Anyone who has had any contact with club golf - especially inter-club golf - in recent years will know that feelings are running high regarding handicap cheats.
If the GUI stops short of admitting there is a problem with cheating and banditry, Finn acknowledges it’s an issue that concerns many of the 14,000 golfers who recently replied to an online survey that forms part the GUI’s strategic review.
“We are in the middle of a strategic review with all the main stakeholders - golf clubs, branches of the GUI, elite players and some external bodies such as the sports councils north and south, the R&A and so on - and are talking to members of golf clubs by way of an online survey,” said Finn.
“More than 14,000 people responded and there are a number of key topics that people want us to focus on and one of those things is handicapping.
“On the question of people playing off higher handicaps than their ability in order to gain an advantage, the various stakeholders want the GUI to do something about it. As to what that is, I don’t know.
“The strategy may identify what the GUI could do and what the GUI will do in terms of this issue. But certainly it has come out very clearly, particularly in the online member survey, that it’s something people want the GUI to do something about.
“It’s too early to say what that is but clearly there is an onus on the GUI to tackle it. I suspect it also might include proposals to amend the handicapping rules in some way but to some degree our hands are tied because we are one of six or seven associations that are recognised by CONGU and we only have a certain amount of power.
“Clearly we are being told through this consultation process that there are pretty significant issues [in handicapping] and that people are cheesed off and want action. On a personal level, I don’t seen any difference between a person, over time, orchestrating their handicap to gain an unfair advantage and kicking your ball in the rough.
“Having a handicap that is too high is worse in that it’s premeditated rather than something that is done in the heat of the moment. That’s my personal view. But as to what stance the GUI takes in relation to it, we are just not there yet. It’s something we will have to approach from a strategic perspective and say, here’s how we are going to try and tackle it.”
Finn doesn’t see the same issue with golfers playing off handicaps that are artificially too low or the proliferation of scratch or plus handicap players struggling in championships. He believes this has less to do with handicap manipulation and more to do with new technology allowing players to shoot low in club competitions, only to be faced with the harsh realities of top-level golf.
“Some people make the argument that this wasn’t the way it used to be. A scratch golfer used to be a scratch golfer but look at the results of Irish Amateurs or qualifiers for the Irish Close or the East in the past. Look back 40 or 50 years and you will find the same thing,” he said. “So I don’t think it is something that’s being abused to the same degree as sometimes were are told.
“If you look at the driving distance stats on the European Tour website, that tells you everything. There was a time when a 380-yard par-four was a tough proposition. Nowadays that’s a drive and a flick.”
Carton House home to the AIG Cups and Shields Finals
The AIG Cups and Shields Finals moved to Carton House in 2014 as part of a five-year experiment to see if the concept of making the Maynooth venue the permanent home of the annual festival of club golf would take hold.
Conceived to save money on staging costs and give clubs golfers their own version of Croke Park to aim for, the jury is out on the success of the first year.
Several clubs complained privately of the high cost of staying at a four-star resort such as Carton House as well as the cost of food and drink on site. The O’Meara Course was in perfect condition but such a vast property led to difficulties for spectators when it came to getting around, while the lack of on-course facilities, such as toilets, was also noted.
“We haven’t had a formal debrief and we are going to have that after next year,” said Finn. “If we are to change back to the previous system of rotating the finals around the provinces we would have to approach a club (about hosting the event).
“As it happens, it won’t be in Carton in 2018, which will be year five, because Carton is hosting the World Amateur Team Championships. So regardless of what happens in the review, the Cups and Shields will be held somewhere else in 2018.
“Generally speaking it was good. The course was excellent and players were very happy with the golf course. It didn’t have the same feel as it would in a members’ club where they are making sure for weeks in advance that everything is tiptop because they have a sense of ownership in the event.
“The event itself certainly had a great atmosphere and plenty of people showed up. Obviously there are always some logistical problems and the golf course was a little bit removed from the clubhouse and so on and that’s something we need to work on for next year so we can shuttle people from car parks and the clubhouse up to the first tee or a vantage point. Geographically it is more dispersed compared to a lot of golf clubs where we have held the event.
“The whole idea of coming to Carton for the finals was attractive for a lot of people and they liked playing over the O’Meara Course, which was in great condition. The overall consensus was a positive one but we need a proper debrief after next year to make a proper judgement on it.”
As for the issue of expense, Finn added: “The combination options are numerous around the Maynooth area and if teams wanted to stay on site, it was definitely more expensive than some of the hotels in the area. Nobody complained about that but some complained they weren’t staying on site. But that’s a matter of whether you are prepared to pay a four-star price to stay on site. If you’re not, there are many options outside the walls of Carton that are not far away; hotels in Maynooth, Dunboyne, Liffey Valley and so on.
“In terms of the food prices, they were in line with recent years. I suppose when you walk into a place like Carton and pay €17 for a main course, tea and coffee, people might find that expensive. There was a buffet for as much as you want to eat for that price. Some find that expensive, some don’t. It was certainly more expensive than normal club food.
“But typically the Cups and Shields prices are a little more expensive anyway. It was in line with recent years prices for Cups and Shields. In an initial year there were certainly some teething problems and we need to put them right for next year.
“While there was some on-course catering, prices were higher than anticipated and it’s tough nowadays when people have to put their hands in their own pockets to represent their clubs or indeed fundraise to play in finals.”
The GUI, at least, saved themselves €20,000, which is the cost of putting up a marquee and providing mobile kitchens when the event is held at traditional clubs around the country.
The 2015 season will see the Irish Amateur Close return to Tramore from August 18-21 with Royal Portrush hosting the Home Internationals the previous week.
The team to defend the Raymond Trophy will not be announced until after the South of Ireland Championship, which will be played from July 22-26. But with the Interprovincial Championship brought forward to July 6-8 at Rosapenna, it will be interesting to see if many of the elite players make the trip to Lahinch.
As for the Irish Amateur Open, it will again be held at Royal Dublin from May 7-10 and continue there in 2016 before thoughts turn to future venues. .
“We are looking at different venues as opposed to one venue,” said Finn. “The venues and fixtures committee looks after that. If there is to be a rota, Royal Dublin would certainly stay on that. It’s just a question now of what the criteria for future venues is and then approaching a club to host from 2017 onwards.
“It needs to be accessible for overseas visitors, not that it has to be right beside the airport. But if it is a reasonable commute from Dublin or an international airport that would be important.”
Strengthening the field will require driving home the message that the Irish Amateur Open takes place the week before the Lytham Trophy, offering top players the chance to play two elite events in quick succession.
With Ireland finishing second to Spain in this year’s European Amateur Men’s Team Championship, strengthening the idea that Ireland is a golfing powerhouse is crucial for the success of our top international event.