Putting the chief executives of any industry in one place is rarely an easy exercise, but if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s how broad the digital world is and how online meetings can bring people together easily during a time when we’ve never felt so far apart. In the spirit of this new era, and as golf continues to navigate its way through the issues and opportunities the pandemic presents, we brought together the heads of Australian golf in an extended Zoom meeting. In a chat that was more an open conversation than an interview, PGA of Australia boss Gavin Kirkman joined WPGA Tour chief Karen Lunn and new Golf Australia chief executive James Sutherland to speak with Australian Golf Digest about COVID, the fledgling Players Series, driving women’s golf, likely future tournament dates and more.

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the March issue of Australian Golf Digest.

On the most pressing issue they’re each facing right now

Kirkman: With the year that we’ve had, it’s retention. We’ve seen a resurgence in our game that we haven’t seen for many, many years across club memberships, rounds being played, golf lessons and so forth. Even retail in some areas. We’d like it all on green-grass, but retail and green-grass retail has been really strong.

But with Karen and I working together for quite some time now and our collaboration, the positive of having the three of us here together – James commencing last year and bringing a new light into golf as well – the focus among all of us is not just to grow the game but grow our sport across all levels, right from participation and into the commercial side as well. Working closer together and getting our sport to have a much stronger voice and presence would be a priority across our three organisations.

Lunn: What Gav said is true. Through COVID, the participation figures went through the roof and it’s obviously keeping those golfers engaged. There’s a lot of research being done around that as well. But from our side, the numbers in terms of women taking up golf during that time were actually lower than at any other time. So that’s a concern, but understandable. During COVID, a lot of women and men were home-schooling their kids; some were trying to work at home. So there were probably a lot of reasons. Our goal is twofold: to engage our members, give them playing opportunities on the playing side, but also to certainly get more women and girls playing golf.

There have been a lot of positives going on in that space through Vision 2025. Chyloe [Kurdas, Golf Australia’s female engagement senior manager] has done a great job in this past year, bringing us all together in a way that hasn’t happened before – all the decision-makers within the bodies that really have an effect and can control the game. That’s been great, and I think we’ve made some good headway in the past year.

Sutherland: It’s hard not to be COVID-specific, because that’s haunted us all for the past 12 months. And, by and large, COVID’s been good to golf. It’s given people a realisation or a reminder of the virtues of golf in terms of our participation numbers.

While we’re not terribly scientific in how we understand exactly how much golf is being played, there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence out there that supports it. And we know that in terms of competition rounds; they’re very strong. Internally, we’ve talked a lot about making sure we don’t have a COVID spike – that we actually have a new high-water mark that can survive and sustain beyond COVID. Just one of the little data points for us is in terms of competition rounds over the past three months. Post-COVID restrictions, they’re actually at a 10-year high – 15 percent up on where they were this time last year for a three-month period, basically over the summer. And that, in itself, is a pretty good indicator that we’ve come through COVID and golf is still strong and hopefully will continue to be strong.

That’s a bit of a micro response, but the macro response is largely aligned with what Karen and Gavin both said – and the thing that’s really occurred to me and concerns me the most coming into the industry as a newbie is: it’s just so fragmented. As a whole, we understand there’s a whole lot of people that have an interest in the game for different reasons and are independent commercial organisations. But we, as governing bodies for the sport, need to take responsibility to bring it together. In my view, we need a national strategy that we can all align behind. And that’s something we’ve started to talk about collectively and hopefully that will emerge through the course of this year, but also then in partnership. Gavin and Karen have been talking together for a long time and seeing some great progress more and more along the way. And for us, in particular with the PGA in recent times, we are discussing things in a meaningful way about not just partnership and intent but, more generally, joint ventures and other things where we can work together.

On top of that, we’re moving into the same office together. So that’s something, in a practical and a reality sense, where we’ve got even more reason to talk to each other. We haven’t quite persuaded Karen to move down from the Gold Coast yet but we’re working on it.

