John Huggan: A golf game changer

Steve Paulding believes attitudes must change if the game is to prosper in an increasingly crowded marketplace. Picture: Kenny Smith
Steve Paulding believes attitudes must change if the game is to prosper in an increasingly crowded marketplace. Picture: Kenny Smith
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The man charged with bringing future success to Scottish golf wants
a real shift in attitude, he tells John Huggan

A COUPLE of weeks ago, the Scottish Golf Union lost patience. Clearly frustrated by the inability or reluctance of our great nation’s leading – and under-performing – amateurs to behave like professionals (which is essentially what the vast majority of them are these days) golf performance manager Steve Paulding, along with former European Tour pros Andrew Coltart and Dean Robertson, was more than a little scathing in his assessment of our so-called “elite squad.”

Paulding didn’t hold back. The picture he, Coltart and Robertson painted was one of indifference, arrogance and mediocrity, all of which were surely factors in the complete absence of Scots – for the first time since 1949 – in the ten-strong Great Britain & Ireland Walker Cup side.

It was both a disheartening and gratifyingly honest appraisal of those benefiting from the funds provided by every male adult member of every golf club in Scotland.

Last year 41 per cent of the SGU’s income was derived from our (£10.30) subscriptions. So we deserve nothing less than total transparency and veracity from those in charge. Which is what we got.

The failure of our best players to get it done at international level is just the start, though. Falling club memberships. A continuing failure to follow the lead of England, Wales and Ireland and amalgamate with their female counterparts, the Scottish Ladies Golfing Association. Convincing families that such a time-consuming and difficult game is worthy of at least some of their disposable income in these ever-more competitive times. The list of on-going problems is lengthy and increasingly forbidding. So it behoves us all to pay at least some attention to what goes on within the SGU’s offices at the Duke’s Course just outside St Andrews. At which point – an admission. Based on long ago and close-up experiences that served only to promote a head-shaking cynicism in your humble correspondent, it has, for the last three decades or so, been difficult for me to view SGU officials (as opposed to employees) as – collectively at least – anything other than a blazer-wearing bunch of bumbling, self-interested and largely incompetent freeloaders.

Happily, however, times have changed. Those days of drinking, merriment and ridiculously unnecessary ferry rides across stormy seas to Home International Championships are long gone, as a sit-down chat with Paulding made clear.

Paulding’s brief, of course, does not cover all of the above. The former cycling champion (he represented Wales at two Commonwealth Games) is concerned primarily with the identification of promising players, then ensuring that everything is done to allow their potential to flourish.

“Our overall mission is to grow, develop and look after the game,” he says. “And we have to spend the money we receive wisely. But we’re not in this alone. We work with, for example, Clubgolf, to give youngsters an early taste of the game. And there are a huge number of clubs looking to develop and encourage youngsters who will, hopefully, go on to be adult members.

“One problem is that not all clubs fall into that category. But, nationwide, there is nearly always somewhere for an interested youngster to go once they show an interest in playing golf. There is always a signpost to a club that will work with them. But, would we like more clubs? Yes.”

That’s good to hear, but golf is a game that suffers from something of an image problem. It is, after all, a sport where the ruling body is a club that openly, and seemingly proudly, discriminates against half of the world’s population.

For those on the outside looking in, it is easy to think that increasingly valuable leisure time and hard-earned money would be better spent in a more tolerant and inclusive environment.

“I’ve grown to love golf,” says Paulding. “But it is, in many ways, its own worst enemy. There is a huge gap between what many golf clubs are and what youngsters want. So our biggest problem is that not enough kids are playing golf. We need to get more. But it’s not easy. It’s often wet and cold outside. It takes a long time to play. And it’s a difficult game.

“Plus, golf is unique in many ways. It’s a sport that is a business. Which is a new environment for me. It is a challenging landscape, a sport that has so much tradition. Golf has stayed static in so many ways while the world has moved on. There’s a lot of ‘blazerati’ within its structures. So there needs to be a fundamental shift in the game.

“For example, a lot of people still play, but many are nomadic. People don’t join clubs like they did in the past. Instead, they are looking for the best deal and best quality of service.”

That’s the rather depressing big picture. Paulding’s role within is a bit more specific.

“My job is about creating the pathway that creates opportunities for the best young players with aspirations to make it to the top in the game,” he says. “Then it’s about giving them access to competition and training.” At which point questions need to be asked: how good a job is being done in that area, given Scotland’s recent and relative lack of success on the international stage?

Is there a problem with the infrastructure? Or, as was highlighted recently by Coltart and Robertson – and, in these columns, by former Scottish champion Ian Hutcheon – has there been a widespread indifference and complacency in our leading amateurs?

And, if so, are the best young talents coming under the SGU microscope early enough that positive influences can have their full effect?

“Those with promise come to our notice between the ages of 11 and 15,” continues Paulding. “We look first at the support structures around them, then at how we can build on that. If a youngster lives close to a good golf facility and has access to a good coach, our role is merely to support. That’s relatively straightforward. But, for a youngster living in a remote area, it is obviously more difficult. We often have to transport a coach to him or her.

“It’s all about providing the correct environment for improvement.”

Which is all very well. But, is there room within this brave new world for the genuine maverick, the guy with talent who maybe wants to go his own way? Would such an individual be excluded from national sides?

“Most mavericks never want to work as part of any system,” responds Paulding. “In cycling, Graham Obree was a perfect example. He did his own thing. Then there was Chris Hoy. He worked completely within the established system. And both were very successful. So yes, there will be room for both types within our own system.

“I’m very aware of the history of the game. But we have to create solutions by looking forward. We won’t make things better by looking back. We need to close the gap between what golf is and what it needs to be. If we don’t change that in the next five years or so, a significant number of golf clubs in Scotland are really going to struggle.”

Scary words. Let’s hope those fuddy-duddy “blazers” take heed before it’s too late.