Golf Australia’s new manager of clubs and facilities wants to change the way golf clubs think.

Damien de Bohun knows you only get one chance at a first impression, so he opted to make a big one. New to his role as Golf Australia’s general manager of clubs and facilities, de Bohun strolled into his presentation session at the recent Golf Management Australia–Australian Sports Turf Managers Association conference wearing a Jayson Tatum (from the Boston Celtics) basketball singlet, running tights and track shoes, and asked the golf club managers present, “Hands up if your club would let me play wearing this?”

The reaction was telling. In a room of roughly 500 people, only about a quarter raised their hands. It was a revealing moment for all, but especially this newcomer to the golf industry (although he’s far from new to golf).

In a career that has seen him hold lofty positions with the A-League and Cricket Australia, de Bohun’s entry into golf is significant for the game here. He is viewed as a ‘disruptor’ and one who is prepared to challenge the established norms in order to broaden golf’s reach.

We asked him to give us a snapshot of his role, his thoughts on what golf needs and his immediate to-do list.

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AUSTRALIAN GOLF DIGEST: Judging by your ‘debut’ in golf circles, you’re clearly not afraid of shaking things up, correct?

DAMIEN DE BOHUN: Golf has so many opportunities in front of it. I’m doing this job with clubs and facilities nationally because I love the game of golf. I’m a golfer but, more importantly, my life philosophy is to leave the room in a better place than I found it. There are so many pieces of the jigsaw that are coming together for golf. I think there’s an extraordinary future for the sport, and to get there we will have to do some things differently. No, I’m not afraid to shake things up, but not for the sake of shaking things up – for the sake of leaving golf in a better place than we found it.

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What were you hoping to achieve by making such a dramatic statement at the GMA–ASTMA conference?

The conversation really was: would I be allowed to play at your golf club today? I’m a member of The National Golf Club. I know if I turned up like that, they would invite me to find different attire, I suspect. But it’s really about understanding where the market trends are and what the market is telling us. At the conference, there was a futurist, Michael McQueen, who spoke. He was absolutely brilliant. He talked about a couple of key themes, but one of them was about knowing the difference between “tides” and “waves”. Waves just come up onto the beach and it’s the latest thing, whereas a tide is a very deep current that moves things in different directions. ‘Athleisure’, as it’s called now, is the single biggest and fastest-growing clothing segment in the world, yet it’s currently clothing that at most golf courses you couldn’t wear. Given that golf has had a lot of trouble in the past 20 to 30 years engaging women and people from different cultural backgrounds, it’s one of the fundamental things we need to start to tackle.

As a rule, I’m very relaxed; I don’t take myself too seriously. I enjoy speaking in an environment where people are engaging. It was really important to have the discussion and say, “Hey, we need to think carefully about: what are the barriers we’re putting in the way of people to prevent them from becoming golfers?” There’s no question that attire and apparel is one of those. When only about one in four at the conference said, “Yeah, you could play at my club,” it’s like, “Well, what are we doing?” Because guess what? This is how people dress today, especially women. There was a really strong view about: what are women going to do? Are we going to send them out buying skorts, skirts and polo shirts? Or are we going to say, “Hey, turn up in your gym gear, like you’re going for a walk. Swing your clubs and enjoy it.” Some of those important decisions will start to shift things dramatically.

One of the great things from the conference – and this is going to sound ridiculously simple – but one of the things that drives me crazy is golf clubs that have signage up that is not welcoming. “You can’t do this, you can’t do that. Don’t do this. Don’t do that.” There’s a video that you might have seen – Bankstown Golf Club came back from the conference, went straight to the sign on their wall and pulled it down. Now it sounds simple, almost a bit kitsch, but that’s actually part of the answer to making golf more accessible.

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What other reactions did you get?

We received very constructive, positive feedback. Part of my very strong belief is, it’s not about me coming from Golf Australia to say, “This is how you need to do things.” It’s about partnering with those clubs and facilities that are doing this as best practice already in the industry. Golf is a ‘challenger brand’ in this country. It’s emerging, but it has every opportunity to be in the top few sports in the future. In order to do that, we need to understand: who’s doing’s this best? What does it look like? And that we are an ecosystem, rather than a hierarchy, so that’s unique for golf.