On the biggest surprise courtesy of COVID-19

Kirkman: One of the things that did surprise us early in COVID was courses were closing and not closing and opening, and we had some challenges in New South Wales and Queensland, then Victoria went into lockdown. Before James commenced with our sport, where Karen and I probably saw a big change was how quickly the industry did get together. Whether it was the managers and the superintendents, the Australian Sports Turf Managers Association, we could get a meeting together in two days. Normally to get all those groups together – seven different bodies under the Australian Golf Industry Council – it would take us three months to get together. So it was really good how the industry unified.

Everyone got on the same page really quickly as far as joint communication. And that’s something we’ve all wanted, but for whatever reason we didn’t get it to where we were. That’s what James has come in and picked up and still saw the fragmentation, but that was a change to take us to the next level about further collaboration.

The other thing we learned a lot about our sport or the change was how many people went away from the game. We didn’t have good data on why they left the game and why they left their sport and: did we push them away?

We’re a highly regulated sport; we’ve got all the private-club rules. What is the reason we don’t have women coming through the system? Whether it’s in all parts of our game, not just in playing, but as Karen and I speak, it’s working in lead roles, coaching the game, managing the game, managing facilities. So what has made young women not want to stay in our sport
as well?

So we’ve developed a different approach to that with Vision 2025, where we’ve got a lot more information first to make decisions about where we’re accountable for some of the decisions we’re making through that group. And for people to come back to the sport. That’s really good as well, but we’re now looking at retention. We’ve got to ask [these golfers] two questions: why did they come back? And one of those answers could be, “Well, there was nothing else to do. We couldn’t play our contact sport. It was a good way of catching up with our family and friends because it was an activity we could play.” We’ve also got to ask: “Other than that, why did you come back?”

But I think the toughest question we’ve got to ask is, “What don’t you like about our sport?” And, “Why did you leave the sport?” And when we get that data – “over-regulated; I had to tuck my shirt in; I wasn’t welcome at a club; too many rules” – that’s what we’ve got to listen to and that’s where we’ve got to change. We have seen change, we’ve all adapted and I think our facility managers and PGA pros, the women and men on the front line have done a hell of a job to adapt. But now we’ve got to make sure we’ve got a sport that is very accessible and inclusive to continue to have these growth patterns that we’ve had – not just in competition rounds but getting the social engagement as well.

Sutherland: One of my learnings in recent times with these numbers – and you hear anecdotes around how difficult it is to get on the timesheet and to get a game – it’s fantastic that golf is so popular, so many people are playing, people have come back to the game. But the unfortunate irony with all of that is that it’s actually harder than ever before for newcomers to come to the game. It’s harder for them to get a lesson, it’s harder for them to get on a public course. We can’t be in any way complacent about that.

To my mind, as a sports administrator, our ultimate and most important responsibility is to the next generation of golfers. It’s not to the current generation of golfers or generations of golfers that play the game right now. And to me, it only highlights those challenges and the difficulties of bringing new people to the game from all different backgrounds. Young people in particular, but obviously from a diversity sense, we’re wanting to bring people from different backgrounds. We want to re-weight the male/female balance within our participation base. But it just should refocus our energies on the next generation, because it’s great how that high-water mark is there, but how do we introduce new people to the game and teach them things that keep them coming back?

Lunn: Gavin made a really good point how out of COVID came an increased level of collaboration between all the industry bodies. Where historically we’d have the Australian Golf Industry Council and have maybe three meetings a year and that would be it – apart from potentially Gavin and myself catching up and Gavin and some of the other stakeholders. It’s never really felt like a team effort. But certainly in those first few months with COVID, it really did feel like a team effort – all of us singing from the same hymn sheet. There were joint press releases going out, it was a lot of communication going on, especially from Golf Australia. And I think Rob [Armour, Golf Australia’s interim chief executive prior to Sutherland’s appointment] did a great job holding the fort during that time. It was a very collaborative approach to how we all dealt with COVID as an industry. Again, there’s not too many positives from our side to come out of COVID, but that’s certainly one of them.

The other thing is The Players Series (TPS) events. For our members, we don’t actually have that many of our members home at this time of the year. So really, had it not been for the TPS events, we wouldn’t have had any women’s professional golf in Australia over the summer, which would have been devastating. So the TPS has been the shining light for all of us. Then last week [the inaugural TPS event at Rosebud Country Club] has showed that we believed that the model had merit. And it’s not only us, I think the public and the media have certainly shown that they, in general, support the concept as well.

