Saturday 21 September 2019

Dermot Gilleece: 'Radical change in administration could bring radical new thinking'

Pat Finn, CEO of the GUI. Photo: Golffile/Fran Caffrey
Pat Finn, CEO of the GUI. Photo: Golffile/Fran Caffrey

Dermot Gilleece

All the ingredients seem to be present for lively golf-club debates on the future of the Irish game. The only missing item in the build-up to an island-wide vote on January 19 appears to be a contentious backstop.

Just last week, Pat Finn, chief executive of the GUI, attended specially-convened meetings of the four provincial councils in Carton House, Claremorris, Mallow and Belfast to drum up support. Which is not unlike the tortuous traipsing of Theresa May throughout the UK in her pursuit of a favourable Brexit outcome.

We're looking to the proposed launch of Golf Ireland, aimed at administering the men's and women's amateur game here from one body for the first time in 128 years. Among other things, its success would mean the demise of the world's oldest golf unions, dating back to 1891 and 1893, respectively.

While officials grappled with the various issues, a former elite player travelled here from her home in Devon on a very different assignment. In her capacity as deputy chairman of the Royal and Ancient's Rules of Golf Committee, Claire Dowling was at Tullamore GC last Thursday to "assist with the Irish referees' seminar on the new rules."

So, having been chairman of the handicapping and course-rating committee of Golf England for four years, what did she make of these latest happenings? "I think the coming together is a really good idea," the Dubliner replied. "But with organisations that have done things their own way for a long time, we can expect some friction until things settle down and people get used to the new regime."

The Woodbrook member, who captured five Irish Close Championships and the 1986 British Women's Strokeplay title, went on: "I've no doubt that the establishment of Golf Ireland would be good for the game, not least because talented officials will be sharing resources. It's common sense.

"When I was young, I remember counting about 14 governing bodies for golf in GB and I. For one game in four neighbouring countries: how bloody daft is that?" The road she later travelled led to her becoming the first Irish female member of the R and A, three years ago.

Meanwhile, if the comparison with Brexit appears a little extreme, consider the complexity of the unification voting system. For a start, it is not unlike the collegiate model for the American presidency whereby a US state is accorded a number of votes depending on its population. In this instance, if the male members of a golf club happen to number 100, 200, 300 or 400-plus, they will have one, two, three or a maximum of four votes. The same will apply to its women, though their maximum is three.

Some clubs will make their decision on a vote of the members while others will empower management committees to do so. These secret ballots will then be cast at general meetings of the GUI and ILGU held on January 19, though the GUI also have a postal vote, under the scrutiny of Deloitte.

Should the proposal be carried (75 per cent majority needed for women; two-thirds for men), a two-year transition period would follow, during which the GUI and ILGU will continue to function as at present. We would then enter a whole new world for Irish golf. Defeat for either union would maintain the status quo, probably for some years to come.

A minor legal hurdle concerns the actual title. In another life, I was editor of the magazine Golf Ireland, whose owner had the foresight to officially register the title as a trademark. Which could lead the new body into legal doo-doo. My understanding is that to expedite matters, the title will be licensed for an annual fee.

On meeting Finn and ILGU chief executive Sinéad Heraty last week, both seemed optimistic of a positive vote, which would lead to an annual administrative saving of €250,000.

It also became clear, however, that with the existing provincial branches and district councils becoming redundant, certain officials will resist the prospect of losing their blazers.

A crucial consideration has to be the fact that at present, 183,000 members of GUI and ILGU clubs across Ireland represent a fall of 25 per cent over the last dozen years. Still, the ILGU claim that for the first time since 2008, there has been a rise this year in membership figures of both women and junior girls.

My feeling is that a new national body could do tremendous good for the game if more emphasis were concentrated on the needs of golf clubs and on promoting the game. In this context, it would be no harm to divert financial resources from what I believe is an over-emphasis on elite players, who are effectively being groomed at considerable expense for the professional tours.

"I consider myself fortunate to have played at the best-ever time [1980s] for amateur golf," said Mrs Dowling. "These days, there's far more pressure on young players. There are kids going into elite squads at 12 or 13. While I'm not saying that they're pushed into turning pro after five or six years, it seems to be the way for a lot of players. And I'm not sure that's the best option for a lot of kids."

Radical change at administrative level could bring radical, new thinking. Either way, this is a splendid opportunity for clubs to assert themselves for the long-term good of their members.

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