Chief executive of the PGA of Australia Gavin Kirkman talks all things relating to COVID-19, including how our PGA professionals have adapted, plus what it means for the game here and the upcoming summer of scheduled tournaments.
Australian Golf Digest: There’s been an influx of new golfers and rejuvenated golfers during COVID-19. Do you think that’s going to sustain itself?
Gavin Kirkman: People have rediscovered their love for the game. And with the isolation and the restrictions put in by federal and state territory governments, it has brought communities together with family, communities, or just people saying, “Well, we can get out and play some golf.”
It’s a sport that has come back early and we’re very fortunate that it’s come back early and it’s gotten a lot of new people to the game. The other thing that I hear from a lot of our PGA professionals is there’s a lot of garage cleaning taking place. So they’re seeing a lot of the wooden woods, laminate and persimmon woods coming back to pro shops and entering golf bags again. So I think that’s showing how long some of the golfers have lapsed for. And it’s great to see them fall back in love with the game.
Do you think the momentum we’re seeing is just pent-up demand for what we lost for a little while or is it more than that?
I think that it’s more than that. I’m confident the interests will have longevity. I’m probably very confident. The whole industry has really collaborated and unified through the pandemic. So we’re looking at golf from a much different point of view. We’ve had to adapt it and react to the restrictions. But I think it’s also bought all the industry together, from Golf Australia, the state bodies, the superintendents and the manager’s associations, the ALPG – we’re all talking about: how can we keep the momentum going?
And I think between all the organisations having a collaborative approach and using their IP and resources, I am confident that as long as the industry stays in strong collaboration – which we’re working on – and we’re aligned with what we’re doing, the growth will be something that will take it back to where we were in the halcyon days in the mid to late ’90s.
What challenges have some of our PGA professionals faced, and in the case of Melbourne right now, are continuing to face?
Member welfare and member support was very important right from the outset. When the restrictions and the closures started – and Melbourne and Victoria were hit the hardest – we ensured that 1) they were in a good environment as far as their welfare and their jobs and outside of golf. And 2) support them 100 percent so that they could operate in some form or fashion. The PGA pros across the country, outside of Victoria, have adapted well. They’ve led the way with the managers and the superintendents, the greenkeepers, on how to install safe guidelines and safety procedures, and so forth, that ensured that all our facilities have been operating in a safe manner. And then they’ve had to adapt to teaching online or teaching on course, which they’re doing at the moment because the driving ranges are closed. They’ve had to use social media in a very different way to communicate and stay in touch and engage with their clients and their members and their golfers at their courses. So they’ve had to change.
The other thing that they’ve had to do is that they’ve had downtime in the workplace through some of the lockdowns and the restrictions in March, April and May. So they’ve had to come out the other side and say the new norm is going to be different. And we’re very proud of all the PGA professionals and all the professional people in golf on how they’ve adapted and they’re out there right now. We’re seeing high golf numbers, we’re seeing an increase in club memberships, but a lot of clubs aren’t getting the visitors or the corporate or the food and beverage or the weddings or the functions or the meetings. So where we’re seeing this great increase in golf rounds, as an industry now we’ve got to ensure that we can sustain that and get the other parts of the business back in shape so you’ve got the right business model at all those facilities.
‘Where we’re seeing this great increase in golf rounds, as an industry now we’ve got to ensure that we can sustain that and get the other parts of the business back in shape so you’ve got the right business model at all those facilities.’
How important has thinking outside the box been for PGA professionals and what are some of the better success stories you’ve heard?
We have seen many of our PGA professionals think outside the box plus continue to educate. More than 1,200 pros engaged in more than 3,000 online education modules during the past three months to ensure their knowledge and skillsets are what is required now and into the future. The modules the membership engaged with were not all about coaching; there was management, technology, social media, marketing and other elements, as this was an opportunity to invest their time into their industry and career.
It’s been really good – from some of the great stories to the little stories. I heard from a PGA pro at a private club where, when the club was closed down for that period here in Victoria, the pro sent a note out to all the membership offering a club re-grip service. So the members could just drop clubs in or they stored them at the golf facility just to create some business. They were just doing whatever was possible. They couldn’t have any personal contact, but they were offering that service. We’re seeing a lot of online coaching take place across the country. The way our members have engaged with their clients and their members at their facilities has been great from a PGA of Australia point of view.