Gavin Kirkman
PGA of Australia boss Gavin Kirkman

On gauging the success of the first players series event

Kirkman: The feedback we’ve had has been really positive and all our teams… we left the tournament saying, “We can’t wait for the next one, but we just want to make these changes and do something different.” So to have Karen’s team down there for the week, and then we had Golf Australia from the high-performance coaches to Therese [Magdulski, GA’s events and operations manager]. We had all the team out there as well. So, again, to see everyone engaged. We give it a big tick as the first event. Where we want to grow these will come in to all the bodies working together from a delivery point of view and an outcome point of view.

Coming down the stretch, you’ve got Su Oh who could have won. You’ve got Elvis Smylie, a high-performance amateur that could have won. You’ve got Brad Kennedy, who had to deliver a golf shot that I could only dream of to win. But then the junior girls and boys, Molly [McLean] birdied the last four holes and birdied in front of the clubhouse and on the broadcast, and then young Jack [Holland] made birdie on the 18th hole. The feedback I’ve got from other tours and a couple of other federations around the world who’ve seen some of the highlights, they’re a bit worried about the talent we’ve got coming through.

But our job, and to get some learnings from James as well, is: how do we promote that talent? Here, we’ve had that really good event, but how do we take it to the next level? Working collaboratively, we want to make sure we’ve got six to 10 of these events in two to three years, but they’re additional events – they’re not replacing anything we’ve already got. So creating playing opportunities, a good pathway. TPS does fit into a lot of our priorities within all our organisations. That comes back to having something that will inspire more young people to come into the game and grow the game at the bottom end as well. It sits right in there. Karen and I were over the moon when we spoke on Sunday and to see it unfold was something really special.

Lunn: It was really positive. Obviously, the success of these events is going to be very dependent on how the courses are set up. And Graeme Scott from the PGA did the course set-up for Rosebud and he’s also done the course set-up for Bonnie Doon [site of the second TPS tournament from March 4-7]. I wasn’t able to travel down during that time so we had a lot of e-mails go back and forwards, but he did a fantastic job and there were no complaints from the men or the women or the juniors about the course set-up, which is almost unheard of. Because anybody that knows anything about professional golf, every week there’s going to be complaints about that pin position or where that tee was put or whatever. But there were no complaints at all from the players, which shows Scotty did a great job.

Also just interacting with the guys at an event. From my experiences as a player [Lunn won 10 times on the Ladies European Tour between 1986 and 2012, highlighted by her 1993 Women’s British Open triumph], there were very few times during the year when you actually cross paths with your male counterparts in your sport. Whereas in tennis they do a lot more and I know in other sports as well. Men and women competing together started with the Vic Open, which arguably was one of the fastest growing sports events in Australia. This is just the next step, really. You’ve got one set of infrastructure, you’ve got one TV broadcast, it cuts a lot of costs, and you’ve got the male pros, the female pros, the female amateurs, the male amateurs and the juniors all competing on the one stage.

These events are definitely not meant to replace our existing events, they’re meant to supplement them and that’s the goal. And I think as Gav said, in a few years, we’ll have a nice series of events and give our members and the PGA guys as well and the juniors and the amateurs… giving them that precious experience of playing in front of crowds and with TV cameras around them. And that was one of the most impressive things about the juniors last week, they just thrived on it the last two days. As Gav said, Molly and Jack, they really did. So all bodes well for the future. But we really want to provide more and more of these opportunities so when our players do go overseas to play on the various tours, they’ve actually got some experience of top-level golf behind them.

Kirkman: Especially on the highlight reels or the shot of the day – all the juniors were producing the shots of the day, which, again, is really good for creating that interest in our sport and for that aspiration to get to that level.

