News & Opinion

Scottish Golf faces tough recovery shot

DALGETY BAY, Scotland – It may be the “Home of Golf,” but Scotland isn't exactly making itself a shining example to developing nations in the sport right now.

For starters, it is not represented in the world’s top 100 in the men's game, with Russell Knox having fallen out of the top 100 this week, extending a slide since he won the 2015 WGC HSBC Champions and the 2016 Travelers Championship.

There's also an equally unappetizing prospect on the horizon for 60-year-old Sandy Lyle. He likely will be the only player flying the Saltire at the Masters in what will be the 30th anniversary of his becoming the first British golfer to claim a green jacket.

Off the golf course, things are even worse in the sport's birthplace. Scottish Golf, the governing body, is in utter disarray following a turbulent few months.

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© GOLFFILE/DAVID LLOYD
Sandy Lyle likely will return to Augusta National in two weeks as the lone Scot in the Masters.

© GOLFFILE/DAVID LLOYD
Sandy Lyle likely will return to Augusta National in two weeks as the lone Scot in the Masters.

Blane Dodds quit as chief executive after just 16 months to take up a similar post at Tennis Scotland. Now, the performance director, Stuart Clayton, is leaving to work for instructor David Leadbetter.

Whether or not the latter post actually will be filled remains to be seen after Eleanor Cannon, Scottish Golf's chair, and her board of non-executive directors were delivered a monumental kick in the teeth by stakeholders.

Attempting to raise additional funds to offset Sportscotland support having been slashed – golf hasn't been the only sport to suffer in that respect – a proposal was tabled to raise an affiliation fee paid by every club member by £3.75 ($5.30) to £15 ($21.25).

That price initially had been set at £24 ($34) by Dodds but was recalculated after it soon became apparent that it was dead in the water in the eyes of stakeholders along with proposals to introduce a golf-tourism tax and also get clubs to introduce a customer-relationship management system.

At a first-ever Scottish Golf national conference in Edinburgh in December, delegates were painted a depressing picture about declining membership in the country's near-600 golf clubs.

About 50,000 golfers have given up memberships in the past 10 years, with one annual report on the state of the game across Europe revealing that Scotland shed more registered golfers than any other country from 2015 to 2016.

Yet, if Cannon was hoping that conference would galvanize those involved at the grass-roots level – and it did seem that had been the case, in fairness – her vision for Scottish Golf's future has been tossed into the air.

That proposed affiliation-fee hike – the equivalent of the cost of a single golf ball or a pint of Belhaven Best beer – has been rejected. To what was described as “a groan of disbelief” in the room at a twice-delayed annual general meeting, the proposal was defeated, 270-235, with 10 abstentions.

The consequence is that cuts of up to £450,000 ($637,300) will have to be made over the next 18 months from a budget that already has been slashed by about £700,000 ($991,400). The loss of jobs from a 32-strong staff is inevitable.

It's a dire situation, and the subsequent fallout has been ugly. Cannon has claimed sexism toward her was one of the reasons why the proposal failed to secure the required 50 percent backing. Equally distressing was hearing one of her closest allies, outgoing board member Malcolm Robertson, saying that certain individuals – men, in particular – should be “ashamed at some of their behavior” toward Cannon.

Cannon also claimed that one of the men’s area associations had cost the organization £10,000 ($14,160) by mounting a legal challenge to the annual general meeting having to be postponed a week earlier due to bad weather. Bannockburn or Culloden would appear to be suitable venues for future discussions.

So, where does Scottish Golf go from here? Andrew McKinlay, the incoming chief executive, certainly has his hands full when he takes up the reins in May. Eyebrows already have been raised about someone with a soccer background being selected for the post ahead of experienced golf people, although it is worth acknowledging that Keith Pelley has overcome concerns about his non-golf background to bring some exciting new concepts, including GolfSixes, to the European Tour.

The same applies to a newly-created post, women and young people development manager, which is being partly funded by the R&A and also is linked with the 2019 Solheim Cup at Gleneagles, going to someone from netball.

“I am very concerned where Scottish Golf is at the moment,” said Graham Ewart, one of the most-respected figures in the game in its birthplace, having worked for the Scottish Golf Union as championship secretary/treasurer before serving as its president after his retirement.

“I am very sad that bridges are not being built. To me, it all seems to be confrontation, and that can only be bad for golf. It also seems to be that an awful lot of the seminars that have been held recently are talking shops and not about listening.”

The sad thing is that all of this is being played out in the background as a much-needed new wave of young Scottish professionals starts to make headway. Success levels need to be kept in perspective as England, the Auld Enemy, churns out European Tour winners on a frequent basis.

Stephen Gallacher, a three-time champion on that circuit, thinks Scottish Golf needs someone like Paul Lawrie or Catriona Matthew sitting on its board to help shape a brighter future. Whether they would be up for that remains to be seen – and it is unlikely, given their ongoing commitments as players – but he certainly has a point.

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