Eleanor Cannon: Scottish Golf not doing job we need to but give us time

The Scottish Football Association isn't the only governing body that has found itself in a state of disarray in recent months. In fact, the situation at Scottish Golf has probably been an even bigger mess. It lost its chief executive, after all, at a time when his proposed new strategy was dead in the water after leaving all sorts of people '“ club members, club managers and even golf tourism operators '“ up in arms.

Eleanor Cannon believes there is a growing sense of unity in the game heading into Sunday's annual general meeting. Picture: Jon Savage
Eleanor Cannon believes there is a growing sense of unity in the game heading into Sunday's annual general meeting. Picture: Jon Savage

As Blane Dodds settles into his new job at Tennis Scotland, a suggestion that the affiliation fee paid by every golf club member in the home of golf be increased from £11.25 to £24 to offset a £300,000 drop in sportscotland funding has been scrapped. As have plans to introduce a tourist tax for foreign golfers and getting every golf club in the country to sign up for a new customer relationship management (CRM) system.

Instead, the proposed new rate for the affiliation fee – £15 – is the only significant aspect still on the table as part of a revised strategy and that will be put to a vote by stakeholders, a group that includes close to 600 affiliated clubs, on Sunday at Scottish Golf’s annual general meeting on the outskirts of Edinburgh.

If successful, the extra money raised will be partly used to fill that aforementioned funding gap and also allow the governing body to assist clubs in an ongoing battle to either retain members or attract new ones, with Scotland having lost more registered golfers than any other country in Europe from 2015 to 2016.

According to one match secretary, the proposed increase, which represents a 33 per cent rise, is still going to be “difficult to stomach” for the majority of the country’s 200,000 or so members due to the fact they have never really felt any benefit from that additional fee to their club subscription.

However, Eleanor Cannon, the chair of Scottish Golf and the person who has been in interim charge since Dodds’ departure, believes the unrest that was evident a few months back has been replaced by a much-needed sense of unity, which has partly come out of the country’s first national golf conference late last year.

“I think we have moved an inordinate distance since 10 October, the day Blane resigned,” Cannon insisted in an exclusive interview with The Scotsman. “It has been extraordinary, absolutely remarkable. And sometimes you look back and realise these things happen for a reason.

“It was a complete shock to everyone on the board when Blane said he was leaving. We had choices. We could all go or we could all do what we had decided to do from the very start, which was to step up to the plate. The board are not in it for themselves. They simply want to leave golf in a better state than they found it. And that doesn’t mean for today; it means for 30 years from now.

“For that to happen, big decisions need to be made. You don’t get change in business without urgency and there was a sense of urgency. All of a sudden, people started to listen. It is not about us as individuals; it’s about the golf community moving in the same direction. It is about aligning everybody to be trying to achieve the same things with a common purpose and that wasn’t in place before.”

Bridges were left in need of repair within the game in its birthplace after the sorry chapter surrounding the Scottish National Golf Centre. Built at a cost of £4.6 million, nearly twice the original estimate, at Drumoig it closed in 2003 with losses under the Scottish Golf Union regime at the time amounting to £1m. The process which led to the amalgamation of the Scottish Golf Union and the Scottish Ladies Golfing Association in October 2015 also caused friction.

Cannon herself has ruffled some feathers but insists she has learned a lot about the unique nature of the game in Scotland and is now relishing the task of trying to help reinvigorate golf clubs around the country, with women being the main target in that process.

“I am really confident, much more so than before October, in our ability to be able to move forward because we are together, which is great,” she added. “When things go wrong – and they did – we [the board] have to accept the responsibility and say, ‘let’s get on with it’. We all knew that it wasn’t going to be easy because you don’t change what was in place without a lot of pain.

“Before the national conference in Edinburgh, we had two meetings with the Areas and Counties [the local men’s and women’s associations around the country] and they were incredibly unifying because they took on board the messages from myself and Stewart Harris [sportscotland’s chief executive]. We all have to be in it together because there is no point of this infighting any more. Those two meetings were incredibly powerful and, to be fair, I think they finally felt part of it.

“There were decisions made to get amalgamation through which we are all struggling with now, but we need to sort it out in the tent and we are going to do that. It’s not about men versus women or women’s 
libbers trying to take over. 
The reality is that our clubs do not reflect modern society and we have to do something about it.

“I would love to see a 15,000 increase in women and juniors as golf club members over the next three years and we believe that we have a great opportunity to work with the health agenda and the diversity and inclusion agenda. We also have the 2019 Solheim Cup at Gleneagles and our aim is to incentivise clubs to grow their female membership between now and then.”

Regional input for that national forum will help identify the needs of individual clubs. “Yes, you have to have a national aspiration but it has to be applied locally and you have to understand how it works,” added Cannon, who is confident that Andrew McKinlay, recently appointed as the new chief executive but not due to leave his current post as the SFA’s chief operating officer until May, is the perfect person to be at the helm going forward.

“We are no different, if you like, to a multi-site big retailer. The big difference is that 
we don’t own the sites and we’ve got to respect local 
differences and find a way of helping those clubs to grow.”

Though not straight away, the intention is to try and bring the so-called golfing nomads – people who play regularly but are not club members – “into the Scottish Golf fold” and get them contributing to the overall health of the game a bit more than at present.

For now, though, the board’s main priority is making those current club members feel that fee is indeed providing something in return, whether that is individually or as a club. “This whole distraction about ‘what do we get for £11.25?’ tells you that we are not doing the job we need to do,” confessed Cannon, who refutes allegations of ‘empire building’ by pointing to Scottish Golf’s staffing level having dropped from 48 pre-amalgamation to 32 at present.

“But we have only been around for two years and these things take time. I think the £15 now being proposed is sensible. And, if we have to come back next year with another proposed increase, then we have failed. That’s what I believe, anyway.”