Plans by golf’s incoming unified governing body to introduce a new pathway to All-Ireland inter-club success at the expense of provincial championships have been described as brushing aside history by a leading amateur golfer but strongly defended by the man spearheading the change.
Golf Ireland comes into existence on January 1, amalgamating the Golfing Union of Ireland and Irish Ladies Golf Union which have overseen amateur golf along gender lines since 1891 and 1893 respectively.
Part of the transition seems likely to be to an eight-zone format for inter-club competitions, with Leinster split in three, Munster and Ulster into two zones each and Connacht left as one zone to represent a more equal split between the number of golf clubs in each zone.
The champions of each progress to All-Ireland quarter-finals rather than the GUI model of four provincial winners progressing to national semi-finals.
It will mark the end of the much-cherished battles for both men’s provincial glory and the ILGU’s five-district template for its All-Ireland competitions.
Asked about the proposals by the Irish Examiner this week, Golf Ireland chief executive Mark Kennelly said there was significant backing for the change based on a widespread survey with more than 7,000 of the island’s 180,000 golfers responding.
The new system could be in place for 2021, meaning this year’s men’s provincial champions will be the last to hold the title.
“There was a very high response rate to the survey, 71% men and 29% women, so more or less representative of the make-up of the golf community,” Kennelly said.
“Notably, 70% of the respondents had played in inter-club events and in a nutshell, the headline result was that 66% opted for the new eight-zone model and 24% opted for the current GUI status quo.
“The objective was to have equally-sized zones to make it a fair structure. It hasn’t been confirmed yet but if this model was put in place every club should have more or less an equal opportunity.
"It’s not identical, if you happen to be in a zone with very strong clubs it makes it harder but this would make it a lot fairer because you’d be competing in similarly sized pools of clubs.”
Irish international Joe Lyons won his fourth All-Ireland medal last September when Galway Golf Club won its sixth AIG Senior Cup.
He accepted it was easier for Galway to get out of Connacht and into national finals but said that was one of the few competitive advantages his province had in amateur golf.
“I’ll be happy to compete, no matter what way the zones are but it seems a shame to dispense with the history of competitive golf in the four provinces for over a century, the Senior Cup, Barton Shield all producing provincial winners,” Lyons said.
“In the majority of Irish sports, the four provincial winners go on to compete in national finals.
“My attitude to this is not really about gaining a competitive advantage.
"There’s no doubt whatsoever that Connacht clubs have enjoyed a competitive advantage in the All-Ireland series over the years, particularly at senior level, it’s much easier to come through Connacht than any of the other provinces.
“But I assume they’re still going to have an inter-provincial series so my question would be, if they’re trying to change an inter-club series to make it more equitable, how equitable is an inter-provincial series?
“Connacht have come pretty close to win an interpro in the last three or four years and been just pipped on countbacks and we did happen to win one in 2011 but the paucity of our resources compared to Leinster and Ulster, in particular, Munster to a lesser degree … are they going to give us players from other provinces to balance the books on that? I don’t think they will.
“So the one little bit of competitive advantage, it’s being taken off us but there’s no redress on the other side of it. I’ll keep competing as long as I can but it’s sad to see all the history of provincial championships being brushed aside.”
Golf Ireland CEO Kennelly called the survey results an “emphatic statement” but said he understood people’s attachment to it.
“It’s not in any way to disrespect those who have an attachment to the provincial titles.
“We and I certainly completely understand that but there was a very strong desire to adopt a fairer model. It’s not confirmed or announced yet but it’s the likely direction of travel.”