Club membership concern over Ireland’s Independent Golfer scheme

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir April 29, 2024 10:34

The manager of one of the greatest golf venues in Ireland has called for an “informed discussion” with golf clubs before they vote on Golf Ireland’s proposed ‘Independent Golfer’ scheme, adding that it could threaten club memberships.

Independent Golfer is a scheme that allows golfers who are not members of a golf club to obtain a handicap index, allowing them, for example, to compete in open competitions without having to join a golf club.

Versions of it have been recently introduced in England, Scotland and Wales. In England, iGolf membership currently costs £46 a year and allows golfers the opportunity to obtain a Handicap Index under the World Handicap System (WHS).

According to Irish Golfer, Golf Ireland recently ran a webinar to introduce the scheme, and Ballyliffin Golf Club general manager John Farren emailed the body to suggest that not only was the scheme going to be detrimental to golf clubs nationwide, particularly the smaller clubs, but that the World Handicap system is “already viewed with considerable scepticism by Irish golfers and this will further damage the integrity of competitive golf in Ireland.”

“This is a significant change in the operation of WHS in Ireland and clubs have not been properly engaged or consulted on this proposal,” Farren wrote. “We believe this proposal should be voted on at a general meeting of Golf Ireland as this scheme will have a significant impact on existing clubs and in particular the viability of smaller clubs.

“The presentation was completely biased in favour of the scheme, which was presented as a fait accompli.

“The WHS is already viewed with considerable scepticism by Irish golfers and this will further damage the integrity of competitive golf in Ireland.

Ballyliffin Golf Club. Image from Facebook

“The proposed scheme would allow golfers with no home club to somehow establish a Handicap Index – these handicaps would not have the same level of oversight as club member handicaps.”

Among Farren’s worries are that golfers who have club memberships will sign up to Independent Golfer card and leave their clubs, and that there was a lack of figures presented to show how many members of clubs in England, Wales, Scotland and other countries have now done this.

Around 543,000 people played golf on a full-length course in Ireland in 2023, with just over half, 224,000, not being members of clubs.

Such fledgling golfers could be encouraged to join a club should their interest in the game blossom, but Farren suggested that a reduction in the number of ‘Open’ competitions could be the result, along with an end to discounted green fees for members of Golf Ireland affiliated clubs.

“The introduction of such a scheme would force clubs to reassess the viability of ‘Open’ competitions and discounted green fees for domestic club members,” he wrote, adding: “It was not made clear that these cards would only be available to permanent residents of the island of Ireland – could international golfers visiting the country access these cards on arrival at the airport or in advance of their trip?”

Among the other concerns were whether the scheme would meet current Golf Ireland and WHS handicap committee requirements among which it is stated that a Handicap Committee must have a minimum of four people on the committee, all of whom must be club members, on which courses initial counting scores for a handicap can be recorded, and that failure to inform a club that their course or courses were being used for “official Golf Ireland ‘qualifiers’ would be a serious breach of trust.”

Farren signed off his email to Golf Ireland by suggesting that the matter “requires a full and transparent engagement with the clubs of Ireland before it proceeds any further and certainly merits a more informed discussion before the clubs vote on whether to accept it.”


Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir April 29, 2024 10:34
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  1. Nexxchange May 2, 17:09

    The changing landscape in golf membership offerings and virtual
    HCP models does not need to be of major concern to clubs, referring to Alistair Dunsmuir’s recent article in The Golf Business….
    “Among Farren’s worries are that golfers who have club memberships will sign up to Independent Golfer card and leave their clubs, and that there was a lack of figures presented to show how many members of clubs in England, Wales, Scotland and other countries have now done this.”

    Resilience is key and the time is now to focus and prepare your club operations for the diverse, ever demanding, and more complex golf business models which enter the market, in even faster time periods these days.

