By Brian Keogh
Just a couple of miles down the road from Doral’s famed Blue Monster, four golf writers sheltered from a brief shower at Miami Springs Golf & Country Club, the municipal course where Arnold Palmer played his first professional golf tournament in 1955.
The King missed the cut in what turned out to be the last staging of the Miami Open, a title won by Sam Snead, Byron Nelson and Gene Sarazen and a course where baseball legends such as Mickey Mantle and Jackie Robinson and boxer Joe Louis regularly honed their games.
“Where y’all from?” asked the man in the jaunty hat, as two Englishmen, a Scot and an Irishman discussed the state of play.
“We’re from England and Scotland,” a colleague replied. “And Ireland.”
“Iiiirreeelaaaand,” sang the man in the hat, immediately dismissing the men from The Times, The Daily Mail and The Guardian. “I luuurve Ireland. Do you know Murphy’s bar in Dublin?”
Americans can’t get enough of Ireland and while the weak dollar makes a trip to the Old Country an expensive business these days, they continue to flock here to play golf, enjoy the 19th hole atmosphere and taste the Guinness.
While the Ryder Cup has come and gone, golf tourism continues to attract over 200,000 visitors a year, generating in excess of €120 million for the economy in a era when the Celtic Tiger does not quite roar with the same gusto as four or five years ago.
With Padraig Harrington as Irish golf’s global ambassador, Failte Ireland continues to promote Irish golf aggressively around the world from Beijing to Baltimore.
And Failte Ireland’s Director of Golf, Damian Ryan, insists that we will continue to battle for business in a era when destinations such as Scotland, Portugal and the Middle East compete tooth and nail for green fee business in an increasingly competitive market place.
High profile events such as the Ryder Cup or the American Express Championship, which was held at Mount Juliet in 2002 and 2004, keep Ireland on the world golfing map and the 2011 Solheim at the Jack Nicklaus designed Killeen Castle will play a major role in attracting visitors over the next five years.
“Continuing on from the Ryder Cup we will now base our whole promotion and marketing drive on the Solheim Cup 2011,” Ryan explains. “We will also continue to promote Ireland at around 12 or 13 events on the European Tour and we will also have a stand at all the Majors.
“We also intend to increase the number of stands we have at American tournaments. We were at the Honda Classic and four of our industry partners were there as well and every piece of literature was gone by Saturday afternoon. We had a tremendous reaction in Westchester last year as well and we see huge potential in the American market as well.
“We are also going into privately owned American clubs to do Irish days and evenings, bringing the industry in and letting them talk about Ireland.”
Ryan points out the the Ryder Cup generated an estimated €130 to €140 million for the Irish economy with a significant increase in interest from the American market.
And when the season gets into full swing in May, he expects that figure to grow consistently as our long distance cousins get to grips with the growing list of parkland gems as well as the traditional seaside links courses that make us such an attractive destination for golfers looking for something different.
Complacency is fatal in such a competitive market place and Ryan and his team plans to travel as far afield as China and Japan this year to increase awareness of what Ireland has to offer the discerning golfer and convince them to part with their hard earned currency.
“We are not taking our foot off the gas in any way,” Ryan adds. “We are moving into China with a show in Beijing at the end of May. The Far East and Japan is also on the agenda with golf days planned at Mission Hills in China, promoting what Irish golf is about. We have been quite successful promoting Irish golf over the years and after the Ryder Cup we intend to keep going.
"People say that we are still lagging behind in terms of the quality of service, but I think we have greatly improved the services we provide and I cite Doonbeg an example of how we has raised the bar in that area.
"The courses that charge the top prices are giving the service now, but there is always room for improvement. There was a problem at one stage that we were very highly priced and we were not giving the service at that level but we have levelled off on that and at the trophy courses we are giving the service and progressing much better than we were.
“We have a new website up now - www.golfireland.ie - which is run by us and links in with operators, who can offer golfers a package to suit their budget.”
But while Ryan expects around 200,000 golfers to come and visit us this year, he believes that we have to be careful not to overdevelop our parkland offering in an era when 18 and 36 hole facilities are mushrooming at an alarming rate.
“I think we have reached capacity on the parkland courses and people have seen that,” he says. “There are difficult times ahead if we continue to develop parkland courses at the same rate. We could always do with another links course without any question. We have 54 links courses, which is around a third of the total number of links courses in the world. But we have reached capacity in the parkland sector.
“Competition is growing all the time and Scotland would be a worry because they are getting their act together all the time and Portugal are serious players now as a sun destination.
“But if we look at our pricing and maintain our level of service, we have the added draw of the 19th hole. But we simply can't start overdeveloping. It is going to be very, very difficult. There are going to be casualties there. Our market in the US is 99.9 percent links and that is where he have to concentrate our efforts.”