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Historic Douglas futureproofs itself for 21st-century golf experience

Situated in a privileged position, high above Cork city, Douglas Golf Club has it all.

ut it’s not by accident that this 112-year-old club finds itself at the cutting edge when it comes to being what a modern golf club should be – a vital hub for the members, where they can not only enjoy their golf but socialise in a welcoming, open clubhouse and enjoy a wealth of facilities.

From its state-of-the-art swing studio, gymnasium, and short-game practice area to the golf course and driving range and even the restaurant, the club has everything you need.

In an era when family time is sacrosanct as people lead busier lives, it is up to golf clubs to adapt and move away from the model of gentleman’s golf club of yesteryear where the forbidding, oak-panelled clubhouse was a place of refuge for old and young fogeys. There, they would be trespassed upon sparingly by outsiders, or women and children were neither seen nor heard.

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“The golf industry is in a state of flux,” explains former Walker Cup and European Tour player John McHenry, who has been General Manager of Douglas since late 2018, taking up the baton left by his predecessor Conor O’Brien and overseen the complete transformation of Douglas over the past two and a half years.

“Okay, golf got a bounce from Covid, but if you stand still, you will eventually find yourself in a complete minefield. Clubs are in a place now where ageism rules, and the older generation, which is going to pass away in the next 10 to 15 years, is controlling your club. And what happens then? How do you react?”

Everyone knows their share of long-established golfing institutions that are only now beginning to realise that time has moved on.

They are golf courses with dead clubhouses attached; places with few facilities, no energy and no social element; one-dimensional anachronisms where time is running out.

“The days of gentleman’s golf are gone,” adds McHenry, who has been fortunate that Douglas had a war chest of cash and the sense to use it to carry out a series of capital projects that have changed the fabric of the club.

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Close to €4 million has been spent on its rejuvenation – clubhouse, golf course, short-game area, professional’s shop, swing studio and gym, to name just some of the main improvements – making Douglas a place where members feel they want to spend even more time with their friends and family.

“What we are trying to do is broaden the club and make it as socially inclusive as we can while maintaining the traditions and integrity of the golf course and the golf club.

“A lot of golf clubs think one-dimensionally about things. The attitude is that this is the way it has always gone. But we realised that you’ve got to move with the times. We have a cohort of 35- to 40-year-olds who are now using this club socially in a manner that it has never been used before. We have families and their children coming up to eat and use the venue.

“The participation rates amongst our juveniles and juniors is increasing all the time. We would normally lose juniors between the ages of 20 to 25 as they go to work. But we are growing our junior membership. They are coming back. They see golf as a cool environment now.”

Many will remember how the picturesque and historic Cork club received a €6m non-refundable deposit from a developer as part of a proposed land swap that would see the club move to a new location.

The deal meant they would enjoy not one but two courses – parkland and heathland – and a clubhouse to match.

But fate and the international money market had other ideas. While the move never came about following the global economic crash, Douglas got to keep its multi-million euro windfall.

A large portion of the money has been wisely spent, and the club has continued to produce high-achieving golfers, with internationals Peter O’Keeffe and Sara Byrne and senior international Karl Bornemann an inspiration to the next generation.

Players such as Leinster Under 16 champion Jack Murphy and Munster Under 16 runner up James Walsh inspire others such as Sean Reddy, the Connacht Under 14 champion and Justin Dennehy, the US Kids Under 10 Irish Open champion.

A former Irish Amateur Open and Munster Strokeplay champion, O’Keeffe remains highly competitive, reaching the semi-finals of the North of Ireland recently. He’s also innovative, and as a strength-and-conditioning coach, he ran online fitness classes during the lockdown, and members of all ages now flock to his fully equipped gym on-site, adding new energy to the club in every sense of the word.

“It’s all run on the booking system,” Peter explains. “They know when they book in, they’re going to be training with someone they know from the club and not beside some stranger in a vest. People in their 50s, 60s and 70s are getting into fitness that would never have dreamt of walking into a gym in their lives. But because it’s here and because people started to do fitness during the online classes, they enjoy trying to improve their longevity in the sport.”

