Meet the Alex Ferguson of amateur golf
Put all the triumphs down on a piece of paper and they read like the honour roll at a venerable football club.
Thirteen English county championship victories, five home internationals, two European Ladies’ Team Championship golds, one European silver.
It’s been a glorious run of success for teams led by England Golf coach Steve Robinson.
It’s brought England’s amateur women numerous titles over the past decade. It has seen Yorkshire boys and women’s squads conquer the country.
They’re results that have brought Robinson, the head professional at Sandburn Hall in York, personal plaudits.
He is the back-to-back England Golf Coach of the Year and was recently nominated for a UK Coaching Award – considered in the same company as the team that masterminded Great Britain’s relay success at the World Athletics Championships.
But impressive as all the gongs are, it’s Robinson’s ability to consistently mould winning teams – from ever changing personnel – that might be his most impressive achievement.
It’s said Alex Ferguson built his two-and-a-half decade dynasty at Manchester United on the back of producing five distinct squads – all the while continuing to pick up trophies.
Robinson’s outfits change much faster. The lure of the professional game sees his young stars migrate once they’ve fulfilled their amateur ambitions.
The desire and the expectation to win, though, doesn’t diminish as the conveyor belt rolls on.
After achieving phenomenal success in 2016 leading an England side that won European Team Championship gold for the first time in nearly a quarter of a century in Iceland, he lost two of his leading players – Bronte Law and Meghan MacLaren – to the paid ranks.
But a newly formed outfit defended their Euro crown in style in Portugal.
So how does Robinson keep forging winning team after team? NCG sat down with him to find out how he keeps the run going…
Looking back to the start of 2017, when you’d lost Bronte and Meg, how did that affect your outlook for the season ahead?
First and foremost, before we won the Europeans – as a coach I’d had a lot of failure.
The good thing was I’d learned from that. I had started to look at what I did within the team and how I contributed to the team, and interacted with it.
In golf, it’s a difficult task because you’re usually trying to put a team of performers together that are usually trying to knock the hell out of each other on a week-by-week basis.
So there are one or two egos in there. We lost Bronte and we lost Meg, which was a pretty big loss.
In 2016, though, we had two or three players that nearly made the team but didn’t.
Obviously, as individuals, they were very disappointed. But they were still in our squad and that was my focus for the following season – to bring them on board and make them believe this was their opportunity.
We weren’t going to the Europeans as defending champions. We were just going as a team trying to perform and it was their time to shine.
It was about making them believe that they could compete. You can’t ever guarantee you are ever going to win or lose – it’s just on the day.
But it was making Sophie Lamb, a great player, believe she could win. It was making Gemma Clews believe she was important to the team.
Their contribution was going to be massive.
All of a sudden, we were starting to look good. You could see it almost piecing together.
We played the Spanish in April. Lamb and Clews went unbeaten in foursomes. It wasn’t just that they went unbeaten, it was their performances were huge.
They were pretty much under par every time they played and it was absolutely massive.
They started to believe that, as a team, they could go and compete.
So it never bothered me (losing Bronte and Meg), because I knew it was coming and I was quite prepared for it.
I looked at what we had and we had some amazing talent there.
It wasn’t like we had nobodies coming in. Our job at England Golf is to have a system that provides success by design and it just keeps moving players through the system.
The regional programme at England Golf, the coaches that are working within the regions and the counties, are producing some great players that are coming into the system.
Now we have Lianna Bailey, who has shown a lot of potential and who’s quite gutsy – and Rochelle Morris, who is a scrapper.
We have a team of players this year that, if we can perform to the best of our ability – which is what it’s about – might give everyone a game.
We will go this year with the attitude that no one really wants to play us. They will look and say ‘we’re going to have a battle here’.
So how do you go about putting together a successful team? What goes into the process and what happens during a tournament?
As a coach, you’ve got to make the team believe they can perform and they have a chance of achieving what their goal is.
The team isn’t my team. We have some quite open and frank discussions. Ultimately, it’s my decision. But it is sometimes their idea, but in my control.
