State of the (Golfing) Union: "There is a culture of tolerating handicap cheating"

State of the (Golfing) Union: "There is a culture of tolerating handicap cheating"
Pat Finn, Chief Executive Officer of the GUI. Picture; Pat Cashman

Pat Finn, Chief Executive Officer of the GUI. Picture; Pat Cashman

The men and women that work at the Golfing Union of Ireland could be forgiven for feeling a little hard done by at times given the considerable amount of flak the organisation receives via social media for all the ills affecting the game.

CEO, Pat Finn, is paid to take it on the chin. But he has logical answers for every decision the GUI makes and he sat down with the GUI's Communications Manager, Alan Kelly for a comprehensive, 49-minute “State of the Union” interview recently.

Their chat covered a wide range of subjects, many of them proposed for discussion by golfers via the social media hashtag #AskTheGUI.

As a result, Finn addressed a host of issues from handicap banditry — “it’s endemic” and can only be stopped by a change in the culture of the game in Ireland — to the frustrations of navigating the website.

Finn also explains reasons why the GUI focusses on elite amateur golfers over ordinary club golfers and why the GUI prefers that our elite players participate in top overseas events, even if that means missing our domestic championships.

You can listen to the entire Podcast here but if you’re pressed for time, here’s a very brief and cursory summary of the main points.

Q There is a “closed shop” feeling about the GUI committee system.

Finn disagrees. Positions on Provincial Councils are open, elected positions. Other volunteer roles — refereeing, course rating personnel — are qualified, highly skilled positions that require training. Committee positions are normally filled by elected officials and elections are open to all. 

Q Handicap banditry. What can be done by the GUI to stop its spread?

“There is a culture of tolerating handicap cheating which isn’t the case for other forms of cheating with golf… The finger seems to be pointed at the GUI or the branches of the GUI or indeed to club committees to deal with this problem. I don’t think it can be. It is endemic and the only real way of tackling it is at member-to-member level where everybody takes a pro-active approach in dealing with the issue and calling out fellow members on their behaviour and saying it is not going to be tolerated any more.”

Q What are the GUI doing about handicap building?

“There is not a while pile the GUI can do about an individual golfer. It is up to members to deal with this by way of peer review and peer pressure. Our branches carry out handicap audits to make sure the system is being properly applied. It is possible for a club to collude with players in ensuring their handicaps are too high but it isn’t a practice we see very often. If we did see it, we would take action against the club. The club would be suspended until they put their house in order. We have suspended. Thankfully, we have never had to terminate a club’s membership of the GUI.

Q If a golfer sees someone clearly “pulling up” in order to build a handicap, what’s the procedure?

There is no procedure as such. Everybody knows who are the people who are manipulating their handicaps to gain an advantage The answer is, don’t play with them. Refuse to play with those players. Say I am not going to tolerate your behaviour any more and I simply won’t play with you. It if happens that you find yourself playing with somebody who isn’t trying their bestin order to increase their handicap, the answer is to say, I won’t play with you again if you do that next time. If everyone did those things, handicap banditry would be stamped out. And it requires that kind of approach in order to deal with the matter. 

Q There is a view on social media that golf clubs won’t cut players for fear of legal action.

There are no examples of that. There was a high profile case by an individual (Talbot v Hermitage, GUI and Eddie Murphy), not for cutting his handicap, but for alleged defamation. If the handicap committee treats every player the same and consistently, they have nothing to worry about in relation to the law. 

Q Is the introduction of the slope system possible?

It is possible. But it’s radically different to what we have. Unlikley but possible.

Q When will Golfnet be made more user friendly?

When we combined the ILGU, GUI and the old Golfnet database in one website — and also included the GUI branches and ILGU district websites in that — we then had an awful lot of information in a very small place.  If we had the chance to start again, we’d have done it a different way. 

As we more forward, in 2-3 years’ time, the likelihood is that you will see a splitting out of the website into two sides, one for the club golfer who simply wants to see club listings, open fixtures and their handicap and another for the person who is really interested in amateur golf and wants to delve a little deeper. 

Q Online booking. Is the GUI doing anything to help clubs deal with this issue and the underselling of green fees?

There is concern among club managers on this and specifically the barter model where clubs avail of free booking software in return for bartering some of their tee times that get sold on at a very low cost. There is a real concern in the marketplace about it. We are aware of it. And we are working with clubs and with some third parties in order to put an alternative solution in place. I can’t say too much more at this time.

Q Are the Rules of Golf suitable for the modern game?

They probably need a review and the R&A is conducting a review to try and simply them somewhat.  That’s a very significant task. Not at all easy. 

Q What is the secret of the success of the men’s amateur teams?

