The COVID-19 crisis descended on us during St. Patrick’s week, when County Mayo and the rest of Ireland usually celebrates our national pride. It’s a time when, after a long, hard winter of Atlantic storms, everyone looks forward to the spring and summer—and, especially here at Carne, to the start of golf season. We’d overcome quite a few odds over the years, and before the reality of the pandemic set in, everyone was in good form and many signs pointed to an exciting year ahead.
Turasoireacht Iorrais Teo is a not-for-profit community organization founded in 1985 by a group of businessmen from Belmullet who sought to address some of our economic and social issues by developing and promoting tourism to the area. With a population of close to 10,000, Belmullet is the economic heart of the Erris Peninsula region, which is situated in a remote spot in the northwest of County Mayo. The company acquired and developed 220 acres of land in Carne, Belmullet, into an 18-hole championship links course, with the help of legendary Irish golf course designer Eddie Hackett. Carne was the last course Hackett designed, and it is often feted as his best.
It is local legend that Hackett himself stated that if ever God designed a piece of land for a golf course, Carne is it. In the early stages, to ensure that the development went ahead, funds were raised via a huge community effort, including voluntary labor on the course itself. It opened in 1993, and the company went on to develop full clubhouse facilities, including a bar and restaurant, changing rooms, offices and a golf shop. An additional nine-hole course, the Kilmore 9, designed by Jim Engh and Ally McIntosh, was added in 2013, although this was never properly opened due to lack of resources.
The ownership and management of the facilities at Carne are the sole responsibility of Turasoireacht Iorrais Teo, on behalf of the community. Belmullet Golf Club has only 40 full local members, and therefore Carne is totally reliant on visitor greens fees to provide more than 90% of its income, with 65% of those visitors coming from overseas. Given its huge benefit—Carne provides much-needed employment and generates more than 9,000 bed nights and roughly $10 million annually for the Mayo economy—it is a source of much local pride.
I have been chairman of the company for the past eight years, and have seen it through some hard times. I have put a massive amount of time and energy into Carne, all on a voluntary basis, and have been lucky enough to put together a team of hugely committed locals. I was excited for the year ahead: Bookings were up 25% in early 2020 as compared to previous years, and Carne was nominated for several industry awards. We all felt exciting days were ahead—until the news of the world came to our doorstep.
The following is a real-time account of March 15 to 20.
Sunday, March 15
I’d had growing concerns over this virus over the previous few weeks, nervous about the possible effects it may have if it snowballed into a pandemic, as I know how exposed we are to anything that might affect our visitor income. I’d also been trying to adapt to our new normal under some restrictions; my hands were red from all the sanitizing in the clubhouse and golf shop, and we rearranged all the seating in the clubhouse to make sure it promoted social distancing. Yellow COVID-19 posters are everywhere and sanitation points now dominate our clubhouse.
I called Fiona, our general manager, this morning and asked her to meet me in the clubhouse. I was heavy-hearted walking up the stairs, hoping that the GM and I were on the same page for the tough decisions ahead. I ordered my coffee, and one for Fiona, and as soon as she walked in the door I saw the worry and concern on her face. She understood. She ran through the plans for action on how we could come through what might lie ahead for us, and I realized we were aligned on every point.
Sitting there on what, ironically, was one of our busiest days since the winter, I could sense the nervousness of the team, their worried glances, as they surely knew from all the media coverage that we were facing into unprecedented times. We decided to wait until later that evening, when the clubhouse had quieted, to call the team into the kitchen.
Explaining to them that we would have to close the clubhouse and temporarily lay them all off was met with silence at first. They had concerns—how long would it last? When would they be able to come back? Would Carne survive?—but their team spirit soon kicked in. Fiona was reassuring and told them that if we took the hard decisions now, it would mean that they would all have a job to come back to; they took her recommendations well.
Afterward, Fiona and I came out and sat down, sick to our stomachs, feeling so terrible for this team that has supported everything we have done in the last few years and given the place their all. Those efforts were starting to pay off for us, and then—bang!—this happens. Then the staff emerged and asked us to have a farewell drink in the members bar. Despite losing their jobs and income, they were all so positive, just wanting to get the shutdown over with and come back to work.
I went home drained and worried, still feeling as if I let everyone down.