Also just the way that our PGA pros have had to retail; they’ve all been getting online and sharing best practices. There are so many groups of pros across the country that have engaged. I’ve been invited onto a couple of Zoom calls and video calls just with a group of members and it’s not just a group of guys here, there’s the women of the PGA getting together, there’s mixed groups getting together. There’s teaching pros there and technology and best practice. So it’s been really positive.
What other positive outcomes in reaction to COVID have you heard about within Australian golf more broadly?
Down here in Victoria, there’s a couple of great stories. Jonathan Porter, who is the head teaching professional at the driving range at Melbourne Golf Academy – they’ve had waits of up to 40, 45 minutes to get onto a practice tee. He and his team with Brendan Green, and Jonathan, and there’s a group of PGA pros, they’ve been doing 50 to 60 lessons per week, which is just unheard of for a teaching pro. I know that’s been happening up in New South Wales and all across the country. At some of the facilities, pros are doing 40, 50, 60 lessons a weekend. And that’s great because they’re re-engaging. And people are coming back to golf lessons to get their love back for the game.
So that’s been really positive. We’ve heard of pros and clubs working with the leading companies in Titleist, FootJoy, Callaway Golf, TaylorMade, Ping, Cobra and all the leading manufacturers they’re doing a lot of fitting with the disposable dollar not being spent on golf trips and overseas trips, and so forth. I heard there were 20 sets of clubs being sold at one facility. Just pure, true quality club-fitting from a PGA professional. And that’s the pros saying, “Well, while we’ve got this downtime, let’s have a look at your equipment.” And we know the better you play, the more you play.
The other thing I’ve heard is some great membership stories. Clubs that have sold 50, 60 new memberships. There are clubs that have wait lists now. Public facilities are doing extremely well, as far as being booked out. Rob Farley over in Marangaroo, WA, he’s normally about a 180/200-golfer day on a Monday at his facility, and he’s had 300 rounds on a Monday. And we’re hearing it all through the state associations, through Golf Australia, just some incredible rounds of golf being played and people playing the game.
That’s getting back to when we were getting first into the sport – there were so many clubs with waiting lists and prior to COVID-19, we could probably count how many had wait lists. So it’s promising, but our job is still to keep them engaged post-COVID. That’s the whole industry working together. It’s not just going to be PGA pros; it’s the whole, wider industry, using everyone’s knowledge and expertise to keep the traffic happening.
What do you think the keys to continuing the momentum are?
At some stage, we need to get a group of industry leaders together that have common goals. And I think the industry really just wants to see the game continue to flourish and maintain these numbers – and that’s not just the peak bodies in golf. That’s engaging the key players or the key suppliers, some of those equipment manufacturers. The companies like Coca-Cola Amatil, Club Car or some of those leading companies that have a lot to do. The Toros, John Deeres and ePars, and so forth. Get that wider industry together and say, “OK, what plans do we want to put in place? Because the new normal won’t be where we were back before March.” That would be good because out of every crisis does create opportunity. And I think we’re going to see that happen.
But we’ve got to have a get-together with industry leaders, which we’re working on. I think we then got to be open and honest. That means we’ve got to leave a lot of our personal and business objectives outside the room and just say, “Well, what’s best for golf to keep it where it is at now?”
The big focus is: we’ve got to continue to focus on women and juniors. And one of the things we are working on at the moment is to promote the benefits of golf. So as an industry, we are working on a campaign that will highlight the benefits of golf: that it’s great exercise, it’s an outdoor sport, the physical benefits, but also the mental-health benefits as well, which we’ve really seen come through during this COVID time for golfers. And then, make sure we cater for everyone. As I said, women, juniors, seniors, I think they’re very important. And Golf Australia has a new program that they’re going to launch, catering for those areas.
Are there any adaptations golf clubs and PGA pros have made that you think might remain in some shape or form? Perhaps the online lessons and a few other ways golf professionals have pivoted during this time?
I think a lot will stay because they’ve had to from the business point of view. We’ve all done a lot more video calls without having to travel and jump in airplanes, and so forth. So I think PGA professionals have learned to engage with their members on groups and on Zoom calls and engaged more across all the demographics.
