Swing when you’re winning: females on the fairways

Local female golfer Helen Jones
Local female golfer Helen Jones

It’s time to de-bunk some myths - namely, that the number of Northern Ireland girls getting their groove on on the golf course is greater than you might imagine.

Indeed, there are an increasing number of women here for whom the term ‘chip and pin’ doesn’t necessarily lead them to thoughts about whipping out their bank card on the high street today.

Golf is a popular pastime, and is in the news once again, with local star Rory McIlroy having pocketed £2.1 million by winning his third Race to Dubai title, with fellow Northern Ireland golfer Graeme McDowell hot on his heels after winning the OHL Classic in Mexico - followed swiftly by third place in the RSM Classic.

Then, of course, there’s Tyrone man Darren Clarke, whose headlines are currently generated around his Ryder Cup captaincy for 2016.

All three men are household names in Northern Ireland, putting our wee country firmly on the map when it comes to swinging a club.

But ask anyone except the most ardent of golf fans to name a prominent female golfer from Northern Ireland, and most would be hard pressed to do so. Many won’t realise that last year, Stephanie Meadow from Jordanstown came third in her first professional tournament – the US Women’s Open.

They might not be making headlines but the women in golf in Northern Ireland are certainly a force to be reckoned with. Ahead of Ireland’s largest golf show, the Irish Golf Expo, three lady golfers talk about their love of the game...

Olivia Mehaffey (18) lives in Banbridge. She’s currently studying Sports Science and has the Welsh and Scottish Women’s Amateur Open titles under her belt. She says:

“Next year I’m going to go to Arizona State University under a golf scholarship and once I graduate I’ll turn professional. I was always going to be a professional golfer ever since I was little.

“Golf can be a tough sport – people don’t realise how much work goes into it. I’m off season now but instead of taking things easy I spend my time going to the gym or hitting balls.

I wouldn’t mind having Rory McIlroy’s success although it’s unlikely as women’s golf isn’t as popular as men’s. Things are changing and they are trying to promote women in sport much more now.

“Men’s golf is just more popular because more people want to watch it. It’s something you come to accept. Money isn’t the reason I want to go pro anyway, I’ve been playing golf since I was little and I’ve always loved it.

“In saying that it’s wonderful how much guys like Rory, Graeme and Darren have raised the profile of golf. Everyone in Northern Ireland knows who they are. They’ve made the game here massive and they’re great role models.”

Helen Jones (57) is a former lady captain of Royal Portrush Golf Club where she has been a member for the last 30 years and is currently the honorary treasurer. She lives in Portballintrae with her partner Heidi Simpson and is a retired boutique owner. She says:

“My dad was a golfer so as a family we all played where I grew up in Strabane. I didn’t play seriously until I came back to Strabane after I graduated from university in my early 20s. I’ve played on the Ulster and Ireland amateur teams.

“Golf is a very social game – I’ve met people all over the world while playing it and many of them are great friends. I’ve gone on a few golfing holidays where there would have been about 30 ladies and they were mighty craic. I think women are much more involved in the running of golf now. For example the Royal Portrush had its 125th birthday a couple of years ago and the women were very much as involved on the committee as the men were. We’ve certainly moved on from the days when women could play only when the men had finished.

“I’m a traditionalist so I do believe there still needs to be men’s golf and women’s golf. I think it’s nice to have our own ladies’ branch but we certainly mix at Royal Portrush. Women can’t compete with the men’s strength so it makes sense to have two separate competitions.

“I would love to see a young woman hitting the headlines in the same way that Rory, Darren and Graeme have. Stephanie Meadow is actually a member here at Royal Portrush. We also have Olivia Mehaffey – I think those two will go far.”

Lynn McCool is the director of golf and head professional at the Lough Erne Resort. She lives in Enniskillen with her husband Sean Keely and says:

“I grew up living beside Strabane golf club so I started playing at a young age. I got noticed very young and began to enter different events. I started playing for Ireland when I was 13.

“When I was 17 I got a scholarship to study in Hawaii. When I came back I joined the European tour before deciding to do my PGA qualification over three years.

“Since then I’ve worked at the Hilton Templepatrick and the K Club in Kildare before joining Lough Erne. I’ve been very fortunate; I’ve had some of the best jobs in Ireland and been associated with great clubs. There aren’t many women working in golf but there are more starting to come through now. There’s still a lot more men compared to ladies though.

“I always think there should be ladies golf on the TV on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. If there’s men’s golf on at the weekend then ladies’ golf doesn’t get a look in. I remember seeing media centres that took up the whole floor of a hotel on tour but then you would come home and the women’s results were in the classified section without any photos.

“In saying that golf in Northern Ireland is really on the uptake. When you see how many brilliant golfers are coming out of a place this size and how likeable they are it’s astounding.”

**The Irish Golf Expo will take place at the Eikon Centre in Lisburn tomorrow (Saturday) and Sunday, with each pre-purchased ticket including a free green fee. For more information visit www.irishgolfexpo.com.