Being new to the industry, I am asked a lot, “What do you think about golf?” I think two things. One is, coming into it fresh, it’s historically been one of the most fragmented sports in the country to this point, which means the opportunity to actually start working together is a massive part of the jigsaw. In reality, it is an ecosystem that’s quite complex with different moving parts. It’s not for me or for Golf Australia to come in and dictate what people should do, but it is for us to demonstrate what ‘great’ looks like and what best practice looks like, and help people at clubs and facilities come on that journey and propel golf to where it can be.

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Tell me more about your profess-ional background and how that’s helped you coming into this role.

I’ve been really fortunate. I’ve had the opportunity now to work in the three sports I grew up loving. If I go back a step or two, I was the chief executive of Football Federation Victoria before moving to Cricket Australia. There, I was the executive general manager of game and market development, which was all about growing participation and then ultimately converting those kids into becoming fans of the game as well as players. We did a lot of research back there that I think holds me in great stead for this role, which is pretty simple: if you don’t put a golf club in a kid’s hand by the time they leave primary school, they’re eight times less likely to consume the sport through their life. It’s really important about where we start the journey for people.

I then went on to run both the A-League and the W-League, and that was heading up both of those national football competitions at a time when they were bursting into the mainstream of Australian sport. It was working with the elite end of the game. It really helped me understand and contemplate what’s required here. Rounding it off, I most recently headed up major events for Melbourne and Victoria. I was personally involved in and responsible for bringing the Presidents Cup to Melbourne, the World Cup of Golf and working with Golf Australia – funnily enough – on bringing the Australian Open back to Melbourne, and also helping grow the Victorian Open as a regional event.

Part of where my experience is helpful is that we are starting to focus on the newer forms of golf in a way that Golf Australia hasn’t previously. Fourteen percent of the total market available are members of clubs – who are critical, and we will continue to help service them and help grow that segment of the market. At the same time, there’s 86 percent of the market who we really haven’t ever appealed to, which is a whole new world. What does that mean? It means that we can start to bring people on the customer journey as opposed to hoping they’ll just turn up and play 18 holes on a green-grass course as their first golf experience.

At a personal level, I play at The National most weeks. I love it. At the same time, my wife, Jo, my middle brother, Justin, and his wife, Georgia, and our six kids between us are all learning the game. I’m on that journey with them. Having lessons and playing at local courses and walking around with the kids down at Lonsdale Links near their house or up here at Sandringham, I’m really in tune with that.

What that means is, what Golf Australia will be doing more of will be really focused on: what role does mini-golf play in starting people’s journey? What role do technology-enabled driving ranges play? What role do golf simulators play? We are getting more sophisticated about understanding that there is a customer journey. We can’t expect people to turn up at a golf club as a member on Day One, and we are working closely with all sorts of clubs and facilities to help change that. I’ve been in meetings with the CEOs of several local governments who are currently reconfiguring their golf offering and really understanding, “Well, what’s the market telling us and how does golf need to adapt to that?” That’s the process we’ve started and, without getting ahead of ourselves, it is already starting to bear fruit.

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Does the label of being called a ‘disruptor’ sit comfortably with you?

I don’t know that I’m a disruptor. What I’m really focused on is putting the customer or the golfer in the middle of all of our decision-making. If that means that we have to disrupt the way golf’s been delivered historically, so be it. But what I ask the question a lot of golf and of my team and of this organisation is: who does this best? A good example of this is when we talk about the pricing on golf courses. Is dynamic pricing even a thing? Who probably does this best is airlines. And I found this out recently when I flew to Sydney on two days’ notice. They will work out their loads and what are the peak times, and you can fly to Sydney at $89 if you’re happy to go at 5:30am or 6am. If it gets to 10am, when everyone wants to fly, it’s $500. And golf’s arguably a bit similar to that. I hear a lot already that we’re at “capacity”. We’ve got waiting lists. Now, I don’t know that there’s a lot of businesses in the world that keep waiting lists because I don’t believe we’re at capacity, to be straight. If you look at what dynamic pricing looks like, let’s say, for example, 9 o’clock on a Saturday morning might be the absolute favourite time. And let’s say 3 o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon is the deadest time for a course, when it’s generally empty. Why isn’t the price of Saturday morning at 9 o’clock $500 (just as an example) and why isn’t it $10 on a Tuesday afternoon?

