Dermot Gilleece: Royal appointment looms for top club performers
The Cups and Shields are to be celebrated in times of turbulence for many golf clubs
At various points throughout the classic parkland of Royal Tara last week, members were noting the strange faces of visiting practitioners engaged in serious homework. They had come from far and wide to prepare for the biggest occasion in the club golfing year.
As it happens, this week's gathering in Co Meath, starting on Wednesday, represents a watershed in the history of the National Finals of the Cups and Shields. In a radical change aimed at saving the GUI €100,000 over four years, the event is to have an extended stay at Carton House, the union's headquarters, starting in 2014.
"It will be a four-year experiment representing the natural cycle between the provinces," said Pat Finn, the Union's general secretary. "Though the primary objective is to save money, we believe that the nature of the venue could add to the appeal of the event, making it a sort of pilgrimage."
The anticipated impact of a 'headquarters effect' will be reviewed after two years with the clubs which have qualified for the new process by that stage. And it may not receive unanimous approval, especially from establishments who will lose a perfect vehicle for centenary celebrations. Then there is the obvious advantage to the members of Carton House GC, if they continue to display the skills which have brought their Senior Cup team to the national finals this week.
"It's a trade-off between money and prestige," Finn went on. "The saving will be achieved largely through administration costs of about €25,000 per year for the Cups and Shields. Facilities such as marquee-dining and car-parking usually have to be set up by the host club and we ensure that they're not exposed to any loss, other than for potential green-fee revenue that particular week.
"Royal Tara, where it's been necessary to erect only a small marquee, happens to be exceptional in having the capacity to host the event with very few additional amenities. Kinsale last year, however, was arguably more typical in that we had to tag on a large marquee with kitchen and dishwashing facilities and a generator. Typically, the bill for such installations would be between €20,000 and €25,000."
On average, each Irish golf club member pays an annual levy of €19 of which €13 goes to the Union at national level and about €6 goes to the provincial branch. Growing problems have been inevitable, however, given a drop in overall membership to 140,018 from a peak of 177,000 in 2004.
Though there is no indication of any more clubs closing down, Finn cautioned that this isn't something that happens overnight. Have the other home unions of England, Scotland and Wales suffered similarly? "Not to the same degree as us," he replied. "This can be explained by the fact that their numbers didn't increase as dramatically as ours did during the good years. They're effectively losing only a little fat."
And the decline here hasn't yet bottomed out. "The feedback we're getting from club secretary/managers is that further membership losses have to be factored in for this year," said Finn. "Up to the end of October 2012 we had a fall of five-and-a-half per cent but the good news is that this year's decline appears to be at a slightly lower rate, probably five per cent."
To put these developments into stark perspective, Royal Tara have had to endure a net loss of 120 members over the last two years. So it is hardly surprising that they are looking to this week's event as a splendid opportunity to promote themselves, certainly in a national context. The quality of their product has stood up to serious inspection over the years, going back to the old 18 of what was once Bellinter Park GC. It was on this stretch that Breda Harrington saw her promising son, Pádraig, play competitive golf for the first time in the Leinster Youths Championship of 1988.
As the future three-time Major champion recalled: "At a long par three, I hit this shot towards the right-hand side of the green in a left-to-right wind and I started shouting,'Hook! hook! hook!' Thinking it was another word, somewhat similar in sound, she almost had to be restrained from dragging me off the golf course."
But it proved to be a joyous occasion with young Harrington winning by a crushing margin of 11 strokes.
Then there was the June 2006 Youth International match against Wales, which showcased a very different course.
Sixteen years previously, Royal Tara was transformed into 27 holes of which the old Bellinter back nine became the Yellow Nine and the Blue and Red Nines were the handiwork of Des Smyth and Declan Branigan.
This is the stretch which will now test the country's club elite, from Pierce Purcell Shield to Irish Senior Cup. And memories remain fresh of 17-year-old Rory McIlroy, as a member of the victorious home team, reducing the fearsome 550-yard dogleg 18th to a towering drive over trees, followed by a six-iron second shot to the green.
Meanwhile, there is the promise next week of another Pierce Purcell dream team to match the famous Galway Golf Club line-ups of 1992 and 1993, when Gaelic football greats Pat Donnellan and Bosco McDermott eased seamlessly into golfing legend. Though this latest line-up also hails from west of the Shannon, their home is the ancient duneland of Spanish Point.
One could imagine a raising of eyebrows among experienced punters on hearing that the Clare boys are a rather tight even-money bet with Paddy Power to lift the trophy. The really interesting bit, however, is that they've actually eased out from 8/11, going into their semi-final assignment against Rossmore on Thursday.
On from the short 195-yard 15th with its large sloping green, the tree-lined finishing holes at Royal Tara will present a searching test of courage, temperament and skill. Which should be a perfect setting for this week's combat.