We had a nucleus of four quality players last year and they pretty much played all week during the European Team Championships.
That was something we talked about. If you want to be successful here, you’re going to get flogged.
It’s eat, sleep, golf, repeat and they bought into that.
How do you go about building a new team?
I look ahead because I take a number of players to the French Under-21s, so I get to view them there. I can see quite a lot of the younger players coming through and build up a relationship.
That’s the key thing in sport. We had a number of players in 2016 that were American based. So I Skyped them once a month – on a Friday afternoon – and we’d just have a chat. Sometimes we didn’t talk about golf.
You keep building that relationship with an athlete and they know you and you get to know them.
They get to know what your values are – what might be expected and what might be tolerated and not tolerated.
Sometimes, as a coach, you have to able to flex your values for the benefit of the team.
Somebody might do something that irritates you but you don’t need to pull them up unless it’s going far beyond where you can flex.
You want the team to be happy and cohesive. Building up good relationships with players helps you keep your team tight together.
You’re in a results-based business. You’re paid to win. Do you feel pressure with that?
It has been part of my life since I was 20. It’s just what you do, what you live with.
England Golf doesn’t put a lot of pressure on anybody. We continually try to improve what we do, how we do it and why we do it.
I just take every session as it comes – with a view that we have a team-talk and we try to win that session. We try to go through the week where we don’t lose a session and, if we do that, we are going to be somewhere near.
I don’t get stressed out. Some things that might get me a little wound up might be a rules infringement where they (the opposition) are trying to get a drop. My team know I will step in.
I think that’s good for the team to know. If Robbo doesn’t think it’s right, he’s going to be there, going to be fighting on their behalf.
They understand that and have no fear that I’m going to be a little bit worried about saying something.
I’ll be in there: ‘No, I don’t think you’ve got that drop right. Can I have a chief referee here?’
Some of these incidents happen out there and it’s good the team know you’re going to fight on their behalf and they don’t have to get involved in it.
You can only prepare and set them off and you can only get them ready to perform and in the right mindset.
Once they are out there, to a certain extent, it is beyond your control.
We are a team that keeps going. Everything is fine margins now anyway – and I don’t think me jumping up and down on the sidelines would help them.
Usually, I tend to stay a bit back. I can advise at these events and I do at times. I can step in and go through a decision making process with a player when I think it’s appropriate.
I like the pressure. That’s why I am doing the job. I like to feel my heart beating out of my chest and living every shot.
I’m proud of the players that I’ve worked with because they have bought into and believed in doing the things I’ve asked them to do.
So what’s the plan for 2018?
I’ve got some personal targets. I’m always ready to go. I’m ready to go after the last event. I’m already thinking about the future at that event – because I have to. That’s the way I am.
I’m already reflecting on individual performances and my individual performance as a coach. Is there anything I could have done better, should have done differently?
If I should have done it differently, how?
It’s always planned out. I have my ‘what if’ scenarios. What happens if that happens?
I don’t want to be making a decision on the hoof. If someone asks ‘why are are you doing that?’ I want to say ‘it’s because of this and this and this is how I see it’. And I know they are going to do it.
Who is Steve Robinson?
The England Golf coach of the year is one of the amateur game’s most esteemed coaches. As the former professional at Malton & Norton, he guided the young careers of Simon Dyson and Emma Duggleby.
Dyson has gone on to win six European Tour titles, while Duggleby – now Emma Brown – was arguably the greatest female amateur of her generation, playing in three Curtis Cup sides while also winning the British and European amateur titles.
A prolific winner on the northern circuit, Robinson is currently head professional at Sandburn Hall, in York, and coaches both England and Yorkshire’s women alongside England boys and Yorkshire boys.
In 2016, he was named as one of only 22 recruits to Sport UK’s Aspire programme, which helps develop world-class coaches.
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Picture of Steve Robinson and Gemma Clews courtesy of Stills Photography. Picture of Steve Robinson courtesy of Leaderboard Photography.