On the quest for greater female participation

Kirkman: We’ve all got different responsibilities here, and that’s what we deliver in Vision 2025. But I think from Karen’s organisation, our member organisations, we’re trying to make entry into becoming a PGA professional – whether it’s on the WPGA Tour, a vocational member of the PGA of Australia, or on our tour – we’re trying to make that more accessible and more inclusive all the way through. The work we’ve done to combine our vocational members, and we’ve got targets now too, with all the coaches and managers and club professionals coming in through the associate program or the member pathway program. We’ve tried to make sure we’ve opened that up, like the bridging programs that we’ve agreed to in place with Karen. And then just getting players that meet the criteria, the playing assessment, that we’ve got a bigger pool to come from.

That’s the big job to do. The other thing we do through Chyloe and Vision 2025 is to ensure we’ve got good representation across administration. Women in administration, in leading roles at golf facilities as far as management and directors of golf. We’ve got a lot there, but we don’t have enough. So education and career pathways is really important, and that’s something we’re all talking about as a group – how we can get young girls, from tertiary or secondary school education, to have a career in golf. The career can be across five different streams. It doesn’t have to always be on the tour, the side that we all feel love the most and we all aspire to. It could be in coaching, it could be game development or business retail. The fifth stream is always the tour pathway. But if they’re going down the tour pathway, we want to make sure we educate them on the way through now. That’s the discussions we’ve had these past 12 months, that if you’re in an elite amateur team, the PGA or through the WPGA Tour, we can talk to you about a career in golf and make sure that if you don’t make it as a player… What normally happens is we lose those 14 to 17-year-olds from our sport. Because once they realise, I’m not going to make it onto a tour, they leave our sport. They end up in a career or a different education or a different sport. We would like to have a pathway or an education pathway as well that if they decide not to go on to elite golf or becoming a tour player, we can take them in our sport to have a career in one of those five key streams. That’s got to be really important.

The other thing is, if we grow the numbers that James was talking about in participation, at the moment when we look at how many women fit the handicap or playing criteria to come in to either go to a tour school or become a PGA of Australia vocational member, the numbers, we’re in the hundreds for women and we’re in the thousands for men. We’re less than a thousand for women who meet the current criteria, which we’re always trying to expand. Compared to every year when we go out to see which young men want to come in and become a vocational member, we’ve got a pool of that handicap range of about 11 to 14,000. So if we’re bringing more players into the game, we may have more players at a handicap level that they’ve got a good understanding of playing. They don’t have to play off scratch. The criteria have gone right up to 6.75. Ten would be probably perfect, I think, is the magic number, Karen, that we’d like. And men’s is different. So I think that’s something really important. We’re consistently reviewing and challenging the entry into the system to get more young women into golf. And then if there’s more at the top end, the young ones may aspire as well. We do bat well above our weight on the world stage, but we’ve just got to get more within Australia. So Karen and James, you probably have a different opinion there, but that’s probably from the PGA’s point of view and how we can bring more young women into the PGA.

Lunn: From our side, and working with Chyloe and the team on Vision 2025, so much of it has been about changing culture. And that’s changing culture at every level in a golf club. We don’t have enough women in decision-making positions, we don’t have enough women on boards, we don’t have enough women managers, we don’t have enough women on the committees. And if you don’t have that female aspect pushing, then it’s unlikely that the club’s going to support getting more women and more girls on board. So that’s been a big part of Vision 2025 and I think that’s one thing Chyloe’s really targeted. And that the visionaries that have been created through Vision 2025, they’re all a really important part of this. And then to benchmark those visionaries and show clubs what they have to do, that’s the next step in Vision 2025.

As Gav said, we’ve all got our own roles within the framework, but I think that’s a huge part of it – just showing clubs what they need to do. A lot of clubs think we need to do this, we need to change, we need to be better, but they don’t necessarily know how to do it. So there’s a lot of really good stuff going on there at the moment. But changing culture is never an easy thing. And I’ve been involved in golf all my life and it’s been something that I’ve seen and battled my whole golf career, probably since I was 12 years old. Women’s sport in Australia has obviously been booming and it’s great to see so many young girls playing a lot more sports, not just golf, but obviously we need to keep our representation. Girls have so many more opportunities in different sports than they had when I was a kid. I would love to have played cricket. I did play footy, but with the boys. I did play cricket, but with the boys. But now the girls can actually play with their friends playing all those sports, and that makes it tougher in a way, because obviously we’ve got more competition. Girls historically like to play with their friends and play in team sports, but we need to get more girls in the game.

