06 March 2010

Top players to come out of the shadows - IRISH TIMES

IRISH TIMES, Saturday 6th March 2010.

A GENUINE lack of opportunity for single handicap golfers to play regular competitive golf has resulted in a new initiative to find Ireland’s “Top Golfer” through a new 30-tournament series to run across all four provinces from now until October.

As handicap levels at the elite end of the amateur game have tumbled in recent years, so too has the opportunity for “ordinary” single handicap club golfers.

Somewhat caught between a rock and a hard place, this category of player is frozen out of all the major (GUI) championships as the handicap cut-off to enter is rarely above scratch. That’s not a bad thing; it illustrates the strength and depth within Irish golf which has surely never been in better health in terms of producing world-class talent from a seemingly endless conveyor belt at grassroots level.

However, for those in the shadows of the elite standard, all too often a competitive open event is hard to come by. Top Golfer injects fresh impetus into some existing scratch cup events, while introducing several new tournaments to the party.

“I spoke to many clubs who agreed senior panels don’t get enough competitive practice at that level,” said Rob Hill, who is driving the Top Golfer concept.

“Guys at Stackstown Golf Club (Pádraig Harrington’s home club) said they now have a chance to see players’ form before selecting their teams.”

The opening event tees-off at former Irish Open venue, Fota Island in Cork, on March 21st and runs until the season-ending Tour Championship in October, where all 30 winners will compete for the title of “Top Golfer 2010” in a 36-hole event.

“We have a good mix of big resort courses with Fota and the Heritage plus established member clubs such as Westport and the Castle. Starting out it was hard work trying to get our message across, some clubs tended to be a bit sceptical, particularly in the north.”

Timing is everything, and clubs are generally more receptive to new ways of attracting golfers in the wake of the economic downturn. “I think in truth if we tried to do this two or three years ago it would have been a non-starter,” added Hill, who has brought in Ronan Rafferty, former European number one and Ryder Cup player to act as ambassador.

For years clubs have run their own scratch cups but local sponsorship to underpin the events has become more difficult to come by.

“Sponsors aren’t that enthusiastic about just one event at one particular club but when we asked ‘what if we had 20 or 30 of these events’ then sponsors became much more interested.

The organisers suggest single handicap golfers account for approximately 12 per cent of the 300,000-plus affiliated members in Ireland and they hope to attract in the region of 100 competitors to each event.

“Clubs have helped keep the cost of entry very competitive. Take Rathsallagh’s event at €35 for 18-holes plus lunch thrown in. Knightsbrook is €40 but that’s 36-holes and lunch.”

Emphasis has also been placed on creating an online community where players will gain access to dedicated blogs, chat forums and news.

“All you need to do is look at the presence of Facebook and Twitter these days,” adds Hill. “We know the majority who sign up will be aged between 18 and 44 and are savvy internet users and know all it has to offer.”

“I’m really excited to be Top Golfer ambassador,” said Rafferty, who cut his teeth playing scratch cups.

“This is a unique way to meet and compete with top golfers across Ireland and feed your competitive spirit.”

It seems traditional scratch cups may have just got the shot in the arm they needed.

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