Q&A with Gary Henry

Managing Director Galgorm Castle

Q: I see Galgorm has just been listed as the number two parkland in Northern Ireland by the Irish Golfer Top 100 Rankings 2024? 

GH: We are delighted with the latest rankings and it’s a reflection of the hard work and investment that continues year-on-year here at Galgorm. It’s a real team effort, from all the staff and a special mention on the hard work of our greenkeeping team - plus the many members who help volunteer their time supporting the club both on and off the golf course. We must also thank the majority of our members who help us look after the golf course by repairing pitch marks, replacing divots and raking bunkers – all help and support is greatly appreciated. 

A lot of new golf courses emerged across Ireland over the last 30 years as part of the boom times and growth of golf internationally. Pre the 2008 financial crisis, a tried and tested model, particularly in the Republic of Ireland, was to buy land or an estate after borrowing millions from the bank. That allowed developers to build residential housing, which in effect paid for the golf course development. There was a real boom from the 1990s into early 2000s, especially in the Celtic Tiger days. They were high spec facilities, state of the art, desirable golf destinations. However, when the financial crisis hit in 2008, a large proportion lost their owners through restructuring.        

In the north, it was a completely different scenario, largely due to planning laws and restrictions. As a result, places like Galgorm have been few and far between in Northern Ireland. The business model here required direct and sustained investment from the directors and shareholders, which made the real difference. 

What I’m saying is, it is fitting that Galgorm continues to climb the rankings every year. We have achieved this through continual investment over the years. When Galgorm opened in 1997, the budget to build the course would have been a fraction of the budgets for the new resort courses that were popping up down south. However, Galgorm always had a long-term vision and as a result moved from being just another wet parkland in the early days to today’s championship course that hosts international tournaments on the DP World, LPGA and LET tours.

Q: A lot to consider there, but it really has been an evolution, hasn’t it?

GH: It certainly has, you could say Galgorm has been almost 30 years in the making. And it’s a similar timeline to our partners at Galgorm Resort, who have also grown substantially in the same period. It’s great recognition that we are now up there with the best courses in the country. It’s special to note we are ranked the second-best parkland in Northern Ireland and in the top 15 parklands on the island of Ireland. It’s not too much of a stretch to say Galgorm and our partners at the Resort really have put Ballymena on the map and are key players within Northern Ireland tourism. We do not plan to rest on our laurels and the evolution will continue with a focus on making Galgorm the top parkland in NI and one of the top parklands on the island. However, it’s not all about the rankings – ensuring the golf course is presented to a high standard and enjoyable our members is very important to us.   

Q: Did the Tours behind the events held at Galgorm help financially with any investment to the course? 

GH: That’s a rumour that’s been doing the rounds for a while now, but it’s simply not true. All investment year-on-year has come from our shareholders via the board of directors. None of the Tours or any of the events staged at Galgorm have ever invested in the venue.    

Q: Like most courses across the country, including some links courses, the wet weather has not been kind to preparations ahead of the new season. How has Galgorm managed?  

GH: 2023 has been the wettest year by some distance since the course opened in 1997 with nine months of no real let up in the rain - while in the last few days, this winter has been confirmed as the wettest since records began. This has affected the autumn/winter projects but has also made the year difficult and challenging for everyone. Rain has never been far away, but rest assured we’re as frustrated as the members. It takes the enjoyment out of golf at times, but it’s the same for courses up and down the country. Unfortunately, the wet weather has an impact on us all; members not being able to play, our inability to get projects done and for visiting golfers looking to play. And we do need visitors, they are key to the overall business model – helping to reduce membership fees. 

Despite these challenges, our team has done extremely well to work on the Autumn/Winter projects. Work on the 8th hole is 90 per cent complete, we’re just waiting on dryer weather to carry out the final shaping and sewing out on the mounds behind the green. This will be a great hole and also less penal - should you hit your approach left of the green, you’ll now take a penalty drop in that area, but before it would likely have been a lost ball.  

The added benefit is when you reach the ninth tee, you can see the whole of the lake now. When this project started several years ago, you couldn’t really see any of the lake. Huge changes, visually it has improved holes 8 and 9.

Q: I believe there is great work happening at the first hole too?  

GH: We’re making good progress. There has been a heavy use of sleepers and a castellated design theme in-keeping with the castle and estate. The tee complex will create a large new teeing area and make the hole easier with a gentler dogleg. When complete the new first tee will really enhance the member experience and help with pace of play. 

There is also drainage work and two new bunkers being added on the left side of Hole 1, plus we’ve cut and refined some of the trees, while planting some new trees to the right of the hole. These should all be completed in time for Easter.

We’re also creating a new chipping green including a greenside bunker, as part of the first tee complex – this will enhance the pre-round experience by adding the facility to chip and play some bunker shots in such close proximity to the 1st tee, along with the putting green. 

Projects at Hole 1 and Hole 8 have been the main focus and have taken up a lot of man hours, plus we’re still working through the Woodland Management Plan. There are now lots of places where the wooded area has opened up. This helps air circulate and more light through, but it’s an ongoing process, even the clearing up of tree cuttings takes time, it needs wood-chipped, which will then be used for path dressings.

Q: You mentioned drainage, how is that doing on the course?

GH: We’ve been slightly restricted because of the poor weather, but hopefully that changes as the weather improves in spring. There are still some areas of the course we are looking to get into. 

We’re also building a new tee box on the sixth and we hope to have that in play by the end of this season or in early-2025. The new tee is in a better place to receive more sunlight and is more elevated with a stronger playing surface. It also provides a more interesting angle, more of a dog leg, and will also make the hole more playable. 