Sutherland: To be a welcoming sport, women who have an interest in golf need to see a reflection of their future self in the sport. And at the moment, the reality is, because it looks male, the reflection actually says, “Well, that can be an intimidating or an unwelcome place for me.” It’s not always the case in golf, but generally speaking, it’s a lot easier if there are more women around. Gavin and Karen have articulated really well some of the things that are happening with the Vision 2025 initiative and strategy, and both of them sit on the steering committee of that and they’re doing a great job with it.

As Karen said, cultural change and transformational change is not easy. But one of my reflections is that the sense of custodianship for the game and custodianship for the next generation is not there in golf in the way that I think it is in other sports. I really believe that the people that really love football or cricket, or what have you, feel as though they’ve got a real sense of custodianship to introduce their kids and their friends’ kids to the game and to encourage them in and to play a role as a volunteer, as a coach, as a team manager, whatever it might be. And while that concept or context isn’t the same in golf, we really need to challenge the golf community to say, “What are you doing to bring kids to the sport?” Because the future of the sport lies in more boys and more girls – remembering only 20 percent of our participation base is female at the moment, so it’s a huge growth opportunity. But what are we as players, administrators who love golf doing to introduce more young people to the sport? That’s the question. And that’s something that’s really lacking and something we need to focus on. It’s a 20, 30-year… it’s a generational plan, but it’s also a mindset that needs to shift.

Kirkman: I had a chat to a company yesterday that’s going to do some research work for golf, and we were talking about that. And one of the guys, once they’d been engaged to do this work, he thought he’d just check within his family. The guy is 21 years of age. He went to his grandfather who’d been a member of the club for 52 years, and then he spoke to his father and then he spoke about his experience and how he portrays golf. And it’s exactly what Karen and James have said – the grandfather didn’t want any more [golfers], he didn’t want these young kids running around the golf course and taking his tee-time. His father just wanted to play when he could play, but with his mates in the same group and it was his day out with the boys. And then the guy doing the work who’s just got into golf, he loves hanging out at driving ranges, never wants to join a golf club. And that’s where he met his girlfriend, playing golf, because eight of them got together. It was a social time. And they were more worried about what they were going to drink after golf.

So that’s exactly it about the generations: who is responsible for bringing this next gen through? And it’s got to be the culture change within club management and club boards, as well as our current golfers. Every time I play with someone new at my club, the first thing they say is, “How long have you been a member here? Are you a member?” And I’m thinking, Really? So there’s a lot of work to be done there, and that’s where we don’t have someone saying, “Do you want to play golf?” Or, “Come and join my club,” or something like that. I don’t think we have that generation of custodians, as James said.

Sutherland: I might not get the numbers exactly right, but I think the average age of a female golf member is something like 69 and the average male is 62. As someone who loves the game of golf, if that doesn’t scare you about the future of golf, nothing will.

WPGA chief Karen Lunn

On how 2021 might pan out

Kirkman: From the PGA’s point of view, we’ve been talking about this a little bit at board level as well. We’d like to maintain the golfing numbers, and I say that across all parts – keep their resurgence or grow on the resurgence of golf, but in that, learn more about the golfers. Some of the other learnings is that we’ve had to adapt to some new processes and even rules. For an average club handicap golfer, the bunkers having no rakes and preferred lies, and leaving the pin flags in. We’re seeing rounds drop from four hours, 15 minutes to three hours, 45. And we know that’s golf – slow play – and that is a negative with our sport and how it takes too long. Some of those modernisations of the rules, if they can stay in place… We’ll leave James to organise that, being affiliated to the R&A.

From the PGA’s point of view, our member engagement is through the roof at the moment. The members have really started re-engaging with their own association and, through the trust and the collaboration of the industry, have felt that we’re more of an inclusive industry. So that satisfaction and engagement is a big measurement for us as far as education, continuous education and so forth.