    Nexxchange, with it’s Cloud-based technology and highly parametrisable solution, allows operators to easily add membership products and offerings which are flexible, time based, with demand driven pricing, allowing you to continue to grow your markets, attract and motivate golfers to play more regularly.

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    Reply to this comment
  2. Mac the knife May 2, 10:41

    Amused at some of the reactions wondering what the problem is. The issue is that many small clubs have a chunk of membership for whom the annual sub is a big deal. These clubs really need these members to survive and if an alternative is offered for yellow pack golf this group will readily jump and the impact on the small clubs will be dramatic. For the Dublin clubs with waiting lists this is not an issue and they fail to see what the problem is. So a five year waiting list becomes four, so what?
    Many small clubs will go under if this gets legs.
    There is a disturbing lack of transparency and democracy around all of this. Dicktat rather than dialogue. Even the webinar was not clearly identified.
    This has the bang of someone trying to sneak in a controversial planning application.

    Reply to this comment
  3. Dreamer May 2, 09:24

    Who owns Golf?

    Golf is a sport played in a field.

    Do the Clubs own the WHS.

    I think not.

    Private clubs have no right to dictate who can or cannot get a Handicap. Nomadic Golfers have their own reasons why they do not Join clubs. Maybe the clubs should accept that their role in the future to to provide VENUES where golf is played.

    Reply to this comment
  4. Sports Lawyer April 30, 10:46

    I think if Clubs see this as a bad thing, then they’re not going to survive long term.

    The schemes main target is to attract those ‘nomad/casual’ golfers into the game and be registered (which has a number of benefits for the governing body and sport as a whole).

    If a member of a Golf Club wishes to relenquish their membership in favour of this new scheme, then membership is not for them – which is great for that Golfer who is no doubt overpaying for something he uses purely to play/compete and not for the other membership benefits – no?

    Therein is the opportunity and the problem golf clubs are faced with – what can you do to attract and retain members? Membership shouldn’t be solely about “handicap” and for 99% of existing members it’s not about the handicap – so why worry?

    Reply to this comment
  5. Ed April 30, 08:30

    If you are not a member of a club, how do you get a handicap in Ireland? I live in the states and you can pay a fee to have the USGA maintain your handicap. Not every golfer is a member if a club. Just asking as I am not sure where the fuss is.

    Reply to this comment
    • Truck May 2, 09:57

      Looking at some of the membership fees quoted for clubs in the USA I’m not surprised a lot of golfers are not members of clubs. $10,000+ dollar memberships, rounds $200 plus, ouch!

      Reply to this comment
  6. Director Of Golf April 30, 05:12

    Horse has already bolted in England

    Reply to this comment
    • Clubmember May 2, 08:34

      There was a private initiative not so long ago to do the same and golf Ireland objected to it, in fact threatening participating clubs they would be expelled from the whs. reasons were all to do with the integrity of the handicap and that these clubs would not be able to manage this correctly. It was completely against the ‘ethos’ of golf in Ireland … but seemingly only a ploy to not let anybody else in and do it themselves.

      Reply to this comment
  7. vbet April 29, 10:40

    It’s clear from John Farren’s concerns that the Independent Golfer scheme might indeed shake the foundation of traditional golf club memberships in Ireland. While the initiative offers non-members a chance to participate more fully in the sport, the potential downsides for small clubs and the integrity of the competition shouldn’t be overlooked. A balanced and inclusive dialogue with all stakeholders is essential before moving forward.

    Reply to this comment
    • Truck May 2, 10:02

      Spot on, the last thing golf needs is a PGA v LIV type argument regarding having a handicap and club membership.
      I worry with the boom seen post Covid clubs are getting greedy and starting to milk members / visitors with fees.
      The past winter in the UK has seen so many courses closed due to the excessive rain, that’s put a burden on clubs but also has members seeing 6 months of minimal activity and wondering if the fees are worth it. Many could cancel memberships opting to pay as you go and maintain a handicap via English Golf, changing times

      Reply to this comment
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