As part of all these course improvements over the years, members should have noticed we have built a lot of new tee boxes. The core objective is to make sure we have a minimum of four teeing areas on each hole, and ideally up to six. 

Q: What’s the thinking behind the new tees?       

GH: In spring this year, we are going to introduce new colours for the different tee boxes. Gone are the days of red tees for the ladies and white tees for the men etc. We have a new colour scheme that will be announced in due course. We’ll move away from the typical gender identified tees and have multiple tees for golfers to choose where to play from based on their ability. The aim is for members and visitors to enjoy their game more, rather than playing from tees that are too difficult. We also hope it improves the pace of play.

Other updates will include a facelift at McQuillans. We removed the canvas tented area which has opened the area up. 

Q: Any off-course changes to note?    

GH: The carpark is still a work in progress, with more work commencing at the beginning of March. Like the first tee, it will have a castellated theme using sleepers. Carparks, pathways and the first tee will carry this new design theme. 

We also plan to make improvements to the entrance of the clubhouse, plus we have plans to upgrade the range and short game area that will include new mats.

All told, a lot has been achieved over the winter, but there’s still a lot to do – we are playing catch up because of the poor weather, but the majority of this work won’t affect play as the season begins. 

Members will realise there has been an extensive amount of work carried out over the last five years. Our plan is to keep improving the product and experience at Galgorm. A golf course is never really finished and every year we still look to make improvements. It’s an evolving story. As I mentioned previously, we want to make Galgorm the top parkland in NI and one of the top parklands on the island. However, it’s not all about the rankings – ensuring the golf course is presented to a high standard and enjoyable our members is very important to us.   

Q: Has there been any developments or updates across the estate?  

GH: One of the main changes at the Business Courtyard is the new GP practice, Duality Healthcare. This will be another great benefit to members. We’re currently working with the team there to offer incentives for members at the new practice.     

Q: Given all the developments in recent years, can we take a wider view of the set up at Galgorm and explain how members at Galgorm benefit from the continued investment? 

GH: We operate as a proprietary club which is very different to a private members’ club. We have some significant disadvantages. For example, when we issue member subs for the year, at Galgorm we are subject to 20% VAT – private members’ clubs do not pay VAT and also get significant rates relief compared to us, whereas our rates bill has just increased dramatically.  

Generally, when private members’ clubs need to upgrade their course or facilities, they typically ask for a levy from their members. Many of the clubs, especially around the greater Belfast area, have numerous additional levies, which can make membership quite expensive on top of the basic subscription.

The difference for places like Galgorm is that all the work that has gone before and continues to take place is done at no additional cost to the members. Other than the inconvenience of the actual work being carried out, there is no cost to the member.       

Q: How do you manage the increase in costs and investment year on year?

GH: In addition to the many costs associated with any business, we must factor in all these increases. For example, course machinery has become very high-spec and therefore is a significant investment these days. The cost of machinery in the last 10 years has more than doubled.  

Take fertilisers, there’s a worldwide shortage and that’s largely down to the war in Ukraine - the cost has also gone through the roof. We have also had the increases to business rates and the rising minimum wage, all of which bring their challenges across all businesses and we are no different.  

Our costs in general have increased between 10-20% year-on-year in recent years. For Galgorm to deliver the standard we have all come to expect, we need to keep driving efficiencies across the business and also find ways to generate additional revenue – this helps limit increases on membership subscriptions. 

When it comes to member subscriptions, we remain extremely mindful of any increase and keep this to a minimum. 

Key revenue streams that help keep member subs down are visitor green fees, consumer spend in the Pro Shop, the driving range and other facilities. These are key and help offset any increases to member subscriptions, so we encourage our members to use and support all our facilities as this only helps members in the long run. 

It’s worth noting our visitor green fees have significantly increased over the years, and that’s been helped by the course’s continued rise up the golf course rankings and its enhanced reputation as one of the country’s premier tournament venues. Our visitor rack rate green fees in the high season is now £175. 

Q: Can I just track back a moment, did I hear you mention robots cut the grass at Galgorm, is this true? 

GH: As we look to the future, we are currently trialling robot mowers on the golf course. This is ongoing and we see this as a potential solution in the future. The obvious benefit of using robots is they could cut through the night, they’re also much lighter and have less impact on the ground. They also don’t cost as much to run as they are battery powered, so solar hubs can help power them. 

The robot currently lives at McQuillans Hut and is one of our hardest workers – it’s something we are looking at seriously. As Galgorm expands and evolves, this type of resource could become invaluable.

Q: Before we finish, how are things on the tournament front after the World Invitational concluded in 2023?         

GH: We’ve had a great run of tournament golf at Galgorm with the World invitational and the Irish Open in 2020. This year, we look forward to the NI Open returning in July back on the European Challenge Tour schedule and it will be an event for the whole community – free to enter and activities for all the family. 

We encourage members to come down and enjoy the event with friends and family from July 24-28 – there is a strong Irish contingent on the Challenge Tour so there will be plenty of local interest.

There also won’t be the same course restrictions as in recent years when we hosted events on the DP World Tour, so members’ golf will not be affected as much in the build-up to tournament week. 

Q: What are your aspirations for the season ahead – obviously less rain is the top of everyone’s list?      

GH: We want members to enjoy a great season and enjoy the changes that have been made to the course along with some decent weather and a bit of run on the fairways. 



Championship Castle Course

Click through for a closer look at the scorecard and gallery of the Championship Castle Course at Galgorm where international tournaments have been played on the DP World Tour, LPGA Tour and LET, including events such as the 2020 Irish Open, ISPS HANDA World Invitational and is the home of the NI Open.   

Click Here
Galgorm Castle Golf Club & Estate