Pádraig Harrington is a one-man quote machine touching on everything from his dramatic slump and Tiger Woods’ bid to overtake Jack Nicklaus to the contentious issue of national flags and even losing to his son in crazy golf. But he when it comes to covering all the bases, he rates the newly-formed Confederation of Golf in Ireland as a crucial for the future of Irish golf.
Comprising the Golfing Union of Ireland, the Irish Ladies Golf Union and the PGA, the CGI has been created partly to fulfil the requirement of the Olympic movement for one body to deal with the administration of Ireland’s Olympic golf team.
But it has also been set up to halt the dramatic 80,000 drop (25%) in golf club membership over the last decade and put in place the structures to get more people — especially women — playing the game.
Speaking at the launch of the GCI’s 2014-2020 Development Plan, the 42-year old Dubliner put aside his four-year drought and recent exit for the worlds’ Top 200 for the first time in 18 years to hail the new umbrella body as a massive step forward.
“When I grew up playing golf through the ‘80s, there were three distinctly different bodies that competed for the same resources,” he said. “Over the last number of years I have seen a big mellowing of that and they have started working very closely together.
“Today we see the culmination of that with the CGI and they are all working under the one umbrella to grow the game of golf with the understanding that as it grows, it is good for all of them.
“Best practice is to have one Confederation at the top and this is what this is. The individual bodies know best on the ground and the GUI, ILGU, PGA, all did a great job individually. But the CGI can help them do a better job collectively and that’s the important thing today.”
Structures are being put in place to arrest the 25 percent drop in participation numbers with seminars for clubs and “Get Back to Golf” and “Get into Golf” initiatives already up and running.
While 21.3 percent of Ireland’s 178,000 club golfers are female — putting us ahead of England (15.3 percent), Wales (13.5 percent) and Scotland (11.4 percent) — the CGI wants to put Ireland on a par with leading European nations like Austria and Germany (38 percent).
Family golf, according to the ILGU’s Chief Executive, Sinead Heraty, is the way forward with the rigid structure of men playing on Saturday and women on Tuesday with no Juniors allowed at weekends a trend that simply has to stop if we are to make serious progress.
“There has been a perceived barrier that golf is a male domain,” she said, calling on clubs to open their doors to children as young as eight. “Men, women and children need to play golf together.”
Harrington pays for a family membership at Dun Laoghaire and his 10-year old son Paddy is a paying member at Stackstown, where he is made to play from a well ahead of the tees so he gets maximum enjoyment from his quality time with Dad.
“I bring my son up to an imaginary tee box on the fairway where he can reach the par four in two shots and make a par or possibly a birdie on the hole,” Harrington said. “There is nothing more frustrating for kids than teeing off the back tee and taking five shots to get out there and eight at the hole.
“I bring my kids of crazy golf so they can make a birdie and maybe a hole in one. That’s what encourages them — not taking 11 shots to play a long par four.”
The ILGU knows how important it is to get more girls, and women, playing the game.
"At the moment we are at 21 percent female membership," Sinead Heraty said, "and we need to increase that to 30-35 percent to bring us up to the European norm because clubs function better with a higher the female membership.
"Socially it becomes more of a club. From a revenue generation perspective and the health of a club it is better to have a bigger female membership. Women commit more to a club. Very few women will change their shoes in the car park. They will go in, have a social drink and interact.
"There are great opportunities to increase female membership. The over 50s-60s have more time and disposable income. They use times when the course is not as busy and it is a way of maximising that. And if you get more women, you get more children involved. We are doing well on young girls compared to England for example. We have put a lot of money into developing girls. There were always 4,000 girls but only 1,500 actively playing. We now have 2,500 active female golfers under 18."
What needs to change?
"The age criteria of 10. We need to lower that to eight or seven so that by the time they get to 13-14, they are quite good golfers and will stick at the game. There are now very few clubs that wouldn’t take in young girls but we’d like to see then take more and take them younger.
"In the past, there has been a fear that something would happen to a child — that they might get hit with a golf ball — or that parents would use golf as a child minding service. We have to change the culture of golf in golf clubs where men’s golf is on Saturday and women play on Tuesday and get them more mixed with Junior golf.
"We need to be more family orientated in terms of memberships and playing time but we are a long way from that. Having the three governing bodies working together is going to be huge. Trying to grow golf in a golf club is critical for the PGA in terms of coaching golfers."
The brainchild of John Treacy from the Irish Sports Council, the CGI's mission is also to provide a spiritual home for young Irish pros, replacing the old Team Ireland Golf Trust.
There are tentative plans in place to host a Challenge Tour event but that is at least one year away and will require investment from the private sector to cover the prize money and the costs - at least €200,000.
The CEO is John Roche, incoming president of Bray and a successful businessman in his own right
"We are the single point of interaction between the GUI, the ILGU the PGA and the Olympic Council to respond to the investment requirements of the Irish Sports Council and Sport Northern Ireland, who are seeking one application for golf. We are also here to to provide a spiritual home for aspiring Irish tour professionals and develop a High Performance programme for early stage golf professionals. We are also here to develop and implement a development plan for golf including the roll out of service programmes for golf clubs that will enhance the day to day activities of these clubs, support existing members and encourage new participants.
"What will success look like? Targets will be measured on monthly basis, monitoring the growth in number of clubs members, junior members, the percentage of females and the strengthening of the perception that golf is an open and accessible sport."
The new body is the first of its kind anywhere in the world. Having produced seven major winners in seven years, it's time to arrest the declining club membership numbers and give future major winners the environment they need to develop.
Even if Ireland's doesn't produce another major winner for 60 years, making sure that kids can simply have fun on the course with their parents some Sunday morning is a goal worth chasing.