Comment: Scottish Golf faces rebellion unless Eleanor Cannon quits

Chair has lost the confidence of the club members

Eleanor Cannon, chair of Scottish Golf. Picture: John Devlin
Eleanor Cannon, chair of Scottish Golf. Picture: John Devlin

It is edging close to being time for Scottish golf clubs to be contemplating a rebellion. And, believe me, I certainly don’t say that lightly. Not when you feel passionately about the sport in its cradle and have been privileged to be at the heart of golfing matters in this country for around 30 years. Not when you know for a fact there are so many good people involved in the game here. Not when you feel golf in this country can play a big part in helping so many people get back to whatever normal might be after seeing the world turned upside down by the coronavirus crisis.

In truth, Scottish Golf, the governing body, shouldn’t be the talk of the steamie in these troubled times. It is, though, and, boy, what a mess it’s in. The governing organisation in the home of golf? Even some of the developing golfing countries around the world would be aghast to be running their game in the manner Scotland is at the moment. Scottish Golf is stumbling from one disaster to another, and it is time for action to be taken in order for that to stop.

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Andrew McKinlay’s sudden departure as chief executive on Tuesday evening has thrown up so many questions about the current health of the organisation, which, in truth, has given the impression that it is in a perpetual state of flux due to one thing or the other – from the debacle of the ill-fated National Golf Centre at Drumoig to a botched first attempt at amalgamation between of the men’s and women’s games – over the past 20 years.

In fairness, these are difficult times for everyone and golfing bodies are no different. Scottish Golf has furloughed staff and took the decision, one which was viewed as premature by many, to scrap its entire 2020 fixture list and performance programme for this year. Coaches had their contracts stopped in March and have been told they won’t be required until October at the earliest.

We are being told that McKinlay, an upstanding individual, decided to step down to help alleviate the increasing financial pressure, but something doesn’t add up there. I smell a rat, in fact. Did somebody go behind McKinlay’s back to the board over his bid to furlough staff working on the Venue Management System (VMS), a software programme designed to simplify golf clubs’ tee booking, competition scoring, handicapping and other administration?

And was it this which resulted in him being overruled? A fortnight ago, after all, we were told that work would be continuing on the development and testing of a new VMS being offered to member clubs.

Did someone feel that remained a priority rather than addressing the immediate crisis, with some of the 550-odd clubs affiliated to Scottish Golf expressing genuine fears about still being in existence when the sport is given the green light to start up again? If so, that is disgraceful and, quite frankly, unacceptable in the current climate.

Yes, the governing body has already invested a lot of time and money in the new system, but that project should be shelved for the time being, with every hour of the working day devoted to providing help and support for the clubs around the country. It took four weeks for any real sign of that and, even then, why on earth are clubs being asked to reveal so much sensitive financial information in a survey, as they were this week?

McKinlay is the third chief executive to depart since Scottish Golf became the amalgamated governing body. Hamish Grey and Blane Dodds were also appointed by the chair, Eleanor Cannon, and, unless she now steps down along with the other members of her board then, yes, it is indeed time for a rebellion to be led by stakeholders.

Cannon, in particular, but the board as a whole has lost the confidence of the people who provide the bulk of Scottish Golf’s funding – the club members.

Last year, the affiliation fee paid by them put £2.4 million in the coffers in a total income of £3.9m. That’s serious money, though, with wages and salaries amounting to just over £1m and administrative expenses coming to around the same figure, the operating profit was around £215,000.

Make no mistake, even allowing for the fact that jobs have been cut in recent years, Scottish Golf is not exactly a budget operation. But it is very concerning indeed that McKinlay’s departure has come hot on the heels of Ross Duncan, the development director and one of the organisation’s longest-serving members, and head of operations Louise Burke either jumping ship as well or being pushed.

Club members have long felt they get nothing in return for their affiliation fee, which currently stands at £14.50. That’s not strictly true, albeit the support they receive might be indirect. But the growing anger and feeling of discontent towards the governing body is at an all-time high.

By all accounts, Cannon and her cohorts have ignored what was agreed at the time of the aforementioned amalgamation, binning the safeguard of a governance committee, for example, and charging on with no real accountability whatsoever. The “dressing-room” has been lost in the process and stakeholders, quite frankly, seem to have reached the end of their tether.

For Scottish Golf to have a chance to dig itself out of this mess in the first instance – current chief operating officer Karin Sharp has been handed the reins with Iain Forsyth, the chief commercial officer, supporting her – then start moving forward again, it has to be the end of the road for Cannon.

It’s not as though she’s not had a decent chance at it. This, after all, is her second term in the chair. Go now and let Sharp and Forsyth, both of whom are experienced golf people, see if they can save the ship from sinking. If not, we could have another Drumoig on our hands and the financial mess from that took years to clean up.

Let’s get Scottish Golf back to the basics, being there for clubs rather than coming across as dictatorial. It should be running top-class national competitions for elite and club golfers and giving talented youngsters the support they deserve.

Stick to that, do it well and don’t get involved in the professional game.

Over to you, Eleanor.

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