Martin Dempster: Scottish Golf in mess and board must take share of blame

Scottish Golf chair Eleanor Cannon. Picture: Jon Savage
Scottish Golf chair Eleanor Cannon. Picture: Jon Savage
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There have been some lows for Scottish golf – some highs, too, admittedly – in the time I’ve covered this great sport but never before I have I felt the game in this country has been in the complete and utter mess it currently finds itself.

The failure by Scottish Golf to secure backing for a proposal to raise the affiliation fee paid by club members by £3.75 to £15 at Saturday’s annual general meeting has left the governing body in a dire situation, one that needs to be addressed here and now.

Let’s start by asking why the stakeholders – consisting of men’s Area and women’s County associations as well as the country’s near-600 clubs – rejected that proposal, the main purpose of which was to raise extra revenue to offset sportscotland funding having been slashed and allow Scottish Golf to push ahead with a plan to try to help clubs in the ongoing fight against declining members.

Was it really because rank-and-file golfers in the sport’s birthplace aren’t prepared to stump up an additional £3.75 – the cost of a single golf ball or a pint of beer or lager? For some, probably yes and that is entirely their prerogative.

I suspect, though, that the main reason for the “no” vote was that those involved at the sharp end of matters at grass-roots level have lost faith in Scottish Golf and, therefore, simply aren’t prepared to let Eleanor Cannon, the chair, and her board of non-executive directors to shape the game’s future in this country.

If so, why is that the case? Well, could it have been that, by all accounts, Scottish Golf’s numbers were just not adding up in the document sent to clubs outlining its battleplan and that, coupled with an apparent lack of real clarity about how clubs were actually going to be assisted, effectively triggered a red light.

What also didn’t help, of course, was that the governing body had initially proposed the affiliation fee being hiked up to £24, only for that to be swiftly withdrawn when it soon became dead in the water – along with hopes of introducing a golf tourism tax and the implementation of a customer relationship management (CRM) system.

Yes, they might all have been ideas tabled by Blane Dodds during his short spell as chief executive before he jumped ship to take up the same role at Tennis Scotland, but the board surely gave him their backing and that, I’m afraid, played a big part in the sorry mess that has now been created.

It was distressing to hear Cannon claim that sexism towards her was part of the reason the proposal failed. Equally embarrassing for everyone involved in the sport in this country was hearing Malcolm Robertson, an outgoing board member, saying that certain individuals should be “ashamed at some of their behaviour” towards her during this process. Seriously, that really is cringeworthy and totally unacceptable.

What matters now is that, somehow, Scottish Golf can pick itself up off the canvas and have a fighting chance of moving forward with any real strands of positivity, which isn’t going to be very easy when cuts of up to £450,000 will need to be made in the next 18 months on the back of savings of around £700,000 having already being implemented.

Can that happen with the current board pulling the strings and, more importantly, the bad atmosphere within the game that appears to have been created? The answer to that, I’m afraid, would appear to be “no” and I don’t make that prediction lightly.

I have no axe whatsoever to grind with Cannon and certainly respect her. I feel confident she took up the leadership role with the best intentions and, despite Saturday’s disappointment, is still talking bullishly about wanting to create a bright future for Scottish Golf and its members.

Truthfully, though, how can a board be successful in shaping a sport’s future when its members are not actually known by the people they are attempting to influence? Only Stephen Docherty, who has now ended his stint, and Addi Spiers provided any real golfing experience around that table and I say that with all due respect to the other non-executive directors, none of whom, contrary to what some people seem to believe, are paid for their roles.

Incoming chief executive Andrew McKinlay, on the other hand, is set to be rewarded handsomely when he when he leaves his current post at the Scottish Football Association to take up the reins in May, and the first thing he needs to do is get on the phone to all the country’s leading players, male and female, to get them to help shape that future because, believe me, they are up for it and equipped for the challenge of trying to play a part in sorting out this mess.