And then the other part is what we spoke about at the start: our collaboration with Karen’s association has to continue to grow and prosper. And we’re working on a lot of positive things that you’ll see come out outside of the TPS – just becoming more efficient, more aligned, and a promotion of women’s golf in different ways. And then with Golf Australia, to be under the one roof and the alignment of services and becoming an efficient sport with a stronger voice, but also preventing the duplication and confusion that we’ve had in the past. If we’ve moved forward on all those areas, it would be a really huge year for us. And hopefully the participation and business growth commercially and on-course and sustainability of clubs replicates or matches the success of the numbers as well.

Sutherland: Gavin’s given a really good summary there. The things for me are: let’s try to maintain the rage in terms of participation. We’re proudly going to be launching a handicap app around Easter time, a bit after, which we’re really excited about. It’s designed in such a way that you can not only keep track of your own handicap but your mates’ and create some real engagement around that. So there’s continuing to see technological developments in the sport, which is part of the grander vision for where we want to get to with the game.

I came into the role and had the unfortunate task of having to cancel some major events that have been going for literally 100 years, and so I’m very keen to see those come back onto the radar within 12 months, and to get them away successfully, and hopefully with minimal COVID restrictions around it.

The other one for me, which Gavin mentioned and is really important, is our move into the Australian Golf Centre. It’s not only symbolic, us moving in together with the PGA, but it’s really practical, pragmatic and in the best interest of the game. We’re not just working together in the same place, we’re working together on the game, which is a really good thing that over the course of the next decade or more to come will be great for Australian golf.

Lunn: This time next year, we’d love to see our tournaments underway. Not just the TPS events, our flagship events that we do with Golf Australia: the Women’s Australian Open and the Vic Open – and potentially another couple of events, and maybe another couple of TPS events.

It’s been a very frustrating year for us. Without our members here, some of our star Australian players didn’t even come home this year, as was the case with the guys, because they didn’t want to quarantine. We just don’t have the numbers to put on events on our own. It’s the way with women’s professional events at the moment; we need other tours involved and, ultimately, we need to have our borders open by this time next year. It’s frustrating, but obviously we’ll just crack on as if next year’s going to happen.

As Gav mentioned, a lot of collaboration, which we now are just continuing to work together in other areas. Hopefully, we’re sitting here next year saying how well we’ve all done working together and working with James and his team, because we’re not the AFL, we’re not Cricket Australia. None of us are these massive sporting bodies that some of the other sports have. For our sport to succeed, we know we need to work closely together… and are all willing to do that for the future growth of our game. As James said, maybe even the existence of our game. Certainly, if you look at the women’s numbers, it is pretty sad viewing. 

Will it be November/December or next February for the Australian Open and PGA?

Matt Jones poses with the Stonehaven Cup after winning the 2019 Australian Open. (Photo: Matt King/Getty Images)

It’s one question central to next summer’s golf schedule, so when will our biggest tournaments be held?

“We would be proposing that we get them played this year,” PGA chief executive Gavin Kirkman says. “We’re not far away from talking to the respective tours to be able to announce that, and then returning the tournaments that are normally in quarter one, 2022. So those discussions at this stage are taking place. Karen and I sit with the Golf Australia team to ensure that the respective tours are aligned with those sanctioning partners [and] we get dates. As we know with tournaments, scheduling and dates are the toughest parts, then players and then we deliver.

“Ideally, we’d like to be having some of those big tournaments being played at the end of 2021, and that’ll be subject to international travel and vaccines and so forth. At this stage, all the other tours are going to be putting schedules out between now and July, so we’ve got to make sure we’re aligned with their schedules with our sanctioning partners.”

Will the next Australian Open remain at The Australian Golf Club as scheduled? Or will Kingston Heath keep its chance after the cancellation of its 2020 staging?

“No, it’s at The Australian this year,” Golf Australia chief executive James Sutherland confirms.

“Just to concur with Gavin’s comments there. I think there’s a lot more certainty around COVID-related issues now and hopefully that pervades. There’s still an element of unpredictability, but I think that allows greater confidence in the planning. Certainly, from our point of view, we would be optimistic about the men’s Open getting away in November, and then the women’s events in February next year.

“Both Kingston Heath and Victoria were slated for the two [Australian Opens] that were coming back to Melbourne [in 2020 and 2022, respectively]. At this stage, we’re still working that through with the various parties.”