Monday 16 July 2018

Demot Gilleece: The big issues for golf clubs are proper management, security of boundaries, handicapping and slow play


'From my experience of golf club life these days, the most worrying issues have to do with proper management, security of boundaries, handicapping and slow play' Photo: David Maher / Sportsfile (stock)
'From my experience of golf club life these days, the most worrying issues have to do with proper management, security of boundaries, handicapping and slow play' Photo: David Maher / Sportsfile (stock)

Dermot Gilleece

You probably know the old chestnut about the departmental head who reports a problem to the company's chief executive. "What's the solution to the problem?" the CEO asks. "Don't know; that's why I'm informing you." "Well, come back to me when you have a solution," is the unsympathetic response from on high.

I was reminded of this little exchange looking through 'Golf in Ireland: A Statistical Analysis of Participation'. It's been produced by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) on behalf of the Confederation of Golf in Ireland (CGI), which was formed as an umbrella body in October 2013.

Apart from statistical detail, the report contains very little that might alleviate ongoing problems for clubs up and down the country. Indeed I can imagine most club managers wondering why it was undertaken in the first place, other than as a reference document.

For the most part, it simply confirms information we already know - in 20,000 words. Like its co-author, Dr Pete Lunn, informing us: "Golf is unusual among sporting activities in its appeal to older people and link to lifelong health benefits." We're even told "participation is generally higher in Dublin, Leinster and in urban areas, rather than rural areas."

From my experience of golf club life these days, the most worrying issues have to do with proper management, security of boundaries, handicapping and slow play. And some help in marketing would also be greatly appreciated. Clubs don't need enlightenment about the growing financial and family pressures on young married couples, the frequency of play through the week, the general cost of golf and the self-evident fact that participation is greater among the over-55s.

This last mentioned has become the most significant change in my experience over the last 30 years. I can remember a time when a typical clubhouse scene on a weekday was of a few pensioners, probably in their late 60s or 70s, nursing a pint or a small one around midday, while reading their newspaper of choice. Now they're playing the game, some of them well into their 80s.

This is recognised in the report, which quotes a Swedish study claiming that golfers' mortality is lower by 40 per cent, or an additional five years of life expectancy.

Mind you the report cautions: "While we cannot conclude with certainty that all the 40 per cent decreased mortality rates that we observe in the golf cohort are explained by the physical activity associated with playing golf, we conclude that most likely this is part of the explanation."

It adds: "Overall, this evidence would suggest that golf is very likely to have significant overall health benefits, with quite substantial impacts possible, especially because the game provides moderate levels of physical activity to large numbers."

Among the more serious issues which arose for Irish golf clubs in recent decades was equal rights for women. In this context, it can be said that the GUI handled the matter admirably through the quiet persistence of their late honorary secretary Des Rea O'Kelly.

As a scribe, I found myself becoming increasingly involved, to the extent of proposing to O'Kelly a structure for change which was adopted as a three-tier constitution for clubs. This separated the men's game from the women's game, with the actual facility becoming a third club in which the other two would participate.

The fact that many golf clubs kicked furiously against change wasn't his fault. And it remains a problem area, reflecting badly on the fundamental decency of entrenched males.

Another issue was boundaries, which remains a problem for certain clubs in urban areas. Yet to my knowledge, the GUI have offered no significant help to affected clubs who would certainly welcome legal expertise.

Ballyneety GC have had to re-design their 18th hole, Clontarf GC had to change their 13th and Malahide GC have had to undertake even more extensive adjustments to their course. Then, in the more extreme cases, you had the old Malahide GC on Strand Road having to relocate to an entirely new venue, as did Dun Laoghaire GC to their present home in Ballyman. And boundaries remain an issue for clubs such as Foxrock, Killiney, Douglas and Greystones. These and other affected clubs would undoubtedly welcome some guidance at national level on the tort of nuisance and risk assessments.

On the issue of handicapping, which goes to the very heart of the game's integrity, it is to be hoped that measures outlined recently by the GUI will bear fruit. But we're as far away from action on slow play as we were when the US Golf Association declared war on it four years ago. And it most certainly matters.

In fact it is likely to drive people from the game more readily than the issue of cost. And we know that there's no point in remonstrating with the culprits, whose standard response is either one of denial, or verbal abuse. Penalty strokes have to be imposed. And I'm certain that competition secretaries would welcome guidance before embarking on such action.

The emergence of enlightened club management committees has made it less likely these days for captains to go building monuments to themselves. Yet evidence remains of ill-conceived spending. The Celtic Tiger years led to some regrettable clubhouse excesses, resulting in serious debt burdens which remain a worry, even for wealthier establishments.

As a simple lesson in good husbandry, rivals could look at this year's Irish Open venue, Portstewart, where nine new holes were built to admirable standards, at a total cost of £120,000, albeit nearly 30 years ago. And they have made their 26,000 square foot clubhouse financially viable.

Back in 1989, when Clontarf GC were considering various clubhouse options, ranging from reconstruction to refurbishment, Harry Bradshaw happened to pay a social visit. Standing at a window looking out on the golf course, he was informed of these grandiose plans.

"Remember," he said gently, "out there is where you play the game." Indeed.

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