To say that 2008 was a year like no other in the long history of the Royal Canadian Golf Association goes well beyond an understatement.
“I think we set out for it to be a different year, even from the year before,” said Toronto’s Andrew Cook, who succeeded Garry West to serve as RCGA president in 2008.
Cook will step away in favour of incoming president Tom McCarthy of Halifax at the RCGA’s annual general meeting, which runs this Thursday through Saturday in Halifax.
“We tried to take the RCGA into a different direction. We tried to be more transparent with our partners and provincial associations and the other golf associations. I think we’ve been successful in that,” said Cook yesterday.
His mandate began at a time when Scott Simmons was beginning his first full year as executive director after returning to the RCGA the previous July, replacing Stephen Ross during West’s tenure. That laid the foundation for what was ahead in 2008, according to Cook.
“I think he more than exceeded my expectations. I was involved in the hiring process with Garry. (Simmons) is the principal architect of the change in direction that we’ve been talking about,” said Cook.
That change started on a shaky foundation. The RCGA was widely thought of as an organization that represented private clubs, administered the rules of the game and offered handicaps, but little else in the eyes of most Canadian golfers.
In looking for change, the RCGA first had to accept some cold, hard truths as it set out to establish its strategic plan, that when first announced, was a document designed to carry the association into 2010. It has since been adjusted to carry into 2011.
“Part of what we called it was ‘Facing the Brutal Truth.’ We interviewed a whole bunch of our constituents and we talked about the situation that the RCGA found itself in,” recalled Cook.
Part of the brutal truth was that the RCGA was too dependent on funds from the Canadian Open and the $40-million sale of Glen Abbey to ClubLink Corporation 10 years ago. Funds from the Open are now being carried forward to strengthen the PGA Tour event instead of being used to fund RCGA programs.
That means the RCGA continues to try to find funding for its programs and one of the focuses of the strategic plan was to become a self-sustaining organization. According to Cook, the RCGA was recently offering four to five dollars in services and programs for every one dollar that it was bringing in
“We think all of our programs are good. Constituents are telling us that they like all of our programs, so how can we continue to afford to do them? What changes do we have to make in order to continue to remain viable,” said Cook.
Certainly, budget was one reason that several long-time RCGA employees were let go throughout the year, but Cook says it went beyond that, even though it was tough on a personal level.
“I’ve been involved with the RCGA since the late ‘80s, so I knew all of those people, including back to Stephen Ross, and it’s unfortunate that sometimes when you change direction, it’s very difficult to bring that change of direction to completion when you still have the same players,” he said.
“We have a tremendous group of young people at the RCGA who are willing to embrace change,” he said of the remaining staff. “All organizations face a crossroads, if you like, where they have to make this type of decision.
“The definition of insanity is keep doing the same thing over and over again and expect different results. We just felt that the point in time had come that, if we really wanted to reinforce the changes that we wanted to have happen, there would have to be some changes in the players,” said Cook.
The RCGA, which is also expected to drastically cut the number of association governors this week from 36 to 11, still faces financial challenges.
For example, the association will roll out a national Golf In Schools program in the next year that will require funding from either a corporate sponsor or through membership dues/donations.
As mentioned above, the RCGA’s members have always been considered clubs, as opposed to individuals. With one of the highest per capita rates of golfers in the world, the RCGA has very few of them as members.
Cook says he would like to see a new structure that would make individuals want to become members. A gold membership, for example, would be for highly competitive, very active players, while a bronze membership would be for those who simply want a handicap and other benefits.
One of the ways to be inclusive of all types of golfers is through methods such as the RCGA Golf Card loyalty program, which allows golfers to play a free round after playing five at a participating course, according to Cook.
“The golf card is something we can do for individual members that meets one of the things that always see on the golf participation studies – what people want from the game is affordability,” said Cook.
Affordability will undoubtedly increase in importance for golfers, given the tough economic times predicted for 2009, which could get in the way of the RCGA’s quest for potential sponsorships and new members.
“I think (the economy) will be a bigger factor in 2009,” said Cook. “I think the whole industry is going to need to do some retrenching.
“I’m a member of a club and I sat through an information meeting at my club in December and there’s a lot of pressure on membership and people want to drop out and people can’t afford to be members anymore and so on,” he added.
“I think we’re going to see that drift through the whole industry,” he said. “I’m not an economist per se, but I just don’t know how long this thing is going to last. I don’t think we understand fully yet what the total implications of this is going to be on our industry.
“There’s been lots of speculation in the media about the impact on the tours and potential sponsors dropping out. I think a bit of retrenchment is probably overdue,” said Cook.
“Certainly, the prize money on the professional tournaments has risen in leaps and bounds over the last 10 years. Maybe, it’s time it stabilized for awhile.”
If the RCGA is looking for inspiration in its other challenges, it can certainly use the quick turnaround in the fortunes of its professional tournaments as an example. It wasn’t long ago that both the RBC Canadian Open and the CN Canadian Women’s Open were in serious trouble.
Cook says never underestimate the importance of committed title sponsors. Both CN and RBC have not only been willing to inject the respective tournaments with cash, but have also taken an active interest in each event’s well-being.
The Canadian Open, for example, used several non-traditional methods to make it more fan-friendly when it was played in July at Glen Abbey in Oakville, Ont. Cook says he noticed a different when he first walked in.
“The whole look and feel of the event was totally different. Starting out at the door, going into the concert series, the positive mood all the way around, the only thing that went wrong with the whole organization is the fact that we had 10 inches of rain in six days in late July, which is absolutely unheard of,” he said.
“We still have a good champion, our sponsor is absolutely delighted with the event and looking forward to bigger and better things next year and we think it was a tremendous success,” said Cook, adding that goes double for the CN Canadian Women’s Open that was played at Ottawa Hunt in August.
“That has got to be the top event on the LPGA Tour, bar none,” he said. “The players certainly feel that way and the sponsor is happy and the LPGA Tour is happy. The fact that we got, I think, 48 or 49 of the top 50 players in the world at that tournament was another huge success.
“I think our professional tournaments are going nowhere but up,” said Cook, who expected a unique year in 2008 and certainly got it.
With the challenges ahead for the RCGA, that type of unique year may become commonplace.