Plans for the future

Durham County Golf Union secretary Jonathan Ward on the future of the game

It’s the time of year when we take stock, review, and plan for the next 12 months. That’s exactly what’s on Jonathan Ward’s mind as the county season ends and his sights are set on 2017 and beyond.

Since taking on the role of county secretary two years ago, Jonathan has been part of a progressive Durham golf executive – keen to grow its events with a modern approach.

“My career has been in golf, working in development with England Golf and the Golf Foundation before taking the role with the county,” explains Jonathan when we meet towards the northern end of his patch at Consett & District Golf Club.

“I learned a lot as Durham’s first development officer, supporting clubs with new techniques to grow participation, retain membership, apply for funding, open golf to different groups of people, market their businesses – all of which is being carried on by Phil Graham who I share a strong working relationship with.”

Since taking on the role, Jonathan and the county executive have changed a handful of the county’s rules to make golf more accessible at the elite and inter-club level.

The county has introduced an online entry system for all of its events, has removed the 18-hole qualifying event from the county championship to make it simpler for people with families or working shifts and weekends, and allowed players to wear shorts in county events. The executive is also looking to appoint members with specific skills and areas of interest – from marketing to rules to junior coaching.

“The county union has been around since 1908 and stays true to many of the values set out more than 100 years ago,” says Jonathan. “We enjoy many of the traditions but appreciate the need to adapt with changes to the world around us.

“People can now enter events on their phone in their lunchbreak rather than searching the locker room for the poster and finding a cheque book, they can find out about events through Facebook and Twitter, and keep up with live scoring from matches and events.

“The percentage of people entering online has been huge with over 90% taking it up, and 95% of those who played in the Seniors Championship entered online.

“We’re trialling a new format for the County Championship to make it more friendly to players with families who find it hard to give up two weekends by bringing it into one event on one course, and we’re allowing them to be comfortable playing in shorts – should we ever get a day warm enough!

“It’s about being more flexible and more accessible while respecting our traditions.”

Perception of county golf in Durham and across the UK is a key issue in building participation further.

“There are a lot of golfers out there who have no idea what the county union is and what it does for club golfers, Jonatahn says. “Those who have heard of us often don’t realise the county is about more than elite championships and the county team. We have events for category two, three and four golfers as well as seniors and junior events, and we need to do more to make people aware of what’s out there.”

To that end, Jonathan has opened up the work of the county, creating a presence on social media and sharing his work, knowledge and expertise with as many clubs and club members as possible.

“The goal is ultimately to grow participation – whether that’s in the County Championship, the category three and four events or the mixed doubles events we run alongside the county ladies – it all means more people are playing more golf.

“The more we can do to highlight the benefits of club membership – of which access to county golf is one, alongside initiatives such as flexible memberships – the better chance we have of converting those taking up the sport into members.

“Each golf organisation – community clubs, members clubs, resort courses, men’s and women’s county unions, England Golf, the PGA – has to be part of growing the game.

“In Durham we have strong working partnerships between all of our organisations, and participation levels have begun to slowly rise.

“We are playing our part by shouting louder about what is out there and as each piece of the jigsaw does so I would hope to see numbers of people playing weekly and ultimately taking up club membership grow.”