AT THE ELITE level, Irish women’s amateur golf is in a very good place.
Leona Maguire is the world ranked number one, and has been for some time now, while Olivia Mehaffey is on the verge of breaking into the top-10.
But at club level the game is struggling with approximately 16,000 fewer junior girls taking up membership compared to junior boys.
However, a new handbook launched this week aims to redress that balance while growing the entirety of the junior game in Ireland.
The ‘Club Handbook for Junior Golfers’ has been designed to help golf clubs across the country develop and extend the services and opportunities to young members with the hope of retaining those players for life.
“The focus of this plan is not to find the next Rory McIlroy or Leona Maguire,” Sinead Heraty, chief executive of the Irish Ladies Golf Union (ILGU), told The42 this week.
“Instead, the focus is very much on the average golf club member because that’s the bread and butter of nearly every golf course in the country.
“There have been a lot of ideas, good ideas, put out there over the past couple of years and the ILGU have put a lot of investment into the development of golf at the junior level too with changes to competition structure, putting in U12 coaching and just generally changing the way we do things.
“The Golfing Union or Ireland (GUI), however, do something completely different in terms of boys golf and so we got together with both them and the Confederation of Golf in Ireland (CGI) and — by pooling our collective information, bringing our best practises together — we can now definitively say to the clubs ‘this is how you develop junior golf.’”
The handbook, which comes in close to 130 pages, contains not just theoretical remedies for clubs but also practical examples from those, like Naas Golf Club in Kildare, that have successfully grown their junior membership in recent years.
Naas is a very good example of what Heraty and the unions are trying to achieve. After noticing they were attracting relatively few new women members, particularly younger ones, the club selected 12 girls aged between 10 and 12 who had expressed some interest in playing golf in primary school and provided them with coaching and use of the facilities.
Two years later, six of those girls were still members of the club. Initiatives like this one, as well a number of ‘try golf’ days, has resulted in 31 junior girls taking up membership with the club. It may not seem like a huge amount, but it’s a lot better than the zero that were there before.
And this is where clubs have to look at their structure says Hearty.
“Culturally, golf has been very traditional in how it deals with junior golfers and there were certain times of the day you couldn’t be on the first tee, or you couldn’t play on a Saturday or you had to play with an adult or you couldn’t wear certain clothes.
“Basically, an awful lot of it was about what you couldn’t do, not what you could do and what golf clubs struggle with is how do you go about setting up a good junior section from scratch? It’s the reason we’ve a huge number of clubs with no junior ladies section at all.
“There is in the region of 20,000 junior boys compared with just 4,000 junior girls. That’s a huge difference and we want to increase both of those figures working with CGI and the GUI but we also want to get the ratio of girls to boys up significantly.
“One of the biggest stumbling blocks to that at the moment is that club professionals and clubs in general treat girls the same way they treat boys and the fact is, they’re very different and so the culture within the club has to be very different if you want to grow the number of girl members.
“So the goal of this document is to create pathways to membership that will make it easier not just to get new junior members to join clubs, but once they’ve joined to keep them as lifelong members.”
But getting junior members into the club is just one part of the challenge, retaining them is another problem the handbook seeks to address.
“The social aspect of golf is really important to us,” says Heraty.
“By creating a love of the sport and by creating a love of the club, you’re going to retain these kids for life. But if we put restrictions on them, like that they can’t wear jeans in the clubhouse, or they can’t use their phones in the clubhouse, then we’re going to lose them.
“Imagine telling an 18 or 19-year-old that they can’t use their phone in the clubhouse? Or that you have to wear this or that but not the other? Well then they’re going to turn around and walk away. That’s what we’re trying to stop.
“This doesn’t mean having to drop the standards or etiquettes of the game — because golf is a game that teaches you a lot of very genuine values — but this plan is about retaining those values while removing the stuffiness that sometimes surrounds them.”
Hearty believes that clubs will be open to the recommendations proposed in the handbook for the simple reason they have to if they want to survive long term.
“I don’t doubt there are individuals who don’t want to see women or juniors on the golf course at the weekend or even during the week, but I don’t think that’s the attitude of the majority of clubs who know that attracting young players, and adapting their rules and regulations to retain them, will secure the future of their club.”
You can find more information on the new handbook here.