As a result, the spouses of members, who might not play golf, are now using the club as a place to meet friends or have lunch at the patio area near the verandah, or simply chat in a quiet corner of the renovated, modern clubhouse.

“It’s seen as being a cool place to be as opposed to being a dour place,” McHenry adds, looking around the bright new clubhouse with its modern furnishings and picture windows offering panoramic views of the city. “We are finding that spouses are coming up here, and we have massively grown our pavilion membership.

“Before the renovations, this was an extremely intimidating, open space. So what we said was we would soften it out and also compartmentalise it. Wives of members would come in and say, ‘Gosh, the food is really nice here’, or ‘the environment is really nice’. So rather than just simply being a golf course and a clubhouse, we are now a destination. The patio outside has become a destination; Peter’s gym has become a destination. It’s the sum of its parts.”

When the time comes for members to assess the value of their membership, they can look around and see a short-game facility and an 18-hole golf course that has been improved immeasurably, with the new Black Course layout offering a par-70 challenge, 60 metres longer than the traditional par-72 layout with the third and 18th holes becoming challenging par fours.

By working on its juvenile and junior programmes, Douglas has created a layering effect, where payers such as 18- and 19-year-olds like Mel Deasy and Robert Walsh inspire those of 15 and 16 to become members of Senior Cup and Barton Shield teams.

“The optics of people seeing each other is an internal boost to the club,” McHenry adds. “Then you come to the golf course, and we have reinstated the Black Course as a par-70 championship course rather than it just being a great golfing venue. We are landlocked in terms of our borders, and we have the M28, which will impinge on our fourth hole, but we have plans for that.

“We have done a project here that has cost over €3.4 million, but it cost the members nothing. When you add to that Stephen Hayes’ pro shop and Peter’s facility, we have probably spent close to €4 million, but there hasn’t been an increase in annual fees. We like to think we offer a good value for money in a wonderful location looking out over the city. We are small, but in terms of bang for our buck, we are a good strong facility.”

As older members pass away, Douglas is looking to futureproof itself.

“That’s very important for the club,” McHenry adds. “Our membership numbers are going to go down for the next 20 years because of natural attrition, but the majority of new members are in the 45 bracket.

“There’s probably a bigger picture here, and that’s that the industry really needs to be very aware of the age profile of their memberships and understand how can we get ourselves broader in terms of an income stream.

“If we do that, we can manage things like pandemics and attrition, which is coming down the road, and make ourselves relevant to the members.

“Members might say, well my golf is not great these days, but the membership is worth it – we eat there all the time, and the environment is too good. We won’t give that up.”

Factfile

Douglas Golf Club
Maryborough Hill, Douglas, Cork, T12AC92.
Email: info@douglasgolfclub.ie
Telephone: 021 4895297
Website: douglasgolf.ie
Green fees: November to March €50 midweek / €55 weekend. No availability on weekends until after 3pm. April to October €55 midweek /€65 weekend. No availability on weekends until after 3pm.
Society rates: Contact office for further information.
Buggy hire: €30 per round.
Club hire: Yes. Contact pro shop for further details.
Electric trolleys: €10.
Range balls: Members/Green fees only, €5 basket.
Membership rates: Entrance fee €10,000. Subscription, €1,513.
Feature hole: 14th, 374m (Blue), Par 4; 319m (Red), Par 5. The index one, you drive out over the club crest, the Hangman’s Tree, before hitting a mid-iron into a green which slopes from left to right.
Expert tip: Play for the left half of the fairway as anything right falls away behind the trees. The green slopes sharply from left to right. Don’t short side yourself here, as chipping close would be very difficult. Attention must be paid to the putt as the greens normally stimp at 10, so anything hit with too much pace will run quickly past the hole. An index one for the ladies.
Nearby clubs: Cobh, Cork, Fota Island, Mahon, Monkstown, Kinsale.

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