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Hector Emslie: Region’s golf courses bounce back as people head for the great outdoors

Trump International Golf Links, Aberdeenshire. Photo: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson
Trump International Golf Links, Aberdeenshire. Photo: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson

North-east golf tourism is poised for a bright future after weathering the coronavirus storm.

Courses have been enjoying huge increases in visitor numbers since domestic travel restrictions were eased.

Like countless other sectors, golf tourism was badly affected by Covid-19. Lack of international travel, total and partial lockdowns, and entire golf course and clubhouse closures all combined to significantly reduce revenues – especially at courses previously reliant on high-spending visitors.

The 123rd Amateur Championship at Royal Aberdeen Golf Club, Aberdeen, in 2018.

The north-east is currently home to more than 50 links and parkland courses, as well as two of the oldest golf clubs in the world – Royal Aberdeen, founded in 1780, and Fraserburgh, in 1777 – alongside numerous other delightful golfing venues.

The economic value of golf tourism in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire in 2019 – the last year before the pandemic arrived in the UK – was estimated at £29.1 million. But this healthy situation changed dramatically at the start of 2020, with the finances of clubs taking a big hit.

Lifeline support

On a brighter note, clubs have been able to take advantage of government grants and assistance, which have gone some way to protect businesses and livelihoods during these unprecedented times.

Most clubs were forced into a position of maintaining just a manager or administrator to handle a host of correspondence in connection with cancelled bookings, and the rescheduling of advance reservations and tournaments.

Unfortunately, many of these tasks had to be repeated several times due to reopening uncertainties and government protocols – resulting in a constantly changing environment.

Fraserburgh Golf Club.

In most cases large teams of greenkeepers were reduced to a mere one or two critical staff working in isolation, ensuring a minimum care-and-maintenance programme was undertaken to protect courses for future survival.

It is of huge credit to all clubs that, due to a combination of substantial endeavour, collaborative working, careful management, adaptability and the flexibility of staff, most are now better-placed to take up new challenges and vast opportunities going forward.

Clubs, although suffering considerable financial shortfalls, have managed to carry over visitor and tour-operator deposits until later this year and for next season.

Golfers getting younger

Most have benefited from a big uptake in the sport during the pandemic. Earlier this year, the R&A (Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews) revealed there were 2.3 million returning and new golfers in the UK and Ireland. The average age of golfers fell from to 41, from 46 pre-Covid, while more than 4.3m players have used driving ranges and practice facilities.

The R&A also reported the total number of adult golfers playing 18-hole courses in the past 18 months increased significantly, by 2.1m to more than 5.2m players in the UK and Ireland – the highest figure recorded this century.

Murcar Links Golf Club, Aberdeen.

George Bruce, manager at Murcar Links, Aberdeen, is delighted to have welcomed more than 200 new members to the club during the pandemic.

Mr Bruce said: “After reopening, golf was viewed as the safest and certainly one of the first sports or outdoor activities to return – being undertaken in the fresh open air, with social-distancing rules easily manageable.

“The sport at the time, however, could be enjoyed only by club members which attracted a rush of rejoining lapsed members as well as new applications. We now have a large waiting list for the first time in many years, but still manage the tee sheet to accommodate the large visitor numbers – vital to the economy of the club and region.

Pent-up demand

“We have seen a substantial uptake in visitor numbers from outwith the area, driven by considerable pent-up demand for golf tee times and visitors looking for new golfing experiences.”

These sentiments are echoed by numerous other courses throughout the region enjoying vast increases in visitor numbers since domestic travel restrictions eased.

Jonas Hedberg, head of golf and membership at Trump International Scotland, on the Menie Estate, near Aberdeen, said: “During the pandemic, we have seen a huge upsurge in demand for golf membership and coaching.

“Participation in outdoor club events is particularly high, and new golf business is emerging from across the UK.

10th anniversary

“Next year is the 10-year anniversary of Trump International Scotland and promises to be an exceptional year for the club and Scottish golf in general, given the pent-up demand from overseas visitors and international tour operators, as well as the 150th Open taking place at St Andrews in July.”

The team at VisitAberdeenshire have been working hard throughout the pandemic to make sure the region remains high on the wish list of consumers, the travel trade, tour operators and media as a must-visit golfing destination.

In-person and virtual familiarisation media visits have taken place, including a recent visit from YouTube golf broadcaster Andy Sullivan. He showcased three courses – Stonehaven, Banchory and Fraserburgh – under the Scotland’s Less Obvious tagline and enjoyed more than 360,000 views.

Jonas Hedberg, left, caddying for Donald Trump at Menie in 2010.

Freelance travel writer and BBC radio broadcaster Andy Mossack visited after the last lockdown. He delivered five separate travel articles and a radio broadcast reaching more than 650,000 listeners in central and northern England – key markets for visitors to Aberdeenshire.

Great success has also been attained with the impressive achievement of July’s Royal Deeside Golf Week selling out within five days of launch, and involving four Deeside courses and more than doubling visitor numbers from the previous tournament in 2019. There was a waiting list of more than 100, which led to organisers reshaping plans for the 2022 event.

Other recent significant events include the Scottish amateur championships, held on the Portlethen and Murcar Links courses, and Scottish Par 3 Championship at the Paul Lawrie Golf Centre, as well as the hugely successful Aberdeen Links Pro-Am – created by local operator Bonnie Wee Golf and attracting more than 120 players from throughout the UK to our top links venues.

By no means a comprehensive list, these tournaments go a long way to making sure Aberdeenshire remains topical and features as a foremost golfing destination offering a huge variety of magnificent challenges for professional and amateur players alike.

Paul Lawrie pictured at his golf centre on South Deeside Road, Aberdeen.

The forthcoming Scottish Senior Open, part of the European Legends Tour, will see local hero and legendary golfer Paul Lawrie, defend his title at Royal Aberdeen, between September 8-12.

As well as starring iconic golfers from around the globe, this event will also feature a host of celebrities from the world of sport and screen, and afford an opportunity for local golfers to participate in both the pre-event pro-am and pro-cel-am days.

Aberdeenshire’s ‘magnificent and majestic’ courses

Ongoing work continues with domestic and global golf tour operators in order to vastly increase the portfolio of options available to existing and future visitors, by showcasing the region, range of quality accommodation options and, of course, the magnificent and majestic Aberdeenshire courses.

When you add in the area’s numerous other attractions – which include the landscape, wildlife, whisky industry and castles – we think we have an unrivalled offering for visiting golfers.

And, with next year’s 150th Open taking place less than one and a half hours away at St Andrews, substantial opportunities exist to maximise our share of golfers visiting Scotland.

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