Monday, March 16
I didn’t sleep last night, tossing and turning with apprehension and feeling so bad for everyone at Carne. It’s not often you get a team like that, and I should know, having spent all my working life in Dublin Bus, ending up as HR director, dealing with more than 4,000 drivers and numerous trade unions. What we have at Carne is unique, like the place itself. I drove out to the course early, stomach churning, knowing we had to have the same conversation with the golf shop and admin staff. Fiona spent the morning with them, providing information on the support available. She called the greenkeepers in and gave them the only good news so far: Their jobs were safe, as they were essential to keeping the course in condition. They were glad to be retained, but we could see it was bittersweet given what happened to the rest of the team.
From there, it turned into a day from hell. Cancellations came in so fast that no one could have been expected to keep up with the rescheduling and refund requests by email and telephone. And only myself and Fiona were left in the place. She contacted the bank for a moratorium on the commercial loan left on Carne, trying to make some sort of projections as to what the overall effects would be financially, some sort of a plan for what no one could be expected to plan for. She finally concluded that all of our bookings for March, April, May and June will be completely decimated. Further, she expects that we’ll have only meager domestic bookings from July onward, as the international bookings probably won’t be recoverable this year. What did that mean for us? Batten down the hatches, nothing but essential spending, hugely reduced hours for herself and the accounts administrator dropped to one day per week. Even then, we’re not like other clubs: We don’t have much of a membership base to see us through or step in and provide some help.
Fiona spent the rest of the day ensuring the extra measures needed on the course for those who would actually use it were taken: bunkers out of play, no rakes, raised cups, tee times extended to 15-minute intervals, shower rooms and changing facilities closed, a barrier in front of the counter in the pro shop to ensure social distancing, and more disinfectant than I ever thought possible. Going forward, we mandated that every time someone enters the facility, all handles and touch points will be cleaned and sanitized before the next person comes in.
We closed the shop at the usual time and finished the day on a conference call with our golf course partners in the North West Coast Links partnership. The despondency was apparent; they were all in the same position, cancellations flying in. We discussed ways we could help each other. We agreed to share our experiences and, if nothing else, just be there for each other, on the end of the phone, for a call to someone else who understands.
Tuesday, March 17
It was a bank holiday today for St. Patrick’s Day, but not for me or for Fiona, who decided to come in anyway to deal with everything. It was another day of phone calls and cancellations; I was so gutted to see our bookings just disappear. Fiona drafted a template to deal with the thousands of emails more efficiently, but before she put it in place she realized that a canned reply is not us. It’s not Carne. So she went on as before, reading every story in every email and responding accordingly, personal as ever, despite the inbox continuing to fill up.
It works for our customers, who are used to this approach, and, despite the mounting emails, we both feel better. We’re not, after all, a corporation where an automated email is the norm; we are a small, personal team, and that’s the way it will stay, no matter the damn virus. The human stories in the emails made her cry at times, the fear from our customers in the U.S. and elsewhere so apparent in their messages. We saw a glimmer of hope on the domestic market: phone calls from groups that had booked golfing breaks in Spain and Portugal and were looking to re-book at Carne. It was enough to get us to revise our projections, and we now estimate that if we get enough domestic bookings to pay the greenkeeper wages each week, we’ll be OK. We were buoyed, but also felt terrible for our industry colleagues in those countries.
After a 12-hour day, I went home exhausted but also overwhelmed, because in the midst of all the cancellations, we also received emails of support. People are wondering how they can help, and it makes my heart soar to know that there are so many good people in the world, despite this ever-growing crisis and the absolute fear it has instilled in so many. I don’t think those people will ever understand how much their support means to us.
Wednesday, March 18
Today we got word that restrictions are being further tightened: The Golfing Union of Ireland issued a statement advising all golf clubs to close, so we did. It then became a day of contacting those who had re-booked their golf with us and explaining that we couldn’t host them. So it was back to the projections again, reworking them to see how we survive another body blow. It was difficult, but people’s health is the most important thing, and closing was the right thing to do.
