If you're a golfer in Perthshire then you'll be very familiar with Niall McGill. The Noah’s Ark PGA professional has helped mould some terrific players over the years, with his driving range now recognised as one of the leading places in the country to receive expert golf lessons and work on all aspects of your game.
Having been a customer of Niall’s for many years, I popped up to meet him for a quick coffee to chat about his different ongoing projects and to find out more about his golfing pedigree. He was just back from Milton Keynes, where he attended the Foremost Golf Industry Awards Dinner and was crowned the Golf Professional of the Year 2017.
“It was a great honour to be nominated and just to be shortlisted was really flattering,” he said as we sat down in his office.
“To actually win the award was a big surprise and it’s very nice to know that all the hard work that has gone into growing the game of golf locally through both Noah's Ark and North Inch has been noticed. It’s spurred me on to take things even further in 2018.”
To anyone that knows Niall, the success won’t have come as a huge shock. He’s been a professional for over 25 years, working at a number of local golf clubs as well as a stint on the Tartan Tour, two attempts at qualifying through Tour School, and a role as a club pro down in the Algarve, Portugal. That experience helps to make him one of the most respected and trusted PGA professionals in the area.
Coming from a golf mad family, Niall’s journey began by spending hours and hours of his younger days down at the Island with his friends and his brother, before deciding to turn his passion into his job and going down the route of becoming a pro.
“I started playing golf as soon as I could walk,” he told me, “I spent my whole childhood playing there. My family all played as we were members down at King James VI Golf Club on the Island – my dad was club captain there for a while. My mum also played, and my brother was a pretty talented golfer too.
“I got to a reasonably good standard and played at county level before deciding to turn pro back in 1991. I started out as assistant golf pro at the Island and then went through the necessary training. I ended up qualifying as the top graduate in Scotland, and was third in Britain. I started playing golf as soon as I could walk - I spent my whole childhood playing at the Island.
“After that, I decided I wanted to give it a go playing on tour full-time, as I felt my game was getting stronger and stronger. I did that for four or five seasons, just on the Tartan Tour. I then went to Tour School twice in 1997 and 1998 but unfortunately I just wasn’t able to make that step up.”
After trying to make the European Tour on two occasions and competing against some of the games finest players, Niall decided he wanted to take a different route and it was at this moment his coaching career really began to fly.
Having gained some experienced teaching German tourists in the Algarve over the winter months, he was offered a full-time coaching role and grabbed the chance with both hands, spending two years full-time in sunny Portugal.
“I realised from Tour School that I wasn’t at the required level to make a career out of playing the game. It’s funny because you think you’re at the level but it’s only when you’re coming up against these guys at Tour School that you realise there’s a big gap. I played against Ian Poulter a few times when he was trying to make the grade and you could just tell he had something that I didn’t have.
“I had worked out in Portugal over the winter months to make enough money to go on Tour each year, so after I missed out at Tour School for a second time in 1998 I was offered the chance to go out there full-time. I started in 1999 and a few of the Scottish guys like Alistair Forsyth and David Drysdale used to come down and practice with me. And I coached a lot of German tourists!”
At the end of the 2000 season, Niall returned home to Perthshire with the vision of creating his own driving range and golf coaching programme. He had his eyes set on some land in Kinross but it fell through at the eleventh hour and nothing materialised.
He ended up working as a golf pro at Murrayshall Golf Club before being offered the opportunity to take the reins at Noah’s Ark. He got the keys towards the end of that season, on of all days, September 11th.
“At the start of 2001 I had planned to build a driving range out at Kinross because I had been inspired by the one on the golf resort in Portugal. That ended up falling through so I just worked at Murrayshall before I was alerted to the possibility of taking over Noah’s Ark’s Golf Centre.
“That was sixteen years ago and I’m still here! We actually got the keys on the day of the terror attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York, so it’s a day that I’ll never forget.
“We’ve made a lot of changes here over the years – we introduced some new targets out on the range and developed that, as well as adding the mini-golf area too. Our aim is to get golf out there and make it more accessible to everybody. It’s an inter-generational sport, you can play it with your parents, grandparents, anyone. It doesn’t matter if you’re 5-years-old or 80-years-old, whether you’re male or female, or what your level of ability is – golf is one of the very few sports that you can play together regardless.”
The move to Noah’s Ark sixteen years ago was just the beginning and Niall McGill has worked tirelessly to build the centre’s reputation. He is quite rightly regarded as the area's go-to golf professional, welcoming golfers from Perthshire and beyond for lessons, to hit some balls on the range, or to get themselves shiny, new, custom-fitted clubs.
He also works with the region’s best prospects – coaching the county boys and girls to try to mould them into the professionals of tomorrow. It was during his coaching sessions with Perthshire’s talented youngsters that he stumbled across another local project that he simply couldn’t resist getting involved in. The Inch itself was absolutely packed but the golf course was empty - it was absolutely deserted.
