It’s been the strangest of years for Portsalon Golf Club – for both its members and staff alike. The Links on the shores of Lough Swilly hasn’t stopped for much down the years – save for obligatory frost and snow in winter – but the Covid-19 pandemic brought golf to a grinding halt.
As with almost every element of life as we knew it, change came and it came fast. Golf courses in Ireland were shut down in March 2020 and remained that way until mid-May, when a phased reopening was allowed.
After a summer of ‘new normal’ for golfers and golf course administrators, there was plenty hope, but the winter brought uncertainty once more and, with it, the eventual return of Level 5 restrictions and the closure of golf courses once again.
There’s been frustration but, in the main, an acceptance amongst golfers that the pandemic left far bigger concerns on the table. An eagerness to get back on the fairways, but largely overpowered by a willingness to sit it out and wait for the clouds to clear.
There has been no golf at Portsalon – or anywhere else in the Republic – so far in 2021 but, on Monday April 26, that will change.
Members will return to the shores of Ballymastocker Bay, once more with Covid restrictions in play, just as they will across Donegal and throughout Ireland. Restricted in some ways, for sure, but free once more to get out in the fresh air; playing the game they love and re-engaging again with friends in that all-important social setting.
Play has been stopped since December but in Portsalon that hasn’t meant standing still.
Daragh Lyons has been in the position of Club Manager since the spring of 2018. Forecasting the last 12 months would have been impossible but he says the club have managed to use the absence of golfers very productively.
“When the pandemic first arrived and we were asked to close our doors in March 2020, I don’t think any of us could have imagined we would still be at this point in April 2021. The last 12 months have been difficult to plan with so much uncertainty,” said Lyons. “We are happy to now have a date that we can reopen the course to members.
“We have missed our members and visiting golfers over the last four months and we look forward to seeing them back on the Links and allowing them see some of the improvements that we have made to the course and clubhouse in their absence.”
The works on the course have been extensive in places and returning Portsalon members will see lots of changes, subtle and otherwise, come April 26t.
New tee-boxes have been constructed on holes seven, eight, nine, eleven, fourteen and the 18th – these will support winter/alternate teeing areas once they are ready for play.
Alongside them, grass pathways have been created as walkways for golfers. These come at the fifth, eighth, ninth, tenth and eleventh holes. They add definition to the course and are viewed as aesthetic improvements by the greens team that will enhance the player experience for members and visitors alike.
The heavy machinery has also been in place. The banks of the stream that guards Portsalon’s par-four 16th hole were in danger of collapsing and works have been completed to upgrade this area. Wooden sleepers (complete with reinforcement) now guard both sides of this water feature, while new undersoil drainage went in place on the first, 16th and 18th fairways.
These works have been carried out by Links Superintendent Johnny Shields and his team since the forced closure in December. The Milford native has been leading Portsalon’s greens team since 2007 and under his watch the course has soared from a ranking of 84th to be rated 18th in the Irish Golfer Magazine Top 100 Courses for 2021.
Steady and consistent course improvements have been the aim for Shields and his team since he took over. The pandemic-enforced absence of golfers meant an opportunity existed to forge ahead with some of those planned improvements.
“We have a very good committee here that are always very supportive in terms of course improvement,” Shields says.
“That hasn’t changed through the pandemic and we’ve been able to make good progress as a result. Alongside the regular course maintenance this winter, we were able to carry out more than double the amount of additional work than would normally be the case on a busy golf course.
“Hopefully that’s something that members will see the benefit of on their return.”
If the last 12 months have represented the biggest challenge in modern times for golf courses in Ireland, it has also been a time when there are positives to grab.
The summer of 2020 went by without GAA and soccer at local levels and this left a sporting void, one that had to be filled for those with a competitive edge at heart.
Many golf courses in Ireland are consistently dealing with a need to reduce the age-profile of their membership, particularly those located in rural areas. To this end, Portsalon has received a pandemic-related boost.
At the club’s AGM in February – conducted for the first time via Zoom call – the membership breakdown showed an increase of more than 60 new golfers under the age of 30 during the preceding 12 months. That translates to slightly under 12 per-cent of the current membership base at Portsalon and has helped to establish a strong and much-needed foothold in the key demographic of youth according to Lyons.
“The big positive for us, and indeed across the globe with Covid, is the number of new golfers that have taken up the game or returned to the game in the past 12 months.
“It’s great to see so many new faces and seeing them progress and improve is fantastic. I believe they are enjoying their golf and we hope to have them as members for many years to come.”
The issue of fees is one that has sparked debate amongst golfers during this period of isolation from their clubs. Golf has been played sparingly in the last 12 months but golf course maintenance remains a necessity. Abandon a track like Portsalon – or indeed any of Donegal’s world class links courses – for four months and you’ll return to find a facility lost to wilderness and requiring a costly recovery process.
“It’s been a difficult time for a lot of people and some have suffered more than others and I’m disappointed that the powers that be in this country couldn’t find a way to keep golf open during this second lockdown like what they done in Scotland,” says Limerick native Lyons.
“I think the health benefits would have been huge, with minuscule risk of transmitting Covid,” he adds. “However, we are where we are now and I just hope we can move forward from here.”
Like many other courses, Portsalon hopes to be able to give something back to its members in the coming months for their loyalty during this testing time. Lyons points to the steady flowing of subscriptions in the early months of 2021 from Portsalon members with a degree of pride.
The course may be closed, but Portsalon’s membership want their gem shining brightly upon their return.
“It’s very difficult for members paying their subscription when they can’t make use of the golf course and we appreciate their frustration but we also need their support.
“Unfortunately, our running costs of maintaining the golf course and machinery and the clubhouse do not stop, even with the gates closed.
“We are eager to give something back to our members for the loyalty they have shown the club over the past two years. Hopefully, when normal revenue streams return in 2022, we will be in a position to do that.”
With the raft of improvements, it’s set to be a pleasant surprise for many when they tee it up again from April 26th onwards. Members will return as the restrictions allow and Portsalon looks forward to a busy summer ahead.
Footfall of visiting golfers from the island of Ireland was decisively strong during 2020. With foreign trips off the radar, Irish golfers sought ‘golfing staycations’ instead.
Donegal is the destination of choice for many, given the impressive array of world class facilities within the county versus the clear value for money on offer when compared to venturing south of Dublin. Portsalon is happy to be positioned in a county that boasts Rosapenna, Ballyliffin, Murvagh and more – a golfing mecca with scenery to match – and looks forward to a busy summer ahead as Covid-related closures hopefully become a thing of the past.
“One thing that we can be confident about is the quality of golf courses we have here in Donegal. It really is Ireland’s premier golf county,” says Lyons of his adopted county.
“The county was showcased back in 2018 with a hugely successful Irish open in Ballyliffin GC, and then again in 2019 with The Open down the road in Royal Portrush GC. This gave us the opportunity to show many overseas golfers and journalists just how good an experience you can have in Donegal with the quality of both our hotels and hospitality, and the golf courses to match.
“This year we hope to be in a position to welcome many new and returning domestic visitors to Portsalon when intercounty travel returns.
“Whether they have played the course before or it’s their first time, I’m confident they will have a great time and enjoy one of the best links experiences the country has to offer.”