United front: Irish golf set to take giant leap

Mary McElroy and Damien Burke celebrate after winning their match on the 20th green in Portumna’svictory in the Irish Mixed Foursomes All-Ireland final last month. Picture: Pat Cashman.

Irish golf is just 53 days away from a historic vote to change the way the game is governed on this island.

It will mean delegates at both the Irish Ladies Golf Union’s Annual General Meeting and the Golfing Union of Ireland’s Extraordinary General Meeting effectively voting themselves out of existence after 125 and 127 years respectively.

When those delegates file into their respective meetings on January 19, they will effectively be asked to create a unified and single governing body to be known as Golf Ireland that will, its architects believe, provide the unified structures of governance necessary to protect the future of golf here in the face of falling memberships, opening it up to a new generation previously turned off a sport segregated along gender lines.

It has taken three years of discussion, consultation, and compromise to reach a point where the proposal for one governing body can be put to the vote.

The GUI needs to carry a two-thirds majority of the ballot while the ILGU requires a 75% majority of those present and there is positivity rather than tension about the outcome, though neither of the chief executives involved is taking anything for granted.

Sinead Heraty of the ILGU and the GUI’s Pat Finn have no qualms about dissolving their governing bodies for the good of the game and have spent the last three years convincing their constituents to join them on the journey. There have been concerns from both sides but both CEOs are confident they will be given the mandate to drag Irish golf into the 21st century and put it in a strong position to thrive well into the next one.

“We as governing bodies are behind where the clubs actually are,” Heraty said when she and her counterpart spoke to the Irish Examiner at GUI headquarters in Carton House to discuss their plan for Golf Ireland.

Clubs have moved to being much more modern, as much as they can within the current structures. We’re the ones that are now hindering further progress so culturally we have to catch up with our clubs. Not all of them have moved but there are a number of really, really good examples out there, that we’re the ones that are actually back in a time past, not them.

Ireland remains the last bastion of organised golf to be governed according to gender, a legacy of being formed in 1891 in the GUI’s case and the ILGU two years later, though little has changed since in the way they are governed.

The world is a very different place today as Heraty will have pointed out when she updated club representatives at each of the ILGU’s five district AGMs in the last month. Finn and his GUI board’s chairman Iggy Ó Muircheartaigh will similarly be reminding attendees at the Annual Delegates Meetings of their four provinces of the same points, starting last night as the Leinster ADM kicked off in Carton House, and moving on to Connacht tonight at the McWilliam Park Hotel in Claremorris. Tomorrow night will see them make a presentation to Munster delegates at Mallow’s Hibernian Hotel before closing out their circuit of Ireland in Ulster on Friday.

Both Heraty and Finn are eager to get on with the job, because the January 19 vote will merely serve as the trigger for change to take place. It is no small undertaking.

“What you have to remember is that for the next two years, we’re going to have three organisations in existence,” Heraty said.

“ILGU and GUI are going to remain in place with their volunteers and staff and all of that and we’re going to create this new entity that’s going to be running in tandem with them and that’s going to be responsible for the implementation of the proposal so that eventually these two start to wind down and this one starts to come up.

"That’s going to take some planning and some work and some logistics and some agreement.

“So initially it’s going to be all hands on deck. One of the challenges is that there is almost an assumption, from the feedback we have got, is ‘have you not done that yet?’ That there is a feeling out there that this is very simple. ‘Just get on with it, it’s fine. Just go and do it.’ “It is actually a very complex programme.”

That the two bodies have got to this point at all is a testament to the two CEOs and their organisations’ ability to allay genuine concerns over this three-year consultation process.

“I think the main concern from the clubs’ point of view was that Golf Ireland might impose change on clubs,” Finn said.

“The proposal covers that and says we do want to see you changing but we’re going to help you on that journey. Within the GUI structure, the main concern was around the branches and loss of power in the branches. Before we started the journey, a governance specialist described the GUI as four tails wagging one dog.

That was probably a little unfair in terms of a description but it gives you a picture of maybe where the power sat at that time. We have changed our governance structure within the GUI to shift that a little bit and the proposal shifts it even further to bring the power and the control into the centre, where the responsibility sits.

Heraty had to confront different fears.

“The big concern from women is that we’ve had complete and utter autonomy over our own game for the last 125 years, why would you give that up?” she said. “And, culturally are we ready to actually take this step. There was definitely a feeling that, yes, the women are ready but the men are not. You’d get that coming through in various different nuances but definitely the biggest fear was that you’re losing control of your own game.

“Is it going to be similar to the governance in most sports, which is very male dominant? What organisations have done this successfully in the past?

"You look to countries such as Sweden, who are looking at a 50-50 gender balance and we mapped all of that out and said okay, how do you look at this in such a way that you acknowledge that those are very genuine concerns — and there are risks that you could lose your voice and your autonomy over your own game — but ultimately it’s worth it because if you look at people who we are trying now to attract into the game, a younger generation, and if you want them to come into a club, they do not want to come into a club that is segregated by gender.

"They want to play their golf and they want to be able to play with their partner at any time during the day. They don’t want to be told, you know, women play at this time and men play at this time and, by the way, children play at this time.

So, it’s really looking at it from the perspective of saying look, if you were setting up a golf club in the morning. how would you actually do it. You wouldn’t do it to the norms that were in place in 1893 and that have remained relatively unchanged.

“But that’s where change becomes very difficult, because that’s what people are used to and it appears to work well but the reality is that golf club membership is falling and that’s not an attractive model for new people.”

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