“I coach the county kids and back in 2013 I had them down one Sunday morning on the North Inch to do some on course stuff. The Inch itself was absolutely packed – there were kids at the rugby club, kids playing football, cyclists, runners, children at the play park – it was mobbed. The golf course was empty. It was absolutely deserted.
“I made a couple of phone calls after that because I was concerned about how quiet it was and also the condition of the place. Although I grew up playing at the Island, I quite often played junior competitions on the North Inch in the late 1980s and always thought it to be a nice course in decent condition.
“The result of my phone calls was that basically Perth and Kinross Council were trying to do something as a last ditch attempt to revive the course, which has great history in the local area. I put in a notice of interest and told them that if anything did come up, that I wanted to be involved. They ended up creating a job specifically to manage the course and although I’d have been keen to run it as a contract for Noah’s Ark, I decided to apply anyway and I was appointed.”
He inherited a golf course in need of more than just the proverbial lick of paint in 2014, and got to work rebuilding the North Inch Golf Course’s reputation as an affordable but pleasant golfing experience. Coming towards the end of his third year at the helm, the signs are all positive and things are definitely looking up for one of the world’s oldest golf courses.
“The golf course was poor – really poor. The grass wasn’t being cut frequently enough and the playing conditions were pretty dreadful. That led to a big loss in revenue because people just wouldn’t play because of the state the course was in.
“Initially it was an 18 month contract and basically it was a last attempt at reviving the place. I think had we not managed to do something then it would have potentially been closed by now. It certainly would’ve been up for discussion within the council anyway. Now we’re in our third season, and we’ve had a 76% increase in membership and season ticket holders, and we managed to double the annual income in the first two years.
“I drew up a six-year business plan last year because we know it’s going to take that sort of time to get the place exactly where we want it – which is as an attractive and affordable place to play golf for people of all abilities. We’re slightly ahead of that plan now which is great but we’re still working hard to make the North Inch realise its potential.
“One of the things we’ve done here was to add Footgolf – a fantastic additional revenue source for golf clubs – and we were the first to open in Tayside. There’s no extra maintenance costs, so apart from the initial outlay for the equipment which wasn’t very expensive, it’s a great little earner on the side. Golf clubs need to be willing to adapt in order to continue attracting people.”
In Niall’s job with both Noah’s Ark and the North Inch Golf Course, he gets to experience first-hand what the state of the game is like in Perthshire. With many golf clubs struggling to attract and retain their members, many have fallen on hard times and are on the brink of financial difficulties and possible closures.
And he sees only one solution to stop some of the region’s fine golf courses from shutting down – more people need to be playing the game. Either you have to create more golfers to fill the clubs, or you have to close clubs down – that’s the reality.
“Either you have to create more golfers to fill the clubs, or you have to close clubs down – that’s the reality. For me, the only option is to get more people playing. Participation levels need to be higher.
“And it’s not just kids that need to be playing either. It’s great we’re getting youngsters playing but for the clubs, the fact is that the majority won’t be full paying members until they’re into their 30s. We need to target people in their 40s, 50s and older – the ones who used to play a lot of sport and maybe can no longer play football, rugby, tennis and such.
“Golf is low-impact exercise and it’s a competitive sport – so it’s perfect for people who have always been active and competed in different activities but maybe can no longer do so because they’re too old or have injuries. There’s a market there to get these guys playing and I’m hoping to try and reach that market over the next few years.”
Although some of the clubs could do with getting more members and people playing the game, Niall is enthusiastic about the professional side of the game for Scottish and indeed Perthshire golf. Blairgowrie’s Bradley Neill recently became the first local player to get his European Tour card since 1979, and Niall thinks that the 21-year-old has all the attributes to thrive at the top-level.
“I think we’re on the cusp of something really good for Scottish golf at the moment. What Bradley has done has been incredible – from being Amateur Champion to getting his full European Tour card – and he’s still only 21.
“He’s the first Perthshire golfer to get to the European Tour since Brian Marchbank in the late 1970s so it’s a really big thing. What’s great about Bradley as well is he’s very good with the juniors too. There’s a number of kids coming through out at Blairgowrie just now that can look up to him and learn from him.
“The young Graham brothers who play out there are close family friends of Bradley, so they will be able to tap into his knowledge and also get a close look at what it takes to be successful at the top. The way Bradley’s done it by qualifying through the Challenge Tour is great because he now has that experience of playing four rounds of golf over a weekend, and being out on tour for a whole year. That’s something you can’t get when you qualify via Tour School.
“He’ll be used to the demands and the pressures that come with tour golf and I think he’ll be very comfortable out there on the European Tour. Daniel Young is another local lad who’s doing very well and he only just missed out on the last stage of Tour School the other week. He plays on the Alps Tour and has time on his side to make it. It’s a really good moment for Perthshire golf just now, and hopefully it's going to continue to get better and better."
To book a golf lesson with Niall, or to get yourself custom fitted with some brand new clubs, contact Noah's Ark Golf Centre via their website or by calling 01738 440678.
If you'd like to play the North Inch Golf Course, or try out their fantastic family fun Footgolf you can book a tee time online or call the starter box on 01738 636481.
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