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Alternative investment for golfers Back  
Move over private members clubs! Move over debenture holders! A new breed of golf club membership has arrived, writes Ronan McMahon.
As well as offering an equal say in how the club is managed and run, the South County Golf Club offers an investment opportunity to every nomadic swinger seeking their own golf club.

Time-honoured tradition determined that golf club membership was about whom you knew, not what you knew. Being intimately friendly with an existing full member and some of their cronies would elicit the necessary nominations into the bastion of golf club membership. Providing you satisfied committee members during an interview and could cough-up the readies to meet both entrance fees and annual subscriptions you were in: not quite fully in, but you were in. You would usually pick up an associate or five-day membership that entitled you to...well...to what exactly? Limited playing rights, no say in the running of the club, dictates as to with whom you can play, etc...etc... All the times you could play, you would have to do so with loyalty, adopting a Uriah Heep-like approach to the full members whilst striving to reduce your handicap to prove you were worthy of the coveted status of full member.

Meanwhile what happened to all that money? Well, it simply went into the coffers of the club never to be seen again. That green-keeping levy? Well, I thought the greens were kept out of subscriptions? That buildings levy? I thought the clubhouse was brand new? That Uncle Tom Cobbly levy? Who WAS Uncle Tom Cobbly?

As man’s progress with medicine increased life expectancy, so Dublin’s available golf club memberships declined. Nobody died any more to allow the poor sap on the waiting list (been there since birth, you know) to enjoin the bastions of golf club societee.

Enter the debenture. Ever eager to please their public (whilst bolstering profit lines without risk), developers came up with the idea of funding the building of a golf course without paying a penny themselves. Golfing nomads, desperate for a home of their own, were persuaded to cough up even more exorbitant amounts of money, months or even years in advance of ever being able to play. Money from these debentures would effectively fund the building of the course. The attraction was, apart from extracting themselves from the dead-man’s shoes syndrome, the deal was risk free. Money imparted to buy the debenture was refundable. The club would have first refusal to buy back your share for the original cost price. Annual subs remain part of the deal but at least the nomads had a home of their own with full playing rights.

The only contention is in the running of the club. Dichotomies will always exist between player and developer and/or owner. The owner wants profits, the player wants playing rights. And whilst it is very attractive that the entrance fee is recoverable, isn’t it unfair that a debenture which returned to the club at €10,000 is being sold for €35,000?

For a new and unique alternative, The South County Golf Club is offering a full share option. A genuine opportunity to purchase equity in a golf club without the traditional hierarchical provisions. Prices might seem high at €28,000 a pop but this is truly an investment opportunity - not only in your lifestyle (all that fresh air, walking, etc.) but also in financial terms. This is a share in every sense of the word and commensurate with its more common brothers and sisters in the equities world - it offers all the same trappings.

You have a direct say in the running of the club. As a shareholder, your rights are the same as if you held shares in the Bank of Ireland. Running the club, keeping the greens, society days and fee-payers (green fees) can all be determined through your voting rights. The course is already playable and in April the clubhouse will be opened. At the beginning of 2004 members of the golf club will elect their own board of directors and run the club as they see fit.

You can sell your share on the open market. For whatever reason you may find you need to sell. Unlike the private clubs where you have already lost any monies paid over, or the debentures where you only recover what you originally paid in, regardless of current market value, The South County offers a share with which you can take full advantage of traditional market forces. When you consider that other clubs are offering debentures in excess of €35,000, the South County share scheme looks pretty compelling.

In addition, you also have the option of giving your share to a family member as an heirloom. This is not something normally allowed in other clubs.

Naturally, annual subscriptions remain, but if it is solely an investment you are after, you can also ‘lease’ the membership. This means that another can pick up the annual fees and playing rights while you retain the full membership and voting rights. Typically, this arrangement suits overseas professionals working in Ireland that wish to play as a regular member but who do not wish to purchase membership directly - especially as there are limited resale opportunities with most other clubs.

There is also an option for companies to purchase a corporate share. The ownership remains an asset of the company and directors can then nominate who has the playing rights.

Not bad, eh? And all this with a potential for capital growth! Shares initially offered at €10,000 in March 2000 are now available at €28,000!

Don’t let this new type of financial instrument fool you into believing you are buying into a second rate product. The course itself is one of the newest golf courses to open in County Dublin. Still in its first year of play, the course has been acclaimed as one of Ireland’s finest parkland courses with some of the truest greens. Golf Ireland Magazine has proclaimed that the course ‘has arrived straight into Ireland’s top 10 courses.’ Originally launched in March 2000, the club was formed by three promoters, Ian Craigie, Dr Nick Bielenberg and Neil Holman. Dr Bielenberg had already garnered much experience in golf course design and management from Luttrellstown Castle Golf Club.

When advancing the design of The South County course itself, Dr Bielenberg drew from his experience in Luttrellstown. ‘We paid particular attention to the question of drainage and installed more than 100 km of drainage across the course,’ explained Dr Bielenberg. ‘As a result, despite the heavy rain so far this winter, the course has only experienced a few days when it was impossible to play,’ he added.

Dr Bielenberg’s design approach is to work with the existing landscape, minimising disruption to the natural terrain whilst building on the characteristics of the site. This method maintains the soil structure, enhances grass growth, assists drainage and ensures that the course will mature in a lasting and natural way.

The South County is easily accessible to golfers living in such diverse places as Shankill, Swords, Celbridge and Naas, as well, of course, as those living in South Dublin. It is situated just outside Brittas, only seven miles and 15 minutes drive from the M50.

Overcrowding will also not be an issue for members. Four hundred members have joined already with a ceiling of 711 in total. This is due in part to the promoters’ desire to keep the club a friendly, member orientated place. Craigie said, ‘The clubhouse, which will be finished in April, will boast roaring fires and a piano. We have quite a few golfer-singers that are keen to tinkle the ivories. We certainly intend it to be members’ driven and not corporate focused.’

Lady members are also sought - again, unlike some of the older clubs. Currently the breakdown of men and women members is 75 to 25 percent respectively and the promoters are keen to see this balance maintained. ‘We are keen to produce an exceptional product,’ continued Craigie. ‘The 19th hole is just as important as the previous 18, and that means ensuring good changing facilities in the clubhouse too. Many golfers have been disappointed at the end of a great day’s golf only to find sporadic spurts of water in what passes for a shower. If someone is paying €65 in green fees, the least that we can do is provide €5 worth of hot water.’

The South County is definitely unique in a range of factors. Certainly the management has put good design and clear thinking into the course, clubhouse and organisation. The next step is already underway with reciprocal arrangements with other championship courses abroad. San Roque has agreed for South County members to enjoy discounted and favoured playing rights on its course in southern Spain and plans are afoot for other top class courses to be included.

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