Westport Golf Club will make history this April when they send the first ever all-girls team to the Junior Home Nations Inter-Club finals, a feat that’s been years in the making for the ground-breaking Connacht club.
Adopting the Golf4Girls4Life philosophy, a once nationwide ILGU programme aimed at introducing more young girls to the sport of golf, Westport ran with the idea in November 2018, transforming their membership from five junior girls to a 42-strong tribe.
Initially under the tutelage of PGA professional Todd O’Reilly, whose work has since been built upon by fellow PGA pro, David McQuillan, not only has the programme gifted a game for life to these aspiring golfers, but the fruits of that labour can now be seen across some exceptional results. The manner in which these two PGA men approach teaching has fitted perfectly with the club’s ethos of ‘fun, friendship and enjoyment first, competition second’, but that’s not to say their investment hasn’t translated into results.
Spearheaded by Ellen and Marykate Lonergan, as well as Sarah Corrigan, Marykate McHale, Emily Griffith and Grace Donovan, Westport won the interclub under-19’s title for both Connacht and Ireland, earning the team an invite to compete as the first ever all girls side at April’s prestigious Junior Home Nations finals.
“I have two golf mad daughters who had nobody their own age to play with and that’s basically how it all started,” says proud parent to Ellen and Marykate, and programme co-ordinator, Enda Lonergan.
“We’ve grown from five girls on the books (two who actually played) to 42 actively participating, we have two All-Ireland titles in the bank and scores of individual trophy honours across the club.
“It’s become a bit of a beautiful monster, and now we’ve a whole new wave of 8, 9 and 10-years olds chomping at the bit to follow in their footsteps.
“The ages range from 6 to 17, and the ratio is now around two to one girls to boys in the club which in itself is quite unique.
“To now travel as the first all-girls entry into the Junior Home Nations Inter-Club finals is just the icing on the cake.”
Not one of the island’s known powerhouses when it comes to Junior development programmes, in the last few years, Westport has been busy making a splash at Girls’ championships around the country, accounting for five or six names on the tee sheet where once only Royal Portrush or Elm Park would boast such numbers.
Making Junior Home Nations history will be the next milestone for Westport when the travelling party of nine players set sail to the UK for the 12-team championship from April 2-6 on the MacDonald Hill Valley and MacDonald Portal courses in Shropshire. The team will compete over four stroke play nines across the first two days to determine which of three seeded flights they fall into for the match play on days three and four. Considering the age profile of the Westport side, the all-girls tag and a max handicap of 20 in operation at the event, Lonergan accepts his team is up against it, but he has no doubt the girls will relish the challenge.
“It’s an honour to be going and for me, it’s going to imbed a love of golf and a lifelong friendship for those nine girls,” says Lonergan.
“No matter what, they’ll have that forever. Westport might be a small club in some people’s eyes in terms of junior golf but I think over the next year or two, people will be taking a bit more notice of us.”
The dedication of the girls to their craft is just one part of this winning formula. In fact, the foundation of the 2022 success was honed on the frosty winter fairways of nearby Mulranny Golf Club who afforded the golf mad girls invaluable access.
For Lonergan, however, it’s the committed parents who provide the secret sauce. Together with the likes of Tom McHale, Pat Griffith, Brendan Donovan and Barry Corrigan, and Women’s Club Volunteers like Mary McDermott, Abina O’Flynn and Margaret Madigan, the team at Westport have been able to conduct a cost-effective development programme that has reaped results, both for the girls competing, and the parents who have embraced the academy as their own social outlet.
“Unless you’ve got that parent who’s willing to make the personal sacrifice for five or six years, then you can only go so far,” says Lonergan.
“We provide tea and coffee for the parents and it’s a social outlet for them, so maybe if the child doesn’t want to go some Sunday for whatever reason, it might be the parent that feels like they’re the ones missing out.
“The other thing with the girls is it’s all about that group, it’s a little tribe. Like an after school club. We have our sessions and since day one, our sessions finish with a hot chocolate and half an hour of board games.
“They can be themselves and express themselves whatever way they want. They can play golf in whatever they’re wearing. There’s no pre-judgement, the focus is on fun and the craic our little tribe has is unreal, and the proof is that they keep coming back.
“Our Coaches, Volunteers and Parents all treat the Girls as ‘Golfers and Athletes, not simply Girls’, and we believe this embodies the individual self-confidence and resilience we are trying to nurture in all who take part in our program, to enable them to make their own decisions on the golf course and in life.”
Before Westport represent club and country in the UK this April, would-be sponsors are encouraged to show their support for this history-making trip. The total cost of the week is estimated at €20,000, including six nights in the mandatory tournament hotel, transport via ferry to the UK, and pricing for team uniforms to ensure kits meet commercial standards, given the event will air on Sky Sports.
One World Marketing has already come forward with a generous donation and will feature on the girls’ clothing, and there’s space for one more main sponsor to still get involved.
As well, the club has set up an iDonate page here if you’d like to contribute to this next generation of golfers who’ve been putting in the work over winter, rain, hail or snow.
Westport will also be hosting an Am-Am on March 10th & 11th to raise funds so please contact the club if you wish to tee-up in support of the girls.
“We just want to keep the girls inspired and keep them interested,” Lonergan says.
“Some of our girls will play for their Province, maybe even Ireland. Some will go on scholarships to America and some will never play off a handicap lower than 20, but they’ll all hopefully play golf for life.
“Yes, playing the Home Nations is great, but we’re not in it for trophies and pennants.
“My definition of success would be when I’m 70-odd and I’m sitting up having coffee some morning after playing nine holes, that four of these girls are sitting at another table because they’ve just come home from college, and they’ve decided that the golf club is where they’ll meet up because they know that’s somewhere that they had fun together.
“That would be more than enough for me.”
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