By Michael Balderstone, BSI Founder & Performance Director
I love to visit hotbeds of talent development and elite performance to see what factors contribute to the success and what can be learned. So I was delighted to recently get an invitation to visit and play Holywood Golf Club in Belfast, the club where Rory McIlroy grew up and learned his golf from a very young age. What was it that enabled Rory to develop as he did, and for him to still hold the club very close to his heart?
First impressions are often great indicators, and when I entered the clubhouse around lunchtime there were juniors everywhere. As we sat out on the balcony overlooking the course, one group of juniors after another came up the 18th hole. My visit did happen to coincide with a junior tournament, but this is not unusual as the club hosts a junior event every Tuesday and Friday during the school holidays.
On our way to the Professional shop, after a fantastic lunch served by friendly staff, we walked past Rory’s trophy cabinet, which houses exact copies of his major trophies and other genuine memorabilia donated by Rory. Here we found juniors posing for photos with the trophies, with the club staff happy to oblige all who wanted the experience (including big kids like myself) by taking out all of the trophies. I’ve visited many clubs with similar trophies on display, but have never seen a club embrace it with such pride and to happily involve the visitor in the experience. In fact I’m not exaggerating when I say that Holywood is the friendliest club I have experienced in over 30 years of involvement in the game.
One might expect that the golf course itself was a contributing factor. This is true, but not for the reason you may think. It’s easy to imagine that Rory grew up on a championship length links course that tests all facets of the game. In fact the course itself is relatively short, easy and player friendly, being 6056 yards in length off the back tees. It is set on a steep hillside and there are plenty of dogleg holes with internal out of bounds on many of the holes. It is a nice, enjoyable course and has stunning views of Belfast Lough, but it’s not a course that stands out as a great design or test of golf.
Rory stated himself; “Holywood was a great course for me to learn the game on, it has all the traits that develop your game from playing it regularly. It helps you to learn to shape your shots, places emphasis on your short game and creates a more versatile and adaptable golf game through the variety of different shots encountered. I have no doubt that the course helped me to become the golfer I am today”.
There are many talent hotbeds around the world where the facilities are basic and functional, and Holywood seems to fit this pattern. There were other key things that Holywood provided that created an environment for Rory’s talent to flourish.
1. Rory was exposed to the game as a toddler, watching his father (an excellent player himself) practice for hours and then joining him when old enough to swing a club. The parallel with Tiger Woods here is uncanny, both getting early exposure through their fathers’ love of the game.
2. The PGA Professional at Holywood at the time was Michael Bannon, who identified Rory’s talent very early on. Rory developed good fundamentals and movement patterns at a young age under Bannon’s guidance. Their player-coach/mentor relationship remains to this day.
3. Bannon appealed to the club committee at the time to lower the minimum age that juniors were allowed to join, specifically so that Rory wouldn’t be lost to another club. The club obliged, thus creating a safe and welcoming environment for Rory and many other juniors to play, grow and learn together.
4. A few years later the club promoted it’s then PGA Professional, Paul Gray to General Manager. The size of the committee was reduced, as was its involvement in day-to-day operations.
5. Paul has driven many changes at the club, such as relaxing the dress code, introducing flexible membership options and encouraging juniors and women members. Paul continues to innovate in this way to create a very welcoming experience with the ethos of growing the game and that golf is anyone’s game.
The lesson that I take from Holywood is that the environment for nurturing a great talent is also helping to grow participation. Key people (PGA members) were able to influence the club to change mindset and policies long before the need for change became a topic for discussion in golf circles. Most in the industry still haven’t woken to this reality. Standard of facilities are not as important as the overall environment created. Rory still spends time at the club when he’s back home as it is still a safe environment for him to just be himself.
I wonder how many Rory’s have been lost to the game because of the unwelcome attitude of many golf clubs and members around the world? Well done Holywood Golf Club. Be sure to visit if you get the chance.