sports gazette

Fulwell Golf Club Could Lead the Way

Photo: Will Medlock
Published: 18 Oct 2014

The new golf season is beginning to find some traction following a summer of memorable moments. Will Medlock spoke to Fulwell Golf Club manager Sean Whelan about private members' clubs and changing perceptions.

The energy of a charged 2014 Ryder Cup ebbed away as jubilant Europeans and ruing Americans melted into the Perthshire skyline. Gleneagles was returned to its pristine state. Not a European flag or American holler within sight or earshot.

Golf’s traditional stroke play tournaments have now taken prominence over their raucous, media-crazed sibling. Patrick Reed’s crowd incitement and Ian Poulter’s fist pump have been put on standby for the next two years.

The game’s defining heartbeat, however, is not maintained by the Ryder Cup. It is in the golf clubs that lack profile that the game continues to live and breathe. If the Ryder Cup is the style, the local golf club is the substance.

Fulwell Golf Club is one such site upon which the game’s most devoted players reside. The club is members only, meaning that the Ryder Cup has only a small, yet positive, impact.

“Within the membership, there’s heightened interest [in the Ryder Cup]. But it’s probably on a par with The Open,” said Sean Whelan, club secretary and manager.

“Obviously, we have a crowded, busy bar, particularly for the singles, and it creates a good atmosphere around the place. By the time the Ryder Cup comes around people are playing golf anyway.

“The Masters is the equivalent of Wimbledon when everyone picks up a racket and starts playing tennis because they’ve seen it on TV. The Ryder Cup is the golf event that non-golfers watch more and more, because it just gets so much coverage.”

Much has been made of the decline in the sport’s participation levels, making it refreshing to hear Whelan talk so positively about a golf club that doesn’t rely on the buzz of major events to thrive.

“Every single year there’s a decline. We’re lucky. We have full membership and we’re doing really well. It’s partly because it’s a really good facility and partly because of the area we’re in," Whelan admits.

“We have bucked the trend in the last three to four years, but there are lots and lots of golf clubs closing down since the start of the recession. There are lots of reasons why people are playing golf less, like time constraints, financial restraints and more choices.”

Despite Fulwell’s success, Whelan concedes that notions still persist about the game that will take more than words to eradicate.

“A problem is perception, from a marketing point of view. For private members' clubs, people think that they’re these bastions of white middle class men, over 50 years old, who don’t want any outsiders.

“We’ve tried to break down those barriers and have less signs saying ‘don’t go here, don’t do this’ and that’s worked. It’s hard to change people’s perceptions about the place and about golf generally.”

It seems that Fulwell may be about to make meaningful strides in the right direction.

“Our next vice captain is going to be a lady. It hasn’t been ratified yet, but in 2015 we could have our first ever female club captain, 111 years later. If she’s chosen she’ll be the best person for the job. It’s quite a progressive statement for a golf club like Fulwell.”

In two years, with golf becoming an Olympic sport for the first time since 1904, the game must be continuing to challenge itself. The recent decision to allow women to become members at the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews in Scotland has been met with widespread approval.

However, there continue to be those of an archaic mindset who still deny women such status at their clubs. When asked about the issue, Whelan is clear in his hopes for the game’s future.

“That golf clubs, particularly ones like ours that are over 100 years old, are not seen as the stuffy, male dominated places they are seen as right now.

“That’s not to say we ever want to give up one of the biggest selling points of this club, which is heritage and everything it’s had over those years. We’re really proud of that, but we want this club to be a community based facility that’s welcoming to men, women, children, families and not just for a select elite few.”

If the Fulwell blueprint is followed by more private members' clubs, the game’s perception will inevitably alter. The challenge, as it has always been, will be relentless until the very end.

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