First Scottish Golf Limited chief looks to future

Eleanor Cannon is facing a major challenge. Picture: John Devlin
Eleanor Cannon is facing a major challenge. Picture: John Devlin
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Eleanor Cannon has had some big jobs in her time. Marks & Spencer, Tesco and Scottish & Newcastle are just some of the major companies the 50-year-old Glaswegian has worked for since she graduated from the University of St Andrews. But none has surely presented a bigger challenge than her latest appointment. On Thursday morning, Cannon will officially become the inaugural chair of Scottish Golf Limited, what will be – following the long overdue amalgamation of the Scottish Golf Union and the Scottish Ladies Golfing Association – the governing body of amateur golf in this country.

“Right now about 14 per cent of golf club members in Scotland are women,” says Cannon. “Women tend to be at the heart of family life. And the sport was such a part of my family life growing up. So I see this job as a tremendous opportunity to hand over the game to future generations. That’s really why I wanted to do it.”

At least symbolically, it is clearly important that the first person to fill this high-profile role be a woman. Sadly and rather pathetically, the men of the SGU have had to be dragged screaming to this momentous point in history. Four years ago – apparently worried that their supply of free blazers and ties would be halted – the 16 areas making up the organisation to which every male member of every Scottish club has hitherto paid an annual fee voted against merging with their female counterparts. Only after embarrassingly prolonged negotiations was that nonsensical situation finally rectified in March of this year.

Not surprisingly, Cannon, a member of Ranfurly Castle in Renfrewshire, is reluctant to discuss what has gone before, even claiming to be largely ignorant (aye, right) of the previously misogynistic tendencies of the SGU.

“I’ve only come back to golf in the last couple of years,” she points out. “I am oblivious to what went on to bring about the amalgamation of the two bodies. I’m coming to this fresh and new and looking forward to October 1st when we talk about ‘golfers’ and ‘players’. The time for differences has gone.”

Noble sentiments. And fair enough. But what exactly will the senior partner at the Rubicon Partnership – a Glasgow-based “executive coaching practice” – be looking to achieve in the coming weeks, months and years? In these tough economic times, many clubs are struggling to keep going. So what can Scottish Golf Limited do to help arrest the current decline in participation across the nation that gave golf to the world? The answers are surprisingly difficult to pin down.

“There will be eight non-executive members sitting on the new board,” says Cannon. “I’m going to bring them together with the executive team. We’re going to figure out what needs to be done and how we are going to do it. We are going to make sure that we are clear about what the targets are. And we are going to communicate with the clubs so that they understand the role Scottish Golf Limited plays in the management of the sport across Scotland.”

Yes, yes. But more specifically?

“We exist to support what is going on locally,” she continues. “Our priorities in the next three years are stronger clubs and greater participation. That’s no different from what retailers have been through in the last ten years. If what you want to do is enable an organisation where everyone is doing as big a job as possible, what you do is everything you can to support the front end of the business. That’s what we are here to do for every club in Scotland.”

Yes, yes (2). But what specifically are you going to do?

“There are many different types of clubs in Scotland,” points out Cannon. “By amalgamating we have many more opportunities to help clubs, both in terms of the type of research we are doing and the resources we are putting in place. We can help them become part of the local community in a more commercial way.

“I want to see the facilities at the golf club becoming more of a hub for the local community. All sports are seeking to attract new members. So it’s not just about getting more people to play golf, it’s about getting them into the clubhouse to use the facilities. Cycling has seen a massive boost in the last few years, but they I’m sure would like a base from which to cycle. The golf club could offer that by sharing facilities. Collaboration like that between all local clubs is one way ahead.

“To achieve that, we have to use what we have to offer centrally to its best effect locally. It’s about research. We need to consult with members of clubs to see what they think about how the game can grow. Then we can use those insights to advise them about what to do. The real secret is communication and making it as effective as possible between the executive organisation and the clubs.”

That’s better. And clearer. But selling golf to those who see the game as a fuddy-duddy sport played by an out-of-touch bunch of strangely dressed individuals is no easy task. Rightly or wrongly, fairly or unfairly, the game’s image in the wider world needs some serious work.

“I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t think I could make a difference,” says Cannon, whose parents are both former captains of the Ralston golf club. “The sport in Scotland is held in high regard internationally. So there is great opportunity if we modernise the game in respect of the perspective of young people. It’s about attracting my kids and their kids to the game through the creation of a legacy that is sustainable within Scotland.

“Perception is everything though. And yes, some people do have a distorted and outdated view of the game. So a big priority for me is communicating with non-golfers. The reality is that golfers who are passionate about the game get the camaraderie, the fun, the banter and, yes, all the jokes about all the women’s red tees. I’ve heard more than a few of those. Going forward we will have ‘front, middle and back’ and we’ll have men and women playing. But what we should never lose is the sense of humour this sport generates.

“Many people who don’t play see it as an old-fashioned game. But if we can communicate the values that golf engenders in terms of transparency and honesty and self-governing, then we have a chance. It is a wonderful sport that has a great spirit and is one that can be played in a very safe environment. For me, golf is exactly in keeping with the family values that the vast majority of Scottish people hold dear. It’s about honesty. It’s about being outside. It’s about playing with your whole family. It’s the original generation game.”

Indeed, but let’s hope the new lady in charge is more than just the first cuddly toy or fondue set on the usual conveyor belt of officialdom. While there might be a little bit too much jargon-laced “business-speak” going on for some tastes, for now at least, it’s “nice to see her, to see her nice”.