It’s a combination of many things — the diversity and quality of our courses, junior golf policies, the quality of PGA coaches, the competitions programme that tests players right through until they turn pro, the different conditions under which players compete in championships. Probably the greatest thing of all is the belief created by Pádraig Harrington since 2007, when he won the Irish Open and then the Open at Carnoustie.

Q How do you assess the Importance of Neil Manchip, the national coach?

Critical. His approach to coaching and motivating teams is unique. His work with the High Performance programmes has been immense. We are lucky to have him.

Q Can the GUI learn more from former professionals like Gary Murphy, Colm Moriarty, Gary Murphy? Why isn’t the GUI engaging more with players such as these for advice?

It’s not fair to say we don’t engage players. We engaged a panel of amateur players as part of our strategic review. Stephen Browne sits on our High Performance committee. Paul McGinley, Pádraig Harrington and Shane Lowry have helped our panels. I have had conversations about strategy with Paul McGinley and Des Smyth. We engage with them all the time but not the specific players you mention. We could probably do more and we expect to see more of that in the future.

Q Does the GUI spend too much money on elite amateurs and not enough on the average club member?

We are set up to do that. We are not set up to provide services to individual members of a golf club. We are set up to run tournaments and organise international teams to play and represent Ireland in teams and squads overseas. If people expect to receive a service other than handicapping from the GUI then they have to be realistic about what they can achieve from what they put in. What impact can you have for 140,000 people with just €20 a head to spend? 

Q What’s the justification for increasing GUI fees this year?

We have gone eight years with no increase so this is the first timesince 2008. We lost 50,000 members in the eight years between 2008 and 2016 and 50,000 times 13is a significant amount of money. The increase of €3 we have applied for means an income of €400,000 and we need that money to do what we were set up to do. 

Q Will the formation of “One Governing Body” (OGB) result in lower subscriptions?

Impossible to say just yet. If subs are higher it will be because the new body offers greater services.

Q How are discussions going?

Carefully. We have been talking for year. We have an opportunity to do something that hasn’t been done before — creating one entity for the entire island of Ireland, including the regions of branches.  Thus we can have a great impact on golf at grassroots level so we are handling it carefully.   

Q Who will decide the future of the GUI?

The members of the GUI. A proposal will be made by the Discussion Group to the boards of the GUI and ILGU. Subject to board approval, the proposals will be put to the members of both organisations to vote upon. The vote on the GUI side will be to dissolve the GUI, which only the (400-plus) members (clubs) of the GUI can vote on.  

Q What’s the timeline for the formation of One Governing Body?

An ambitious timeline is early 2018, a little over a year before the decision has to be made and then the transition from where we are to OGB. The likelihood is it will take a couple of years anyway. 

Q Why is there no championship for Junior Cup level golfers of 2-4 handicap? 

If there was a championship for every two-shot handicap range, you would have 17 different interclub events. We are not closed to the idea to amending one of the handicap ranges for, it’s seems likely, the Jimmy Bruen rather than Junior Cup... Watch this space.

Q Would the GUI introduce a back door system for treats beaten in round one of the All Ireland Cups and Shields events?

No. It’s no different to Wimbledon. If you are knocked out in the first round, you are gone,

Q WAGR has stirred up debate. Instead of 36 holes of strokeplay followed by the top 64 making the matchplay, it’s being suggested we have 54-hole qualifying followed by the top 16 for matchplay. The logic is that it would incentivise our elite players to play in Ireland and make a bigger deal of our championships because there would be more WAGR points available. Agree? 

The logic is you create two events instead of one and therefore there are more WAGR points. We are open minded about it but for the likes of an Irish Close, the 36/64 format is golden. We did make the mistake of going to 72 holes strokeplay for the Close a number of years back and reversed that as soon as we could. It might be worth looking at for one of the provincial championships to see if it has an impact on the quality of the field — the East is strokeplay and the North is a different and has a very big field. The two that could do it are the South and the West. I am not suggesting they should, but it is something we should all have a chat about. 

Q The GUI should make elite players play a minimum number of championships at home as they benefit from GUI fees paid by clubs and should give something back. Do you agree?

I don’t agree. I think it is really important for elite sports people to be tested in competitive arenas where it is as tough as it gets, particularly for the really top players.

The idea of not sending a player to an elite overseas event and forcing him to play in a lesser championship within their home country is not something I would support at all.

The people who make this argument look at the way the South, or the North, or the East or the West, or indeed the Irish Amateur Close used to be — the galleries that were attracted to those events and the types of player who used to play in them. But this was before we had the volume of players turning pro we have today.

It was before we sent teams and squads away to represent the GUI in various championships. Air travel was expensive and the reality is the players had to stay in Ireland, that’s no longer the case and we can now send them to top class, elite events throughout the summer months…. which improves their overall level of ability as they more towards playing on international teams, turning pro and competing in majors. It is not something that we will be doing in a hurry.