of March, before the full lockdown was implemented in Ireland, we advised our clubs to close. So we had been preparing for severe restrictions at least through February and into March when it became obvious that this was turning into a pandemic.

Has anything in your past professional experience been a help in dealing with this?

Nothing can compare to a pandemic. It is a hundred years since we have had anything on this scale in the world. I am relatively new to sport. I just started here at the end of last year. Previous to that I worked in government and I would have worked in crisis management for a number of years, including the economic and banking crisis of a decade ago. I don’t think anybody could say they have experienced anything on the scale that the world is experiencing now.”

How severe do you think the financial losses will be for your organisation and your sport?

It is too early to say. A lot depends on the trajectory of the disease in the coming weeks. If the current government roadmap can be adhered to then we have a good idea as to when the various sectors can get back to normal, or something approaching it. We did a survey of all our clubs in the month of April to try and get an estimate of the financial impact on them. When we put all of that together it indicated a loss of about €65m, which is very substantial and probably quite conservative.

We had estimated that on the basis of a ten-week lockdown but it looks like the revenue-generating activities of clubs will be locked down for a bit more than ten weeks. So even though golf will come back on the 18th of May, the revenue-generating elements of it will be a bit later. For example, visitor income, society fees, bar and restaurant revenue, that is all a while away.

It’s not unique to golf but it is very pronounced in golf in that the lockdown came at the worst possible time because it was the start of the playing season and the time of year when clubs begin to generate revenue through societies, members subscriptions and the like. So all of that stopped.

Golf visitors from abroad generate green fee income of well over €20m for golf clubs so the prudent approach is to assume that that is not going to happen this year. If we are being realistic, the prospect of international golf happening this year is very remote. We are looking at an overall decline in green fee revenue of about €30m alone and golf tourism has a huge multiplier effect on the tourism sector as well. All of that is effectively gone too.

How have Government supports and direction helped in the crisis?

The government has kept in very close touch with the sporting bodies. Minister Brendan Griffin and his department, and Sport Ireland, have liaised weekly, if not more frequently, in assessing the impact and supporting us. Public funding for sport though Sport Ireland has continued, that hasn’t been cut back. That’s all very welcome. I know when the time is right the Minister and Sport Ireland will make a submission to government to rebuild sport when this is all over and we would hope golf will be part of that. We very much welcome the roadmap published last week, not just with what it means for golf but for other sports that can start on an incremental basis. It’s a recognition of the mental health benefits of sport and we are very fortunate in golf to be among the first to come back.

How would you rate morale among your members?

We’ve got to be realistic. The figures I have given you tell the story of the enormous financial impact and that is very worrying for golf clubs. We keep in very close touch with them and the survey we did was quite detailed. Golf clubs are very resilient. The fact that golfers can get back to play on a restricted basis in their clubs so soon will help morale. Our members play because they love the game. That doesn’t conceal the wider impact that it has had on our sport and we are going to have to work to repair that.”

Some golf courses have already closed for good. Is it inevitable that more will follow suit?

I hope it’s not inevitable. It is a very small number of clubs that have announced their closure. I don’t think any of them are solely down to the COVID-19 pandemic, although that has made the situation worse for all clubs. Club support is a very important part of what we do as a national governing body. We will be working to help clubs navigate through the choppy waters in the next while and we hope there will be some support from government in rebuilding sport and society. I don’t think there is an inevitability that we will lose more clubs and we don’t want to.

Do you see any overseas models in your sport or elsewhere which might be applied here?

We are part of a lot of international golf networks. We work very closely with the Royal & Ancient, which is the global governing body. We work very closely with the National Governing Bodies in England, Scotland and Wales so we would be in almost daily contact with those bodies. We are also in close contact with the European Golf Association and we have already learned the types of procedures and measures that other bodies have put in place to facilitate the safe resumption of golf elsewhere. Given that golf here is likely to resume ahead of some other countries, we will be sharing that experience in return.

What is the outlook for the return of competitive golf domestically, both on an internal club basis and wider GUI events?

Even though we haven’t finalised our protocols for the return of golf on the 18th of May, we have indicated that we will be advising clubs not to organise internal competitions in the early stages. That is simply because we don’t want a big congregation of players at particular times in the clubs and that is what tends to happen. The Saturday and Sunday competitions tend to attract big numbers of people in that way. Part of our protocol will set out how restrictions in golf will be eased over time in tandem with the government roadmap.

We would see a return to internal club competitions happening quite quickly, not in Phase One, but very soon afterwards. In terms of inter-club it is going to be later in the summer. It may be a bit later than they would normally happen provided the easing of restrictions happens in the way that the government have laid it out. We would certainly see scope for inter-club competitions later in the summer and maybe running into the autumn. As things stand people won’t be able to travel over 20 kilometres until the 20th of July. After that we are quite optimistic.

How likely are we to see an Irish Open played this year?

We’re not involved directly in running the Irish Open but, from what I understand, the European Tour, because it is one of the Rolex Series events, hope to reschedule it for later in the year. As I understand it, that commitment remains. I haven’t heard any concrete proposal or time for that but it is very hard to see how it could happen on the basis that we all know and love with 20,000 people a day attending. I’m not sure if that is realistic in the autumn. Hopefully I will be proven wrong but maybe they hope to hold it on a more restrictive basis. When you get into autumn daylight becomes an issue and it becomes more challenging compared to the original date of the end of May.

What’s your message to your members/clubs/units right now?

Our overriding message to our members is to continue to put public health ahead of everything else but to also enjoy the opportunity that they have been given to resume golf at their own clubs and in a safe and responsible way. Having the privilege of being one of the first sports to resume also puts a big responsibility on golf to show how sport in general can be organised and run in a way that protects public health. We absolutely believe that that can and will be done.”