The waiting game continues for the majority of North Americans who booked golf packages overseas in 2020.
Almost a year into the global pandemic, international borders remain closed and coronavirus cases are surging in certain hot spots, leaving golf packagers and their clients in limbo still. They're both left hoping that the vaccine rollout can eventually bring links lovers back to Scotland, Ireland, England and Wales. The question is when?
"Certainly 2021 is not looking as promising as it did a few months back," Marty Carr, founder and chief executive officer of Carr Golf Group Dublin, Ireland, wrote in an email. "The new wave, different variants, new lockdowns across Europe and the slower than expected roll out of the vaccine are making travel in the first half of the year unlikely. We do expect some of our clients to travel in the second half of the year but most likely in the July/August through October window. Courses and hotels are fully booked for the remainder of the year, and we will have to wait and see how these multiple issues all play out."
PerryGolf President Gordon Dalgleish said clients are making the final decision to travel or to re-book generally 60 days prior to the trip. That's when the final payment is due.
Joe Lyons, the co-founder of Irish-based Lyons Links, said many of his groups booked to travel in April and May have already rescheduled for 2022. "All July through October clients are leaving their bookings on hold," he added. "Given the vaccine roll outs and the extensive lock down here at the moment, I would be very confident we will see overseas visitors in Q3."
All four golf tour operators interviewed for this story indicated that inventory at the most famous links will be scarce this year, and that issue is starting to push into 2022. Next year also happens to be the 150th anniversary of The Open, which will be held at St. Andrews.
The moral of the story? If you want to play a bucket-list links sometime in the next 18 months, book now to secure your spot. All packagers, airlines and hotels are still offering no-penalty cancellation and/or re-booking policies during the pandemic.
"The primary courses in the British Isles will be historically very busy April through October, because of the rolled-over business," Dalgleish said. "It all depends on where you are going. The Old Course (at St. Andrews), Muirfield, Ballybunion, Royal County Down, they are in prime demand."
An opportunity for unsung destinations
The squeezing of inventory could open the door for lesser-known links destinations like Wales, Northwest Ireland and England. PerryGolf has created new packages, called the Authentic Scotland & Ireland Collections, to tout places less frequented by Americans like Portsalon, Ballyliffin and Rosapenna in Ireland and Cruden Bay and Moray in Scotland.
Carr indicated that his team will be "directing people to other regions" like Northwest Ireland and the Highlands of Scotland, home to Royal Dornoch, Brora, Nairn and Castle Stuart, for events like the 3rd annual Donald Ross Pro-Am in September. Northwest Ireland is quite intriguing with Gil Hanse's redesign of Narin and Portnoo and the scheduled summer opening of St. Patrick's Links by Tom Doak at Rosapenna.
"Northwest Ireland is definitely a great option if borders reopen with less pressure there on (tee) sheets. In my honest opinion, the courses there easily stack up against their better-known counterparts," Lyons added.
Sam Baker, the founder and chief executive officer at Haversham & Baker, a high-end packager, noted that the pent-up demand for links golf might be changing how his clients travel.
"Their travel habits have been changed and they require a more tailored approach," he indicated by email. "For example, that might mean booking exclusive use lodging near Muirfield or private dinners in the Old Course Hotel. For these golfers, the ability to travel when they want, stay and play where they want, and do so with exactly whom they want is more important than ever."