Wednesday 17 January 2018

McHenry eyes family affair at Irish clubs

Former Tour professional John McHenry has acted as a golf consultant to the Irish Open.
Former Tour professional John McHenry has acted as a golf consultant to the Irish Open.
Liam Kelly

Liam Kelly

JOHN McHenry has spent a lifetime in golf and finds the game at a crossroads in its development at club and professional level.

Cork-born McHenry was one of Ireland's finest amateur players of his day, winning national titles from a young age.

The Douglas GC member claimed Irish Youths titles in 1980, '81, and '85, and in 1986 became the Irish Close champion, winning at Royal Dublin by 4&3 against Paul Rayfus of Trim (now County Meath GC). Rayfus had won the West of Ireland title that year, but had no answer to McHenry in the Irish Close final.

McHenry also won the South of Ireland at Lahinch in '86, and he climaxed his amateur career with his selection for the Walker Cup team in 1987. From there, he made the transition to the professional game with a fine swing, a very good amateur record behind him, and big hopes for the future.

Unfortunately it didn't turn out that way. Between 1988, his first season and 1999, McHenry won €262,926 in prize money, but struggled to find the form which had launched him into the paid ranks in the first place.

His highest Tour ranking was 81st in 1993, and his most spectacular performance was arguably a third place finish in the 1998 Irish Open at Druids Glen.

McHenry had made very little money prior to that event during the '98 season, but the cheque he earned gained him his Tour card for 1999.

However, the grind became too much to bear and McHenry faced facts and opted out of Tour life just over 11 years ago. He had a degree in economics and business, and wanted to stay in the golf industry, which was still his passion.

McHenry has had regular media work, in broadcast and print, and also had the foresight and humility to gain his PGA club pro qualifications from 2000 to 2003. After a stint as teaching professional at the K Club, he became director of golf there ahead of the 2006 Ryder Cup.

From Straffan he moved into golf consultancy and worked with EASSDA Group, which set up New Forest and Moy Valley. And then he became centrally involved with mobile communications firm '3' as a consultant to rebrand and rebuild the Irish Open.

The Open had two spectacular years, first with amateur Shane Lowry winning at Baltray in 2009, and then the Killarney spectacular over the August Bank Holiday weekend this year, in which Ross Fisher pipped Padraig Harrington in a spectacular finish.

McHenry has had a varied and interesting golf career, and he has seen the game develop at all levels. And that makes his views on the future of golf clubs all the more interesting, as he suggests that the Irish mode of operation needs a radical change of direction.

"I haven't moved away from the golf industry because I'm still hugely passionate about it, and I'm particularly passionate about it the way it's going at the present time," said McHenry.

"There are a lot of home truths that have to come out. The fact is that golf clubs -- and I'm not talking about the resort-type clubs, I'm talking about the fundamental, everyday golf club -- have to change their ways.

"They have to become more family based. For example, if you go to a rugby pitch on a Saturday morning, there are big numbers of kids on the pitch and a huge number of adults around the pitch watching the kids training.

"Golf clubs have to become as friendly as that. They have to put on structures to compete with these other sports clubs to actually get adults and children on the premises together.

"You'd have to make it that adults would have free coffee and scones and whatever in the morning while the kids are getting tuition and so on. They should be giving over areas in clubhouses where there are child-friendly zones, and the older members should view the family element as being as important as themselves."

McHenry's comments made me pause -- because surely Irish male golf has traditionally been based on the idea that the man goes to his golf club to get time away from the family?

That's precisely the attitude that McHenry feels needs to be altered to provide a wellspring of youth for the game in general and clubs in particular.

"The point is, look at the age population in golf. In the majority of clubs, probably about 60pc of their members in the next 15 years will be in the senior category," said McHenry.

"Unless clubs are going to come up with innovative ideas and embrace their families, they will suffer.


"People who are in the 25-40 age group and who are potential members of golf clubs are in a situation with the family that spending time with them at the weekend is a priority. Clubs have to find ways to embrace that.

"If golf clubs are not going to compete with sports such as camogie, rugby, gaelic and soccer clubs, they will lose out. Clubs have to be treated as business where they speculate to accumulate and become far more focused on ways of getting in new members.

"Golf clubs have to move from where they have historically been to become market leaders in some capacity. I can see a situation where either an existing club will adapt, or a new facility will start up and open itself to a big catchment area as a totally family-focused club.

"You'd want it to be a place where the family is welcome, where the parents come along and where the kids are taken care of, and given coaching and taught how to behave on the golf course.

"You don't want a situation where the kids are simply dumped at the club and it's a glorified babysitting service, but a place where there's a family atmosphere and everyone gets to use the place for recreation."

Interesting views and thought-provoking.

I remember being with an Irish Youths training panel in 2004 where the lads started their week with a match at Guadalhorce Golf Club near Malaga in Spain.

The club is the home of Miguel Angel Jimenez and Pablo Martin. The latter was then a very talented player tipped for stardom, which he has justified by winning twice on Tour, most recently in the Alfred Dunhill Championship at Leopard Creek.

Martin played against the Irish Youths and was just as he is now -- a player of military golf (left, right, left, right) -- but able to recover with a fine short game.

The match had a decent gallery of members, male and female, but back at the clubhouse other families were having lunch together.

And out on the practice ground kids of all ages were having golf instruction -- focused on fun and enjoyment -- from the professional and his assistants.

All very relaxed and a nice way to spend a Sunday. Could this be YOUR club in a few years time?

Irish Independent

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