Golfing the British Isles

While in County Kerry, Ireland, several years ago, veteran meeting planner Paula Kelly, a vice president with the former AmerUs Annuity Group (now part of Aviva), got a directive from a company executive: “Get me some tee times at Ballybunion Golf Club.”

Not so easy. The Old Course at Ballybunion is not only one of the most beautiful links courses in the world, but also one of the most frequently booked. By November 2006, for example, tee times for May, June, July, and August 2007 were already gone.

Kelly went to work. After tapping every contact she could think of, she finally got the owner of her host hotel to pull a few strings. But planners need to make sure they do their homework early – and well – to get tee times on the top courses in the British Isles. It’s also important to educate attendees about true links-style golf and to make sure golfers are receptive to the high standard of golf etiquette expected by the locals in this part of the world.

In Demand

In Golf Digest magazine rankings, courses from Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England account for 11 of the world’s top courses, including the No. 1-ranked Old Course at St. Andrews.

According to David Brice, founder of Golf International Inc., a New York-based golf travel company, the demand to play these courses has increased by more than 300 percent since the early 1990s. There’s been a proliferation of companies – his and PerryGolf, Wilmington, N.C., are two major ones – geared to help planners organize their golf trips and get them on the most desirable courses.

Another change is that some of the great courses are seeing properties developed around them that are suitable full-service host venues for both small and large groups. Ten years ago, Ireland and Scotland were pretty much “meat and potatoes” golf destinations, says Gordon Dalgliesh, president of PerryGolf. “That’s changing.” St. Andrews in Scotland, for instance, now has two luxury resorts close by. The Fairmont St. Andrews opened in 2001; and the historic Old Course Hotel, overlooking the ancient golf course, has just added a Kohler Waters Spa.

Judy Jackson, director of industry relations, Maritz Travel, St. Louis, says that a typical corporate group golf program is five nights long and takes place between April and October. A program in Ireland, for example, might start in Dublin and move via motor coach through Kilkenny and into the southwest, where such notable courses as Ballybunion, Lahinch, Old Head, and Waterville can be found.

Sometimes, Jackson says, if the budget’s big enough, groups in Ireland can hunker down in one host venue, avoid motor coaches, and fly to their golfing destinations. She recently had a corporate group stay at the luxurious Mount Juliet Conrad Hotel in Kilkenny and take helicopters to the great links courses in Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Tips for Booking

For a successful trip, planners “have to know what kind of golfers they’re taking,” says Kelly. If you’re going to play at a course such as Ballybunion or Royal County Down in Northern Ireland, “then you don’t want to take a bunch of duffers,” she notes. First of all, there’s the question of whether they have a low enough handicap to get on these courses in the first place. If novice players do manage to get on the course, the chances are they will play poorly, hold up play, and have a terrible time. As a planner, that scenario terrifies Kelly. “I’d be afraid they would get thrown off the course! Find out what their handicaps are. There are plenty of courses that aren’t quite so hard.”

Depending on the destination, the optimal group size for golf trips to the British Isles varies. Robin Dugmore, managing director of the Old Course Experience, a company that arranges golf trips centered around St. Andrews, has booked trips for groups as large as 240 golfers.

As Paula Kelly found out when she tried to book tee times on Ballybunion, the demand at some of the famous courses is huge. The good news is that golf travel companies such as PerryGolf have arrangements with many of them and can book tee times. The bad news for planners on a budget is that these tee times are available only at a premium and probably need to be locked in well ahead of time – at least a year to a year and a half out.

The Old Course Experience has an exclusive contract with the St. Andrews Links Trust, which runs the Old Course, through which it is awarded a significant number of starting times for group packages. “What it really did for the destination,” says OCE Managing Director Robin Dugmore, “was open it up to high-level meetings, incentives, and groups.” Typical programs run three or four days, and participants can choose from a number of hotels (including the Old Course Hotel and the Fairmont) and a plethora of courses. Most importantly, booking with the Old Course Experience guarantees participants one round on the Old Course.

Learning the Lingo

It’s important to brush up on the basic differences your players will encounter. For one, golf carts (or “buggies,” as they are called in Ireland and the U.K.) are rarely used, so golfers will be walking. And they will be expected to keep up a certain pace. At most of the premier courses, players are required to present official handicap cards, although, according to Maritz’s Judy Jackson, sometimes a letter of introduction from a home club will suffice. At St. Andrews, the minimum handicap is 24 for men and 36 for women.

Most importantly, golfers should treat the game and the golf course they’re playing it on with respect. If for example, a golfer is going to go through his warm-up routine while standing on the first tee, it wouldn’t be unusual, Dalgliesh says, for the starter to tell the golfer to move off the tee if he wants to take some practice swings. “It’s a short growing season over there,” Dalgliesh says. “So it takes a longer time for something to be repaired. The view is, ‘There’s no point damaging something if you don’t need to.'”

Many of the courses, such as St. Andrews, are public, so visiting golfers are bound to interact with club members who treat their golf courses with reverence and take etiquette seriously.

“If you’re going to play golf with the locals,” says Sternberg, “make sure you have brushed up on the rules.”

Even off the course, there are a few nuances to be aware of, warns Dalgliesh. For example, in the United States, it’s quite acceptable for golfers to wear their golf shoes inside a clubhouse, but this is not necessarily true for British Isles clubhouses. And when in Scotland, says Dalgliesh, “a gentleman always removes his cap when he’s in the clubhouse.”

Leave a Reply