Ivan Morris: Attracting new players is golf's biggest challenge

Ivan Morris: Attracting new players is golf's biggest challenge

Charleville native, David Keating, is among the most qualified and highly thought of golf professionals in Ireland.

Trained under Paddy O'Boyle at Bandon before going back to Charleville as club pro and now based at Killarney Golf & Fishing Club. Keating is passionate about 'growing the game' and proud of the fact that Irish golfers have won 9-major championships since 2007 and that for most of 2015 the World's No. 1 (Rory McIlroy) and the World's No. 1 woman amateur (Leona Maguire) were Irish.

“We have the best courses on the planet. We have more trained, professional golf coaches in Ireland than in any other sport in the country. Golf is one of our highest participation sports but, in spite of our international successes, it isn't flourishing. Since 2008, getting on for 100,000 Irish golfers resigned their club memberships. Why?,” he asks with a hint of bewilderment.

“In too many golf clubs the role of the golf professional is under appreciated. Their training is under utilized and expertise erroneously directed.

Most Club Professionals spend the largest percentage of their time selling merchandise and administering competition and green fee sales. We should be spending more of our time developing new talent and promoting the social as well as the playing side of the game; helping to organize and direct programmes to get people into golf, teaching the rules and etiquette as well as the techniques required to play a difficult game "reasonably" well.

“Age profile is a major issue at many Golf Clubs. Members between the ages of 23 and 33 are leaving in their droves. The drop off is almost entirely due to levies and increased fees when students and juniors transfer to full subscription rates. Those who have just finished college could see an annual sub going from €250 to €1,500+ overnight. Holding onto the '20-somethings' when they are at their most vulnerable income-wise is a challenge.

Golf Clubs must become more progressive and recognize that junior members promote stability and provide a steady supply of competent members. I'm delighted that the Killarney Board has instituted a graded fee structure based on age. That's a step in the right direction.

“It's not all gloom. There are positive signs. Historically, the vast majority of golfers who took up the game did so after being introduced by a family member or a close friend. School kids not lucky enough to have a golfer in the family never had the opportunity to play the game. The 'Get Into Golf' School Programme under the guidance of many of Ireland's PGA Teaching Professionals is making a noticeable impact.

“Golf is uniquely multigenerational. At what other sport could you commence at 50 and still have a potential 20-30 year career? It is commonplace to see a 70-year old granddad enjoying playing a game of golf with his daughter who is 45 and grandson who is 15. Facilities in golf clubs are, generally speaking, significantly better than their sporting competitors.

“The formation of CGI (Confederation of Golf Ireland) has accelerated the process of introducing more school kids to the game. Soon, it is hoped that the GUI and ILGU will amalgamate to form a dynamic, modern thinking, single governing body to compete with Gaelic games, rugby, soccer, athletics, basketball, tennis and hockey etc.”

We have 2.7-million people involved in all sports related activities in Ireland with 'only' 195k GUI/ILGU registered golfers. Casual (unregistered) golfers probably total 75k, which means only 10% of active sports people in Ireland play golf. If we could introduce say, 10% of the non-golfers to our game we would have a potential 250k extra, new players. Can you imagine the effect that this would have? We are only scratching the surface of our full potential. Change will have to come. I believe strongly that the following ten policy changes would accelerate the process as soon as they are implemented.

1 - Golf Clubs need to be more welcoming places for families and promote themselves as an athletic, exercise-driven sport with a unique social dimension.

2 - Professional golf coaches must take more of a lead role in their Clubs and in the community "to encourage more players to take up the game and continually improve."

3 - Introduce 6, 9 and 12-hole competitions for those with time related issues.

4 - Revamp the flawed handicap system, which has become a 'big issue.'

5 - For casual golf, relax the archaic dress code regulations and abolish the one player/one-golf bag rule.

6 - Make courses easier and shorter for the vast majority by introducing a greater choice "of colour coded tees". Desist entirely from the terminology "Ladies Tees!"

7 - Encourage more girls and women to take up the game.

8 - Organise courses for potential golfers to give them an understanding of (a) how golf clubs operate (b) basic rules of the game and etiquette (c) swing techniques (d) course maintenance (e) membership categories (f) the benefits of club membership. Deduct cost from first year's subscription.

9 - Ask our top players to front a media driven 'Get Into Golf' campaign. Build relationships with other sports, especially pitch & putt (readymade golfers!) encourage them to use golf clubhouse facilities. Take the mystique away!

10 - Reduce the value of golf prizes and competition entry fees."

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