John Roche: Putting Irish golf back on course
Graphic via  Golfing Magazine

Graphic via Golfing Magazine

Imagine Croke Park packed to the rafters for a big game — close to 80,000 souls with a love of sport and time to invest in its enjoyment.

Now imagine the stadium utterly bereft of people — no noise, no buzz, no money being spent, no spectacle, no heroes for future generations to admire.

Losing 80,000 jobs is a catastrophe by any yardstick but when the game of golf in Ireland loses that number of active participants in little more than five years, it’s clear that something needs to be done. 

All hail then, the foundation of the Confederation of Golf in Ireland (CGI), set up last October after an 18-month quest by bringing together the top people from the Golfing Union of Ireland (GUI), the Irish Ladies Golf Union (ILGU and the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) to address and fix the core issues facing the game on this island.

Falling participation numbers are near the top of the CGI’s agenda, as the GUI’s General Secretary, Pat Finn, explains.

"At a high the total membership was around 310,000," he says. "Now it’s around 235,000 - we are down a significant amount."

Before you throw your eyes up to heaven at the thought of another quango-style organisation, it’s worth listening to the man chosen to roll up his sleeves and set about putting Irish golf back on course.

Appointed as the CGI’s Director of Golf and Business Development, Bray native John Roche laughs when I ask him if he’s Ireland’s new "Golf Czar", the man whose tasked with "drafting and implementing a plan for the promotion and development of golf in Ireland."

John Roche, the Confederation of Golf in Ireland’s (CGI) Director of Golf and Business Development, 

John Roche, the Confederation of Golf in Ireland’s (CGI) Director of Golf and Business Development, 

"Czar? No. I am just somebody who is trying to do a job and help. That sounds very idealistic but I spent all my volunteer life trying to help with junior structures and the like and I just want to do it now on a bigger scale."

Incoming President of Bray Golf Club and a former member of the Provincial Council of the GUI’s Leinster Branch, his voluntary work in golf involved helping the ILGU on phase two development of a portal to support elite golf as well as numerous projects with his club and the Leinster Branch.

A successful businessman outside the game — his Audio-Visual Communications business employs more than 30 people — he’s spent the last two months [this piece was first published in January - BK] travelling all over Ireland and the UK doing his homework. In common with all the main stakeholders in the CGI, he passionately wants this enterprise to succeed. It’s crucial that it does.

"People say it is a strange time to get into golf — a difficult time," he says over the speakerphone as he motors up the M1 to Belfast on his latest mission. "But that’s part of the challenge. When you work in business, you are used to deadlines and used to working hard. And the last few months have been all about working hard. I have been over to English Golf, I have been over to the Golf Union of Wales, and up to the Scottish Golf Union. I’ve been in to the GAA, I am on my way up to the Ulster Branch at the moment.

"What made this attractive for me was my genuine belief that the GUI, the ILGU and the PGA are really committed to getting this right.  If I thought for a moment that that weren’t, I wouldn’t have been interested in it. But Pat Finn at the GUI, Sinead Heraty at the ILGU and Liam Greasley at the PGA have been absolutely fantastic."

Put simply, the Confederation has four main objectives: to create and implement a development plan for golf in Ireland; to respond to the investment requirements of the two Sports Councils (north and south), who are seeking one single application for golf; to provide an organisation to interact with the Olympic Council of Ireland which wishes to deal with only one body; and to provide support and a "spiritual home" for aspiring Irish tournament professionals in the early years of their careers.

It’s a daunting brief but Mr Roche has no doubt where his priorities lie — getting more people playing the game.

"It is a two-strand approach," he explains. "Let’s get the customers, let’s retain the customers and make sure that the clubs the customers are going to are healthy and fit."

Dragging all Irish golf clubs into the 21st century is not on the list of objectives but it’s implied.  

John Roche with Dottie Pepper at  Junior Golf talk at a conference in Orlando earlier this year.

John Roche with Dottie Pepper at  Junior Golf talk at a conference in Orlando earlier this year.

"I see a big appetite for club services," he says. "That model is operating in England, Scotland and Wales, very successfully and I think it is fantastic that the governing bodies are reaching out to the golf clubs and saying, ‘Look, we want to get involved, we want to get closer to you and we want to help you.’

"We were looking at the branding the Confederation and looking for a tag line and the one I felt was the most appropriate one was — 'Supporting golf.' That can apply to a 10-year old girl or boy coming to one of our coaching programmes to a middle aged man wanting to take up the sport again and it can also apply to an amateur who wants to move into the professional ranks. 

"Do we have a priority? To me, the actual development of golf is the most important thing. Of course the other areas are absolutely important but to be the crucial thing is developing the sport, getting more people playing it and more people staying in it. That has to be our priority. 

"In order to do that we have to have programmes in place to help the golf clubs. We have lost gofers and we need to address that and be more pro-active in getting the message out there that golf is a great sport, a healthy sport, a sport for life. It is accessible and we have to just help drum up business."

From a practical point of view, the CGI hopes to have development officers on the road in March, working with clubs to find out their needs and desires before helping make them a reality. 

"All the clubs are going to be different. Some of the bigger clubs are going to be very well structured, well got where it comes to marketing. Maybe we can help them more with awareness programmes, participation programmes, to help drive golf awareness outside the golf clubs.

"There will be other clubs there that need some assistance or guidance in terms of governance, in terms of marketing. It is not going to be a one-size-fits-all. I talk about golf clubs being agile. But we, as an organisation, have to be agile too.

"We are going to have a range of programmes that clubs can opt in to and we can have a fresh look at where the demands are and the quality of the demand. The positive step is that the governing bodies — the ILGU, the GUI and the PGA - are reaching out to the clubs through the Confederation and saying, ‘We are here to help!’  That may sound very simplistic, but it is an extremely positive move."

Long term goals are all well and good but the CGI needs to see results as quickly as possible. 

"Our goals are more short to medium term," he says. "What we want to try to do is address the situation where the numbers participating in the sport are declining. Long term we would have aspirations that that situation would turn around and more people  would participate in the sport. 

"But in the short to medium term it is about putting programmes in place, putting coaching programmes in place, it’s about getting people playing golf or attracting them back to playing golf.

"In a year’s time, I would like to see a number of golf clubs turing around and saying, ‘You know something, the interaction with the Confederation made a difference.’

"This is all new territory both for the governing bodies and for the clubs. But I am sure of one thing, there is an appetite in the clubs to work more closely with the governing bodies of golf, that’s for sure."

The running of the Team Ireland Golf Trust, set up by Pádraig O hUiginn, the former Secretary-General of the Department of The Taoiseach, before falling under the remit of the Irish Sports Council, will now become the responsibility of the GCI, which has the long term goal of running Challenge Tour and Ladies European Tour Access Series events to give budding Irish professionals a helping hand on the road to tour success. 

Whatever about finding the next Pádraig Harrington or Rory McIlroy, it’s time to get Ireland golfing again so that the ground is fertile enough for the grassroots to prosper.

[Footnote: The Board Members of the CGI are Pat Finn (GUI), Albert Lee (GUI), Sinead Heraty (ILGU), Rosemary Hayes (ILGU) and Liam Greasley (PGA). The Associations have chosen Redmond O’Donoghue, Chairman of Failte Ireland, to be Chair of the Confederation for the next three years.]