The afternoon brought a delivery of our branded merchandise for the golf shop for the year ahead—thousands of euros’ worth of high-quality new-season golf wear. It’s generally a day of excitement in the shop, but this year is so different. This stock is ordered in September each year for delivery at the end of March, and we love unpacking it and checking it in. But this year, it just compounds our concern. How are we going to pay for it with no visitors? It’s all branded with our logo because our shop caters to visitors, mainly, and they only want branded merchandise. Fiona opened the last box: staff uniforms. There was an eerie silence, and she just picked it up and stored it in the back. She’ll deal with that another day, one when we might feel stronger.
She went back to the cancellation emails, I to the phone, because my IT skills are not what they should be. We finished up at 7:30 p.m.; walking out, I knew that we’re blessed to have a team at Carne that treats the place as if it’s their own business. I was weirdly feeling proud in so many ways this evening, reflective of all that’s gone on. The virus won’t stop us for long.
Thursday, March 19
Closing up the course properly, our head greenkeeper, Fergus, brought the flags in, and I could see how he absolutely hated it. We know it’s the right thing to do, but it still hurts. Fiona contacted Sarah at home to see if she could create one of her on-point social media posts for it. Despite being laid off, Sarah immediately put together a perfectly Carne post. I felt a sense of despair looking at it; the results of hard years of work seemed to slip away.
Fiona completed paperwork for the bank and contacted pro shop and restaurant suppliers about merchandise. Many were nothing but brilliant, immediately extending credit terms and agreeing to other helpful measures. Fiona said, “Won’t we always remember the way these firms made us feel at this time? Their future business with us is a done deal already.”
Then she looked at me and said she knew this wasn’t what I signed up for as voluntary chairman. I reminded her it’s not what she signed up for either, knowing that she’s essentially working for free because she’d already far exceeded her paid hours for the week. She grinned and replied that she’d only be bored at home with two teenagers in the house. She also reminded me that I need to take more time off, de-stress, get out in the fresh air—and she was right, of course, but I wasn’t really listening. When I took on the position of chairman, I was determined to get the place right, to make sure it was stable for the long term, even through something like this.
When I got home tonight, I felt hope again. We’d worked out yet another plan, and I’ve got a growing confidence that we can come out the other side of this. We owe it to the team here who have given so much and who rely on the place for income to raise their families, and to the local community who relies on Carne to help the local economy. This place deserves it. I’m from Dublin originally and came to Belmullet on holiday; I fell in love and it’s now where I spend nearly all my time. You know a place must be special to tempt a Dub out of Dublin.
Friday, March 20
The GM opened the day in a state of excitement. More people had reached out to us, offering to help. Unfortunately, it didn’t last long.
Soon another delivery arrived, this time logo golf balls—normally a great seller in the shop, but they came with mixed emotions, as they will just sit in boxes for the year. Then the local hardware-store guys arrived; we had ordered new carpet for the clubhouse at the back end of last year, as the other carpet was 20-plus years old and finished. It should have been an exciting day ahead of a normally busy [Irish] Mother’s Day on Sunday next, but the place was deserted, the doors locked. I shook my head and got back to my phone duty, leaving Fiona to the never-ending emails.
It’s so busy that time flies, and I realized I hadn’t seen her grabbing the usual coffees (feels like 10 a day), so I went looking. I walked into the clubhouse to see her sitting alone on the newly fitted carpet on the stairs. She opened up about what a great team we have, how it’s so hard to find that anywhere, what a great place this is, how she loves it, the need to be positive. She asked me to leave her to her downtime, saying she’ll be OK again in five minutes. That snapshot of her will forever stick in my mind.
I left, and with it once again came the feeling like I’ve let everyone down. True to her word, Fiona was back in the office again in five minutes, full of business and putting the best side out. She talked about how it’s time now to look at planning our recovery, how we will pull out of this and keep the momentum of Carne building just like it had been. We’d done it before, so we could do it again, she said. And I know she’s right, but at the moment it was hard to face into.
I took a 20-minute break of my own and sent off some messages to our friends in the States. Seeing the recent coverage from New York broke my heart, given that we were there in January, meeting some friends of Carne. It was all so positive about the coming year; who could have known then what we had ahead of us? I got immediate responses from all of them, all supportive as ever, despite what they were facing themselves.
I headed home with the absolute gut feeling that yes, we are all in this together, and we’ll all get through this together. Fiona and I would continue to plan for brighter days ahead. We have to; there’s no other way.
Click here to support Carne through international membership, items from the pro shop or reaching out to Gerry and Fiona.