As so often is the case in life, it takes the dedication of a group of volunteers and a bit of luck to create something truly special. In the case of the Offaly Junior Golf Academy, both elements came together to launch a pilot scheme that could provide the blueprint for regional golf in Ireland to prosper for many years to come.
Inspired by Shane Lowry’s Open Championship win, a group of local businesspeople approached Brian Monaghan, who was chairing Tullamore’s Junior Development Committee, asking if there was anything they could do together to promote junior golf in Offaly.
Monaghan just so happened to be stewing on an idea.
“The conceptual idea revolved around coaching in a controlled environment, but not of an elite level,” explains Monaghan.
“I took the concept to Bernard [Quigley – Head Professional at Tullamore] who loved the idea and he suggested Eamonn O’Flanagan, who’s the High Performance Programme Lead at Leinster Golf, as our second coach.
“Together we calculated a costing plan and our sponsors were happy. We held an open meeting in December and presented the idea to five golf clubs who had their say and we fine-tuned a plan.”
The result was the Offaly Junior Golf Academy, a joint venture by Esker Hills, Tullamore, Birr, Edenderry and Castle Barna to provide juniors between the ages of 8 and 18 opportunities that those growing up playing golf previously in the county could’ve scarcely dreamed.
“The only stipulations,” notes Monaghan, “were that the kids were of a coachable standard – that they could swing the club with a bit of hand-eye coordination. They had to have their own clubs and be members of the five clubs in Offaly.
“Beyond that, the overarching thing was that we wanted to be all inclusive. We didn’t want it to be elite. We didn’t want it to encroach on the good work that Leinster golf is already doing.
“We identified the Leinster Pathway system & that the Regional & Provincial levels were catered for but we have around 500 junior golfers registered in Offaly and less than 5% of them are involved in the Leinster programmes, so there was a huge gap there.”
A huge gap for sure but the Academy was never going to be able to cater for all 500 should they desire to partake. Instead, an Academy of 72 players was sought with Monaghan and co reaching out to the five clubs in Offaly to nominate players they deemed suitable for the programme.
Skills assessments of those nominated were undertaken at Rahan Driving Range near Esker Hills in February where Quigley and O’Flanagan evaluated the candidates, with those making the grade graduating to the Academy where they will each benefit from eight coaching sessions throughout the year.
“We wanted to help out those who didn’t make it too,” said Monaghan, “so we reached out to the local clubs who helped secure additional sponsorship and what we’ll offer under the banner of the Academy is five open coaching sessions – one open session per club, of two hour duration and that’s open to every other remaining child who’s not part of the Academy programme.”
Yet, the idea for the Academy was never intended to centre around one-to-one lessons. It spawned from a willingness to teach kids the fundamentals, yes, but also to encourage their interest and promote their longevity within the game. With that in mind, enhancing each coaching visit will be a file drawn up on each student to accurately record their progress and this data is then sent back to the pupil’s club so they can supplement their learning in the interim.
It’s feedback Shane Lowry progressed through the ranks at Esker Hills without and for someone like Quigley, who honed his skills on the fairways at Birr largely without supervision also, he’s confident the kids will reap the benefits of such organised tuition.
“We had very little growing up,” Quigley remembers.
“A lot of it was just hit and hope for us. Maybe you’d play with a couple of the better golfers at the club and pick up stuff from them but if there was ever coaching, it would be a case of maybe someone popping by once in a blue moon.
“There was nothing like this. Eight sessions, we have a five-year plan. Five-year funding from local supporters who want to see this progress to the point that maybe we’ll find another golfing superstar down the line – but that’s not the main aim of it either.
“We’re not necessarily looking for any superstars per se. If something comes up where we see a kind of an outlier, we will look to nominate them onto the Leinster Pathway program but for the meantime, the whole remit is to get kids playing golf for life.”
A big focus of that will be increasing participation amongst girls in the sport. Given the success of the 20×20 campaign, CGI’s Get into Golf programme and the historic vote for one governing body for golf in Ireland – Golf Ireland – in recent times, the Academy hopes to build on that momentum and early signs were bright at Rahan Driving Range in this regard.
“Eamonn was assessing girls from Esker Hills and he couldn’t believe how good the standard was,” Quigley said. “Some of them played Camogie and their hand-eye coordination was phenomenal so the two sports do complement each other.
“We’re really pushing for a strong gender balance in the Academy and our goal is to provide both girls and boys with proper support, make them aware of the benefits of coaching and keep them in golf for life.”
The Offaly Junior Golf Academy structure is unique, in that it’s targeting juniors who may have never been assessed before; those with a talent who would’ve otherwise slipped through the net.
No other county has adopted such a system in Ireland to date and given its still in its infancy, it will take years to gauge its success. However, should the program take off, it could provide the blueprint, especially for more rural parts of Ireland, to grow the game at a time when participation levels are in desperate need of a boost.
“We’ve had a massive response,” said Monaghan. “More sponsors have expressed interest in getting involved. We’re still developing loads of ideas. We’re looking at other support platforms for those who weren’t selected. Giving feedback, tips of where they can improve to be given to parents.
“We’re looking to create a platform to allow interactive communication between the kids and the coaches to provide feedback from practice throughout the season. It’s reaching the kids with what they’re good at – technology, social media. We’re developing all the time – trying to get it right from the word go.
“If it turns into a blueprint for other counties in Leinster and beyond to follow, then we hope to be there to offer any advice to those looking to do the same thing. For now though, we’re focussed on our kids.
“Not only do we want to provide them with the right fundamentals from the start but beyond golf, we want to create an environment that will allow their life skills to prosper as well. Without the support of Bernard and Eamonn and of course our sponsors, none of this would be possible.”