Mark Kennelly joined the nascent Golf Ireland as CEO in November of 2019. His job will be to bring together the two strands of the sport, represented by the GUI and the ILGU and has eleven months from now in which to do it.
There is also the matter of serving the clubs and the amateur side of the game with developing the professional side.
It is a challenge that is both complex and exciting and with early signs showing that a drop in registered players is stabilising and maybe even going positive again, there are plenty of reasons to relish being part of such a transformation.
Kennelly is well used to complexity having served as Chief of Staff in the Department of An Taoiseach for six years from 2011 to 2017.
At yesterday’s launch of the new Golf Ireland identity, visible on the backdrop of the picture above, we sat down to explore some of the challenges to be faced and how they will be overcome through 2020.
SfB: You would normally come into a role like this and take a number of months to get a feel for the job, the politics, the timetable and the rhythm of how it works. In this case, though the clock has been ticking on the coming together of the sport and you have had to hit the ground running. Has that been easy to find your stride?
MK: I think it was important to get the message out that now we are in the year of delivery that we should be seen to be very proactive.
There was a huge amount of work undertaken by the team throughout 2019 and a real willingness on the part of all stakeholders to move on with purpose. I wanted to let the world know about that work, that it was ongoing and that we were on track.
From mid-October, I was attending meetings of the Transition Board and Committees and I could see and sense what would be the best way for me to help deliver on all the preparation.
SfB: The sport is one of tradition and you are transitioning now to a modern approach. How big of a challenge will that be taking care to build well with dismantling the strong foundations?
MK: It is one I am relishing. This year we build the organisation and then from there we become an enabler of clubs and other elements in the sport to really unlock their potential.
I am a golfer. I understand the way it has always been run and percieved. I know the challenges it faces but also the real potential it has in so many areas.
SfB: It is well-positioned as a sport that caters for all ages. Is the demographic profile being older than most sports a positive?
MK: We are very fortunate it is one of the very few outdoor sports where people can remain engaged throughout every stage of their life.
The challenge has been in bringing in enough players at the younger entry point. That has been faced though by a number of smart engagement and development programmes run through the sport.
They have contributed to early figures on annual affiliations showing stability and possibly even a slight uptick.
Clubs have become much more open at welcoming young players. The fact that you can play for life has meant perhaps that there was less of an imperative to renew and reach out to youth than would be the case in other sports
What we believe with the project is that by bringing all our services and supports together that we can provide a better and more efficient service to clubs to help them with their own development.
SfB: Is the sport run on an almost Federal basis with the clubs very much self-governing units?
MK: There is a lot of autonomy for clubs. Our guidance and support is optional but there is a real appetite to avail of it.
Clubs will move at different paces but we have gone deep on surveying what they want and there is
We are mandated to promote areas like equality but we will not be in a position to force clubs to govern themselves to a set standard. It is a process which may take years or even longer but as Golf Ireland becomes a clear value proposition we feel that clubs will want more and more to benefit from a strong central resource.
SfB: Do you think that last year with Lahinch and Royal Portrush there was a real boost for the sport, particularly among younger audiences.
MK: To have role models like Shane Lowry, showing that hard work and talent can drive real reward will undoubtedly have had an impact. That might not be immediate but it was a very special year and the effects will be felt for a long time to come.
SfB: Did it shift the perception from a sport that is played by parents and grandparents to one that is accessible to youth?
MK: I think it played a part in letting the sport stand out in what is always a busy sporting calendar. Shane was very open in talking about how he came through the GUI Development programme and that will have opened up the understanding of how young people can get involved.
SfB: The sport at international level has been strong in digital activity and social media, is that an area where Golf Ireland will also be looking to take a lead?
MK: Very much so. One of our big projects is to build a new digital platform for golf here. Our plan is to accelerate that project and launch a new digital platform in time for the new World Handicap System in November.
SfB: Is there a commitment from our professional players to help out in promotion?
Our players have shown real enthusiasm to help promote the sport here. They have come through our own development systems and players like Leona Maguire and Stephanie Meadow have shared their willingness to give something back, just like their colleagues on the Men’s side.
It is something that will develop over time and we are confident that if we have a request that they will be willing to do what they can to help.
SfB: With problems in other sports and governance over recent years, is that something that will be to the fore in building the new future of Golf Ireland?
MK: There are 388 Golf Clubs in Ireland. We are putting our governance structures in place and adopting best practice. We are building on a strong platform with the sport very well run already.
We will be producing a best practice governance manual for clubs who will take that on at different speeds. It will not be an obligation but I am confident they will all realise the importance of continuing to do the right thing in the right way and adapting where needed to meet the highest standards.
There is an ambitious timeline for Golf Ireland to meet as laid out in our story elsewhere about the new identity launch. Kennelly’s experience and manner will be a real asset in terms of meeting each deadline. This time next year Golf Ireland will be fully constituted and running the sport as one.
It will be interesting to follow the journey with them here on Sport for Business.
Read More: Golf Ireland Launches New Identity
Image Credit: Ramsey Cardy, Sportsfile