News & Opinion

Scottish golf faces crisis in leadership

DALGETY BAY, Scotland – Scottish golf, eh?

On the one hand, these are exciting times for the sport's birthplace due to a handful of rookies, led by Walker Cup duo Connor Syme and Robert MacIntyre, making encouraging starts to their professional careers.

Coupled with the likes of Bradley Neil and Grant Forrest making headway on the Challenge Tour, that has delivered a much-needed boost at a time when the average age of the Scottish players holding European Tour cards is, astonishingly, 37.

Young talent also is starting to emerge on the women’s front, where Europe’s recently-appointed Solheim Cup captain Catriona Matthew has flown the Saltire so admirably on the world stage for so long but has done so on her own, really.

The likes of Hannah Darling and Anna McKay, both part of what has been dubbed #Project19 with the Junior Solheim Cup at Gleneagles in 2019 as the target, as well as Grace Crawford are all generating real optimism.

However, Scottish golf is in disarray off the course, and that's a real pity at a time when things have just started to take an upturn on it.

Not only has Scottish Golf, the unified governing body, lost its chief executive to another sport – tennis – but it also has a new four-year strategy that seems to be dead in the water.

Both of those developments have come hot on the heels of an annual report released by KPMG revealing that Scotland lost more registered golfers from 2015 to 2016 – the figure fell from 199,244 to 192,533 – than any other country in Europe.

The same report claiming that 19 courses were closing during the same period is a bit of a mystery as it's unlikely that many have closed their doors in the past decade.

That said, the fact that two courses on the outskirts of Edinburgh – Lothianburn, where former R&A secretary Peter Dawson played his early golf, and Torphin Hill – have gone and now Beith in Ayrshire, too, shows Scottish golf is certainly not immune to what is happening in the game around the world.

So, why has Scottish Golf's chief executive for the past 16 months, Blane Dodds, just announced that he's leaving the post to take up a similar role with Tennis Scotland?

Well, for starters, he's a tennis man. Incredibly, in fact, he was allowed to retain his position as chair of Tennis Scotland, a voluntary role admittedly but a clear conflict of interest, while he was being paid by Scottish Golf.

He also probably was swayed by the fact that Scottish tennis has an outstanding role model these days in Andy Murray while his older brother, Jamie, is also doing pretty well in that respect.

In short, Scottish Golf left the door open for Dodds to move to his favored sport. Now the chair, Eleanor Cannon, and her board have been left to try and sort out their own mess.

The aforementioned strategy proposes to increase an affiliation fee paid by every club member by more than 100 percent, from £11.25 (about $14.75) to £24 (about $31.50).

It also planned to introduce a customer relationship management system, as well as implementing an international license fee, which would require foreign visitors to pay, say, £10 (about $13), before they could step onto a Scottish golf course.

The affiliation fee increase has gone down like a lead balloon. Clubs, particularly successful ones, don't want Scottish Golf near their management or tee booking systems, and tour operators are up in arms over the international license fee.

Some sort of climbdown is required before a special general meeting in Stirling on Dec. 2. Otherwise, Scottish Golf could find itself in a state of anarchy.

Members are beginning to ask their clubs whether they actually need to be affiliated with the governing body, and though handicapping would become an issue, the answer is “no.”

"The priority is trying to sustain clubs," said one leading administrator. “We need to work together to make things better in that respect. Unfortunately, the Scottish Golf board members are not connected to the grass-roots game.”

If that is indeed the case, it needs to change – quickly.

Martin Dempster has covered golf since 1990 for The Scotsman, Edinburgh Evening News and Scotland on Sunday. Email: martin.dempster@edinburghnews.com; Twitter: @DempsterMartin