March means the heart of pennant season (or “pennants” season, depending on your location) in many parts of the country. It’s invariably a time of great weather, great course conditions and great camaraderie within teams and their home clubs.
I’ve played in a major pennant side only once – 26 years ago – and for just one match as a fill-in. As someone who’s spent most of the past three decades domiciled in that infuriating 6-to-9 handicap bracket (you’re good, but not that good), I was always on the outside looking in. Except on this one occasion when there was an unexpected vacancy. I won the first hole with a bogey that day before being roundly trounced, 6&5. As far as being a ‘career’, if you will, it was as pathetic as it was short.
Australian Golf Digest recently sparked fervent debate on our social media pages by asking the question: should professional golfers be allowed to compete in club pennant matches? It’s been allowed in Victoria since 2015 and has generated polarising opinions. There is a limit on the number allowed and the pro must be a paid-up member of the club they represent. A few of our responders online clearly didn’t realise the practice already occurs and thought we were boldly suggesting it should, but either way, there was no shortage of discussion.
“They do in Melbourne and it’s a joke,” noted Adam Ward. “They have their own competitions; it stops young kids getting a game.”
“Definitely not,” chimed in Andy Hayman. “They are called pros for a reason: it’s their job. I practise two hours a week and get to play someone that can and should be practising 25 or more hours a week.”
On the flip side were several responses like this from Shane Mills: “If they pay the same membership fee as everyone else, then yes.”
I used to sit firmly in the ‘no’ camp. I often felt it was unfair for a PGA professional to dip their toes into amateur golf when the reverse situation wasn’t frequently available. It also annoyed me to see PGA pros winning vouchers and prizes in club competitions from time to time, even if they did play off legitimate plus-handicaps. To me, it was just one of those things that was relinquished upon taking up a traineeship or turning pro – you lose the right to win prizes in amateur competitions. So the notion of the best team a club full of amateur members can muster possibly including a professional when taking on another club seemed completely contradictory to the spirit of pennant golf.
I’m not so adamant these days. A friend of mine undertook a PGA of Australia traineeship and upon completion tried his hand at the Asian Tour’s qualifying school, unfortunately without success. He later returned to his pre-golf trade but still maintains a plus-handicap when he tees it up in club competitions. Robbie pays his membership fees just like everyone else and would stroll onto any club’s pennant team. While he says he’s not comfortable with that idea, perhaps he deserves the right to if he wanted. Just because he chose to add golf as a profession to his résumé, should that preclude him from the same selection rights as his fellow members? Maybe, maybe not.
The line perhaps becomes: to what level of professional golf should pennant representation be permissible? For instance, would allowing a former tour pro to play pennant golf be taking things a step too far? Not that he’s retired from tour golf entirely, but is Geoff Ogilvy playing No.1 for Victoria Golf Club acceptable? Or would a No.1 player from an opposing club relish the chance to take on – and maybe even beat – a former US Open champion?
The Victorian situation is an intriguing one. While including professionals in pennant teams is permitted there, it remains a decision made club by club, and close observers note how results play a part in the policy. Pennant golf is arguably taken more seriously in the Garden State than elsewhere, and it’s revealing how a club’s policy can suddenly change when a pennant side’s performance dips a little.
But back to our question on social media. Sprinkled among the passionate opinions and the odd bit of vitriol were a few middle-ground responses, like this smart idea from Jason Liddell: “Only the club’s pro, and then the two pros from each club play each other as a match. Make it an extra match if needed rather than take away an opportunity.”
It would need the buy-in from the pro at every competing club, yet maybe it’s the ideal solution.