As the Star Flyer, one of Edinburgh’s Christmas attractions, whirled around outside at roughly the same level as the seventh floor of Aberdeen Asset Management’s offices in the capital, the talk inside was about why so many golfers think they are on that very ride but actually have their head in the clouds.
The occasion was an annual sitdown between some key members of Scottish Golf’s performance team – Stephen Docherty, Steve Paulding, Andrew Coltart and new recruit Catriona Matthew – and a small posse of golf writers, though there is absolutely no truth in the rumour that we’d been lured along by the prospect of Christmas lunch at a swanky city centre restaurant.
This particular chinwag came at the end of a season in which Scotland were crowned as European Men’s Team champions for the first time in six years, a tartan trio helped Great Britain & Ireland to a thumping Walker Cup win at Royal Lytham and the likes of Shannon McWilliam and Heather MacGarvie emerged as exciting young talents in the women’s game.
In fairness to those sitting across the table, though, there was no attempt to blow smoke up backsides, the reason being that a journey to try and implement a culture change in Scottish Golf is only just starting to scratch the surface.
Progress is definitely being made, but, even after he had voiced the same frustration 14 months earlier, it was disturbing to hear that some of Scotland’s leading male amateurs still aren’t taking full advantage of Coltart in his mentoring role. Here is a guy who won titles and played in the Walker Cup as an amateur. Here’s a guy who won titles and played in the Ryder Cup as a professional. Here is a guy who now travels the world as a member of the Sky Sports golf team, so has his finger on the pulse. Yet, by the sounds of things, some players would rather listen to people who have no clue whatsoever about what it takes to cut the mustard at golf’s top level these days.
“There is still too much of an influence of people who have no idea of what it’s like as a professional,” said Coltart. “It goes back to parents, who live their dreams through their children, and club members. They are stroking the egos, saying: ‘You are wonderful, you are plus five, you’ll make a mint within a couple of years’. Yet, when they are thrust into the real world, they are not breaking 75.”
That comment struck a chord with Paulding. “I talked to two girls recently whose stroke average on relatively easy courses is 75 and they fully intend to turn pro,” said Scottish Golf’s performance manager. “I’m all for people having dreams, but people can be delusional. When I tell them that’s maybe not such a good idea, I’m the one that’s the bad guy. But you have to have reality. We have a duty of care with our youngsters, to be open and honest to them and their parents and make sure they get the right education and that there is a plan B.”
Matthew, who has agreed to take on a similar mentoring role for the likes of McWilliam and MacGarvie, went to Stirling University to ensure that was in place before she turned professional on the back of a glittering amateur career. On reflection, the major winner and eight-time Solheim Cup player reckons that being “a bit naive” about what lay ahead helped when she first went to the LPGA Tour Qualifying School. The pressures that come hand in hand with professional golf these days, however, are there for all to see, so no-one can have the excuse of saying they made that career move with their eyes shut.
“They have to be realistic,” said Matthew. “They seem to think if they are the best in Scotland, then they will make it. Scotland is a very small part of the professional golfing world. You have to be dominating at a British level and a European level. If you are not making Walker Cup or Curtis Cup teams, I don’t understand why they think they will be able to beat the people they’ve not been able to beat in the amateur game. It’s harsh, but that’s the reality.”
With Grant Forrest, Ewen Ferguson, Jack McDonald and Robert MacIntyre all sitting inside the world’s top 50, Scotland currently has a promising men’s crop, though the performance people were in agreement that stroke-play successes rather than match-play wins are what they need to prepare them properly for what increasingly becomes a tougher environment in the paid ranks.
“It’s now a world Tour,” stressed Coltart. “It used to be a European Tour with a smattering of players from elsewhere. Now you have Asians, Australians, Americans – and it’s a hell of a lot harder. You don’t just waltz on Tour and stay for 20 years. The harsh reality is that you could be selling burgers in a van in five years’ time.”
That, of course, is not what youngsters will want to hear, but it’s true. As is Docherty, the performance director whose day job is with Aberdeen Asset Management, easily the biggest supporter of the game in Scotland, warning budding professionals that there is no such thing as a “golden pot” in terms of sponsorship.
“We get a lot of people knocking on the door asking for money,” he said. “The first thing they say is that they didn’t realise how much it costs. In any case, if you can compete and perform, the money takes care of itself. It shouldn’t be a given that just because you’ve done this and that, you should get sponsorship.”
Scottish Golf is fortunate to have two individuals like Matthew and Coltart as mentors. Let’s see youngsters making the most of that opportunity to tap into their knowledge and experience. They might not necessarily agree with everything the duo have to say, but at least they won’t be stroking egos.