That’s where we need to start to adapt to what the market’s telling us. As we get better and better at this, there will be people who do just want to play on a Tuesday afternoon, because their lives are more flexible – so they’re engaged. It really is about being customer-centric, putting the customer at the centre of our decisions. Members of golf clubs are critical to us, and they always will be, but the potential customer base of golf is much bigger than that. So, if that means we have to disrupt the way things have been done, we owe it to the sport to leave golf in a better place than we found it. That means growing the sport to re-invest in the game.

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What would you say to the tradition-alists who bristle at these ideas?

I’d say that they have a really important role to play in the game. That’s one thing that’s been unearthed for me in a way I probably didn’t imagine coming into it – in this complex, unique ecosystem, we all have a role to play. If you’re a traditionalist that bristles at change, keep playing golf, keep loving it, keep doing what you do and understand that golf is a sport for everyone. Golf is a sport for life and our job is to have more Australians playing more golf. Don’t protect what you’ve got, embrace what you’ve got. At the same time, it’s our responsibility to bring and really grow this pipeline of people to ultimately become members of clubs. That’s what we’d love to see them doing – or not, if they choose not to. For example, I presented to the board at The National Golf Club, my home club, and they were brilliant. It’s a progressive but reasonably traditional club trying to do different things. They really embraced the clothing conversation, the female-engagement conversation, the conversation about the extent to which they’re engaging with local schools. I think there are enough people who understand that if we don’t adapt, the steady decline that was facing golf membership prior to COVID could become the trend again. And we’re certainly not going to let that happen.

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I understand you think golf has a long way to go when it comes to becoming more inclusive…

My favourite story to paint the picture in that context is that when I was at Cricket Australia, I was given the task of developing the female-engagement strategy. The first game of women’s cricket I went to, there were seven – that’s seven – people at the game, and it was a Test match. Fifteen years later, I had the privilege of being the person who signed the agreement with Cricket Australia to stage the Women’s 2020 World Cup final at the MCG. And we had 86,000 people at the game. Now, if I’d walked into the boardroom after seeing seven people at a women’s Test match 15 years earlier and said, “We’re going to fill the MCG,” they would’ve probably walked me out the door and said, “That’s insane.”

What I learned from that was there are a whole lot of small decisions on the way to changing that landscape. The answer for golf is in getting really clear on what success looks like and then making the right decisions on the journey to get you to that point. The cricket example’s a good one in that we had to sit the playing group down – I remember it vividly – and say, “Hey, I’m going to be really straight with you. You can play as much Test cricket as you want, but you’re not going to be relevant. No one is going to watch you. If you want to grow this as a career, as a commercial proposition, you have to play Twenty20 cricket. It’s that simple.”

Now, to your previous question about traditionalists, there were four or five players who had been around for a while saying, “What are you talking about?” But I can tell you the queue of all the other players, especially the younger women coming through the system, was, “Where do we sign up?” There were enough people coming through who understood enough to say, “OK, redo our schedule. Maybe when we play England, we just play one Test match,” as they do now. Seven Twenty20s and three one-dayers – they just changed. Then we invested in players like Ellyse Perry as an ambassador. We started driving entry-level programs for girls as well as boys and the rest is history. It was an incredibly proud day, the day 86,000 people came to the MCG.

That really helped me understand that transformation is a 15-year, 20-year journey. It’s not going to happen overnight, but we are already starting to make some decisions that will start to influence what that looks like for golf. They sound like really simple things, but things like the number of females on boards in golf clubs matters. The way you’re structured around males and females in terms of access to different facilities also matters. The extent to which young women feel embraced and involved at golf clubs matters.

There’s no doubt mini-golf environ-ments and particularly technology-enabled driving ranges are places to play that younger girls will go to in groups, in big groups. But they’re not going to go to the first tee tomorrow at a golf club because they’re not ready for that. We just need to keep building that. People have to be patient, but in 20 years’ time, people will look back and say, “Wow, that was pretty extraordinary. How did you get there?” That’s a big piece of it and something that – having a daughter and three sons – I’m really passionate about, to make sure there’s equal opportunity for all of them. Different opportunity, but equal access to opportunity.

There’s another piece that’s always been close to my heart. I worked for World Vision here and overseas for five years. I was also the chief executive of the Leukaemia Foundation for five years. I’ve been in environments where inclusion and access has been a really big part of my professional life. Making sure that golf is a sport that embraces different cultures, that embraces different backgrounds, is a fundamental platform of change we need to embark upon. It’s a pretty simple statement, but people say every day, “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.” Why did Tiger Woods completely transform what happened in golf in America and around the world? A) He was ridiculously good, and B) he came from a background that wasn’t traditional.

