One of the negative things about getting older is that we’re less likely to be surprised by people, so it was an absolute pleasure this month to speak with Assistant Director of Golf at Fota Island Resort, Karen O’Neill, who provided a welcome breath of fresh air while speaking of her trail-blazing for women golfers in the industry.
Hailing from Douglas, it could be said that Karen hasn’t had to go far to find her ideal job, but having completed college in the UK, where she studied golf coaching & performance, and then working there before returning to her beloved Cork, she’s seen enough to know she’s found a home at Fota Island.
“I love it at here Fota Island,” says O’Neill. “I’ve been here for seven years now and I’m part of a great team headed by Kevin Morris. As his Assistant Director of Golf, my role is mainly to support him by managing the 750-strong membership of the golf course plus the 200 or so members we have at the Golf Academy. I get involved in day-to-day operations as well of course but my main focus is on the membership as they’re such a huge part of our business.”
Managing that many members as well as being involved in such a thriving club in terms of corporate, society groups and green fee business isn’t without its challenges but O’Neill is regularly rising to them.
“I love the game and I love this place so it doesn’t feel like work to me really,” she says. “I don’t have days where I don’t want to come in, which is a great thing to be able to say.
“The Covid-effect has certainly been felt here, the same as it has in all golf clubs and it has presented many challenges. It’s been difficult to manage visitor expectations and the various restrictions but the team here have done brilliantly and we’re now moving into a period where larger group sizes are permitted and hopefully this will mean a return of the larger corporate days which are important.
“When restrictions lifted this year, golf really took off. We experienced a huge increase in demand for membership and Academy membership and it just seemed like everyone wanted to play golf as it was one of the first sports to return. That was great for the game and for clubs as it meant we could open the doors and generate some badly needed income.”
A perennial issue with golf clubs has always been communication with members, and retention of members has become a big part of the management role in recent times. This is where O’Neill is focussed and it’s all going according to plan for now.
“We’re quite lucky here as the majority of our members fall in love with the place,” she says.
“We are a 5-star resort and we believe that we offer that service here on the golf side as well as at the hotel, which keeps the members very happy. We’re very interactive with all our members. We’re in touch with them constantly, making sure that we’re delivering what they expect and want from us and changing our offering to suit their requirements where we can.
“It’s always changing and what members wanted 5 years ago from a club is different to what they want now so a lot more of our focus is on creating environments that suit lifestyles and what we see are market demands, whether that be for junior members, ladies or gents.”
These days we see more women in managerial posts at golf clubs but their numbers remain few compared to men. Bridging that gap has become a source of motivation for O’Neill who knows that she has a great opportunity to influence the next generation.
“I didn’t get my first set of clubs until I was about 15 and I have to admit that I wasn’t the biggest fan of the game for the first few years but that all changed,” she says.
“So, even for juniors, it’s not too late to start at that age. I’m a +1 handicap player now and I’ve represented my home club, Douglas, in the Senior Cup as well as taken part in inter-pros and so on, so I guess you could say I got serious about golf after a while!
“I play regularly these days and I split my golfing time between Douglas and here at Fota Island. I had thought at one point of going down a coaching route and I did study that before I realised that I much prefer the managerial aspect and I know I’m lucky to be in a position that gives me the opportunity to grow and progress.
“One of the main reasons I am where I am in this role is because of Kevin (Morris). He’s always encouraging me, pushing me to take on the next challenge and I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today without his support and advice.
“I think it’s very important that women are highlighted in our sport, both as players but also as coaches and managers etc. The number of women involved in these areas has grown in recent years but there still aren’t many of us at the top level and for girls thinking about a career in golf, they need to see that there are roles and pathways for them to come into the game.
“They can always be great players obviously but showing them that there are management roles, coaching roles and so on is something that I really want to do and if I can highlight that in any way by doing a good job and being profiled by articles like this, then I’ll be delighted.”