*Sarah Cunningham competing for Lahinch in the All-Ireland Senior Cup Finals in 2018. Photograph: Pat Cashman Photography
Sarah Cunningham was eleven years old when she first started playing golf, almost two decades on she is still driving, pitching, wedging and putting and cannot see a future without the sport.
Though Sarah has stuck with the sport, the same cannot be said for boys and girls she would have played with in her youth, another worrying observation pointed out to The Clare Echo as part of our latest #CantSeeCantBe interview is the lack of young people currently playing golf. “A lot of the girls that would have played when I was sixteen or seventeen, a lot of them have dropped off but in saying that in the last year or two we are starting to see a few of those coming back which is great. I think there definitely has been a drop off so that’s why all these initiatives are going to hopefully give a boost to the game again”.
On why less teenagers in 2019 than ten years previous are playing golf, the Clarecastle native felt it was “a mixture of everything”. She elaborated, “One could be it does take up a lot of time, golf is slightly changing in that they’re bringing in nine hole competitions as opposed to playing just eighteen, expense is a thing. I think a lot of it is other sports, gaelic football, camogie, hurling, soccer, a lot of that is team environments whereas sometimes golf can be individual but once you start off and there’s a good group that’s the best way to stay at the sport”.
Thursday next sees the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open take place in Clare for the first time, Cunningham is of the view hosting the European Tour event will be a big help in inspiring the next generation of golfers. “From a Clare perspective I hope more young kids go to the event and look up to all the stars and hopefully pick up a club after it, numbers are definitely dropping the last couple of years with young people playing, hurling, football and a lot of those sports do take away from golf, once you see it locally it will be all over the TV, all over the radio, they’re making it into a festival for the week which I think is very important, you’ll see the fun side of it. Hopefully young people will look up to this and say ‘I want to play golf’”.
Currently playing off a handicap of one, Sarah has been based in the Mardyke linked with University College Cork for the past four years doing recovery sessions, fitness testing plus strength and conditioning. There is a high workload involved which has impacted on the amount of time she can devote to her game, “In the last couple of years with work and all that I don’t think I play half as much as I used to, I would love to play more but I just can’t with work and other commitments”.
Now she aims to play at least once a week which is in stark contrast to the devotion given to the sport during her years at St Flannans College. “You would have been practising a couple of times a week and then playing at weekends. My whole summer used to always be taken up with golf competitions, the last few years I’m not able to do that anymore”.
Back then, the practice paid off and resulted in her obtaining a sports scholarship to Maynooth where she pursued which is credited for keeping her in sport. “There is a huge drop off come Junior Cert, Fourth Year and Fifth Year of girls in sport but once I was doing my Leaving Cert they started a new golf scholarship in Maynooth. A lot of golfers around Leaving Cert age you either think of going to America on a scholarship because there wasn’t much in Ireland but I got lucky in that they started the scholarship the year I did my Leaving Cert so I applied for that and then I got it, that kept me in golf for at least another three years, I was surrounded by golfers everyday, got to play as much as I wanted, we got to use the facilities at Carton House, that definitely kept me playing which was great”.
A winner of the European Young Masters in 2005 and 2006, Sarah has amassed a huge array of honours over the years but admitted turning professional was never part of the plan. “I just kept playing and never thought about turning pro, it is a difficult life to turn pro, I do like the amateur side of it. You have your golf but yet you do have another life too. Even the summers that I spent playing golf, you do have to prioritise stuff, it did take up a lot of time but I wouldn’t regret that or anything because I’ve made so many friends through it that you almost have another social network through golf. It does take up a lot of time but at the end of the day if you love a sport you don’t mind at all”.
During Seamus Hayes’ era as Sports Editor of The Clare Champion, the sporting exploits of the now twenty nine year old were well documented, however during her time in secondary school she rarely if ever discussed her many achievements with peers. I wouldn’t talk about golf at all because very few of them, maybe one or two played, we’d talk about camogie or other sports that we all played. I tended not to talk too much about golf”.
Her entry into the sport came from wanting to emulate her sister and parents who were regular golfers, “when you see your older siblings ahead of you play something all you want to do is the same thing”. That she did as Sarah went on to represent Munster and Ireland at underage and senior level. As part of the Golf4Girls4Life programme she tours the country and attempts to make golf more fun and appealing for girls. “It’s more to get the girls going with a bit of fitness, mobility and doing it in a fun way that they don’t think ‘oh do we have to do this warmup’, it’s trying to come up with new ideas that the girls can relate to and make it fun, that will keep them in the game”.
Key for young people regardless of their gender contemplating starting golf is to “bring a friend” according to Sarah. “When I started there was four girls in Ennis that was our group and it definitely helped, if there is only one of you I think it is very hard to keep going on your own whereas if you actually have a friend or a nice little group it definitely makes it easier to stay at it and becomes more fun, it has to be fun, that’s the best way to keep kids in it”.
For Sarah it still is about the fun element, it’s why she is unaware of her best World Amateur Golf Ranking is 1,875, why the team success of winning the All-Ireland Senior Cup with Ennis Golf Club and Lahinch Golf Club as well as representing Munster and Irish teams are her own sporting highlights and why she has no intentions of ever putting away the clubs for good. “The one great thing about the sport is you can be any age picking it up, young or old, it’s definitely a sport that I’ll play for as long as I can”.