It’s not simple. I worked in both cricket and the world game of football. I saw both sides of the coin. In world football, people come from all backgrounds so diversity is a natural element of the landscape. Whereas with cricket, the phrase that was coined back then was that it was “male, pale and stale”. That’s something that golf has to tackle, that our clubs and facilities need to embrace and understand, and start to tackle as well. Again, that comes from building this serious pipeline of growth in new participants and getting to a point where numbers from diverse backgrounds must and will come through. But we have to help educate our clubs and facilities and places to play and work with them to understand what this really looks like, as opposed to just being a nice concept or something somewhere in a manual. It is something we’re really serious about. It’s simple and it makes great business sense. If we want golf to grow, it needs to be a sport for all. We need to drive our purpose of more Australians playing more golf and that means appealing to a much broader cross-section of our community.

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‘Change’ has almost been a dirty word in golf and a lot of change has required a generational shift. Can you speed up that process? Is that the education you’re talking about?

It’s a great question. I’ve already seen some fabulous examples of where golf’s really moving. I have a really positive outlook on that. A couple of examples: Eastern Golf Club and Chirnside Park Golf Club. They sold their land and relocated, and they’re now building mini-golf and technology-based driving ranges and opening their doors to more than just their membership. And that’s only a market survey of two. You look further afield at what Wembley Golf Course has done in Perth, what Maroochy River and Oxley have done in Queensland, what Curlewis on the Bellarine Peninsula has done. Right here, Sandy Links has been transformed, and further towards the city in Albert Park the driving range is being completely redesigned to include 36 holes of mini-golf, redeveloped technology-based driving ranges and a rooftop bar. Swing City is about to be launched in Sydney, and Shanx Mini Golf has established a facility in Port Adelaide/Enfield that is driving significant increases in foot traffic. At the moment, in Victoria alone, there are about half a dozen councils investing more than $10 million on reconfiguring their golf offering. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Enough people have worked out that there’s actually increasing demand for golf, and there’s an opportunity if you get the offering right. I think that change has started. Our job – as you’re rightly saying – is to accelerate that, but you have to bring people on the journey. I learned that the hard way a couple of different times, and the female-engagement story at Cricket Australia is a good example. If you race ahead and you find yourself with the rest of the pack back there, then they’re not going to come on the journey.

It’s a little bit like when I’m talking with our team, I liken it to a plane taking off from the tarmac on a long runway. You’re just building up speed, building up speed, then at a point you’ll take off and it will be a pretty steep incline. Then, before you know it, you’ll be at 30,000 feet in a place you never imagined you’d be. I believe that’s the space golf’s in – we really are pushing down the runway, we’re building momentum and it really will take off. I’m certain of that. And we’ll be cruising at 30,000 feet and beyond, hopefully in the not too distant the future.

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Anecdotally, we’ve heard for two years so many examples of how beneficial COVID has been for golf participation. Is that a momentum you feel is important to latch onto?

It is. And no question, it’s an opportunity. We see opportunity everywhere. Now, retaining those people in golf is a big part of that. COVID has clearly re-engaged people with golf and brought new people to golf in a more traditional sense. But I also think the ability of golf to be played indoors now with simulators… mini-golf will grow dramatically in the next few years and driving ranges with technology will grow. It’s not just about the increase of members and playing rounds because of COVID. Golf is much more topical now. What we talk about is golf’s relevance. That’s the most important framework to build, and if you look at the number of memberships in a juxtaposition against population growth during the past 30 years, without being unfair, you could argue that golf’s relevance has actually decreased during that period.

Things like Cam Smith winning the Open Championship on the back of Minjee Lee winning the US Women’s Open, the timing’s incredible. And an Australian Open with men and women playing together for the first time for a national Open and hopefully bringing all the best players, it’s really starting to build momentum.

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You’re about to do a roadshow to golf clubs across the country. What are your goals there?

One of the things we’ve started to talk about is the strategy for Australian golf, which is ultimately about more Australians playing more golf, and our vision for how clubs, facilities and places to play can contribute to that. So far at the places we’ve had to present this perspective it has been exceptionally well received, which is great. Golf’s in a position where a lot of people who have been involved for a long time are suddenly seeing this growth that hasn’t been there and it’s come as a result of a global pandemic. We’ll go to probably somewhere between 20 and 30 locations across the country. There are 1,603 clubs and facilities or places to play across the country. I won’t personally be going to every single one of those 1,603 locations, but we are hoping to get to about 70 to 80 percent of them by coming into different clusters, both in metropolitan and regional areas, and also utilising online video forums.

It will be a very interactive conversation. Obviously, we’ll present some thoughts, but we want it to be a workshop where we are listening as much as we are talking. I think the strategy for Australian golf is brilliant. It’s brilliant in its simplicity. There’s that great phrase: “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter so I wrote you a long letter.” This strategy is the “short” letter, because a lot of work’s gone into it and it’s very applicable to every club, facility and place to play. It gives us an opportunity to bring the strategy to life in a meaningful way, but also to understand equally what the challenges are and what that looks like. Ultimately, we would love every single club and facility to use the strategic plan framework to set their direction for the next four or five years.

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Time spent in other sports gives de Bohun insight and ideas plus a fresh perspective. Getty images: Matt Roberts

Can you crystal-ball how you think golf will look in Australia in one year, five years, 10 years, 20 years?

The short answer is that I believe golf will become more and more relevant every day, and that’s really our driver. More Australians playing more golf is about golf being in more conversations, golf being something that girls and boys want to do, something that girls and boys from different backgrounds want to do, something that we make more accessible to young mums and dads, something that grandparents start playing with their grandkids on a more regular basis. The bigger picture is we will become more relevant every single day. The next 12 months is all about starting to build momentum behind the strategic plan framework and start to implement and deliver that. What does that mean? It means that, in our role specifically, we need to become more proactive and less reactive to what’s happening on a day-by-day basis to really help people in golf right across the country understand what matters most in helping golf realise its full potential.

The first year is to change direction a bit, to be frank, and start to get into that proactive space. When we are in the midst of writing the next strategy for Australian golf in four or five years, I’ve got no doubt we’ll be contemplating things that were unimaginable four years ago. I think that we’ll have a much broader cross-section of the community involved in the game. We’ll have a lot of clubs and facilities and places to play that are more open to a broader market. I also think we’ll have golf being consumed in ways we don’t imagine right now. There’ll be a lot more influence around what’s happening at driving ranges with the technology there, there’ll be a lot more influence around what’s happening with simulators, a lot more involvement in mini-golf and a much stronger presence. Golf will be something that everyone does in one form or another, and we will have established that “all golf is golf”.

I spoke recently at a national sports conference and I start a bit creatively from time to time. I said, “Just to kick off, can you stand up if you think you’re a golfer?” There was about 300 people in the room and I’m going to say about 10 men and one woman stood up. I said, “Right, OK. What makes you a golfer? They play every week, right? So, can you stand up in the room if you’ve ever been on a golf course?” All of a sudden there’s another 25 percent of the room standing up. “Can you stand up if you’ve ever been on a driving range and hit balls?” And then you’re up to about 75 percent. “Can you stand up if you’ve ever played mini-golf?” Now there’s literally one person in the room who isn’t standing. “You’re all golfers!” I said.

We need to tell our story better. We need to get that message through. Hopefully you’re getting a sense that we have a much broader mandate. We need to make sure, ultimately because of the commercial value of members in clubs to the industry of golf, that this is where we drive people to. And we need to make sure we are making the golf journey something that people want to consume. In a room with 300 people, when I started the conversation, 11 people thought they were golfers. By the end of it, the whole room understood, “Oh yeah. OK. We’re all golfers.” In five years’ time, it looks like a much more inclusive family, where all golf is golf and where we are able to engage with the wider community at levels that we can’t imagine right now.

In 20 years’ time, I genuinely believe golf can be in the top echelon of sports in the country – which means a mixture of a whole range of things. It’s the size of the revenue we’re generating. It’s the size of the community that’s engaged. It’s the number of people playing the game. It’s the number of people following the game, and it’s the number of people attending events – all the normal KPIs. One of our really unique advantages is the international nature of where some of our best players play. You can keep that alive all year. There’s a 365-days-a-year conversation to have about golf if we get that right. And that’s not an option for many sports across the country.

Frankly, we should be prepared to do whatever it takes to create an environment where there are more Australians playing more golf. 

Photographs by  Golf Australia