We know we’ve got a hole in our game. When we look at club memberships across the country, for the person my age – the 50-plus club member – compared to how many have we got in the age group 25 to 40, and then how many young women from 15 to 30… I think we’ve all learned a little bit about how we can engage with the golfer – how we can get people to love golf and become a fan of golf and then become a golfer as well. Because if we keep relying on golfers to become golfers, they’re not going to a new audience.
So one of the things that as a PGA we’re doing is we’re calling everyone a golf fan. And that’s anyone who’s going to come and watch golf in some form or fashion. For example, what Adam Scott did with those two live-streams. Even if they’re not a golfer if they’re watching Adam and watching some fun stuff on golf, well then it might encourage them to go to mini-golf, to a driving range, and then to a public golf course, and so forth.
Another good example that’s come out of this has been Sandy Jamieson, the PGA professional who’s introduced 1Club Golf. That’s been a great concept where he targeted the non-golfer. He has encouraged or gone on to engage the lapsed golfer. Sandy’s found a niche where he’s gone to the person who’s never played before and then teaches them how to play efficiently with one club. Then they go to four clubs and then they go to a golf course and starting towards a membership. And there’s another golfer that will play for life.
What lessons do you think there are for the game as a whole that can be drawn from this period?
Its mode has changed. We’ve been a traditional game, which we don’t want to lose, but it’s highlighted the lesson we have learned is that change is good. Not that we’re going to get the R&A to change and that we’re not always going to be able to prefer lies in a bunker and not have rakes and rake bunkers, and so forth. That is something that had to happen for us to play golf, but how quickly has that sped the game up?
The last time I played a four-ball at my club I played it in three hours, 40 minutes. It was because we were in and out of the bunkers quickly, there was no putting the flag down, picking it up, everyone was putting out and it just showed that we can change because there are barriers that hold our game back a little bit. It’s over-regulation, we’re time-poor, it’s not accessible for everyone, and so forth. What we’ve had to do is create an exercise, which is now an essential exercise, to suit everybody. And if we didn’t, they were going to do something else. Breaking down the dress code, that’s one of my big barriers. I’m a traditionalist and I love the way the PGA professionals, women and men, present themselves. But why do we have to tuck the shirt in? It just highlighted to our sport that if you were brave enough to change, people would adapt and that’s going to be one of the things we could be judged on moving forward: how accessible and how flexible we are.
‘It just highlighted to our sport that if you were brave enough to change, people would adapt and that’s going to be one of the things we could be judged on moving forward: how accessible and how flexible we are.’
Based on all the various elements that factor into it and what other circuits are doing, what could you forecast for how tournament golf in Australia and New Zealand is going to look this summer and into the future?
Prior to COVID we were probably looking at growth and expansion and one of our best tour seasons. But again, straight away we’ve had to move. We were fortunate to get most of our season done. The New Zealand Open was the final event. And then, we normally had our break with only PNG and the Northern Territory PGA being in this period that we’re in at the moment.
So we’ve changed our season from calendar year to now this season will be extended to March 31. And moving forward, the PGA Tour of Australasia season will start from the 1st of April and go to March 31 every year. So we’ve changed it into a wraparound season like where the tour was positioned back in the late ’90s, early 2000s. I think it went to a calendar year schedule in 2001.
We were looking at nine events on a schedule between now and the end of the year with the start of the year schedules to have been worked on, to get up to about 14 events. But PNG won’t happen because of international travel and then the Australian Open and the Australian PGA Championships are now sitting there with ‘maybes’ – purely because the two things with those two televised events, players and crowds. And at the moment we can’t say to our government partners, or our event partners, which players will be able to play and will be allowed into the country, and if players will have to go through 14 days’ quarantine.
And we’ve got some great safety plans for crowds, but we haven’t been able to get approval and we haven’t submitted them yet on what type of crowds will be allowed at a golf tournament, at mass gatherings. We’ve got about five safety scenarios to present to governments at the appropriate time on additional entrances and exits, no grandstands, just players walking around. And then, again from a spectator’s point of view, with social distancing we’d be used to getting 5,000 or 10,000 people around 20 hectares of land.
So that’s unfortunately where our tour is sitting. If I showed you the schedule, you’d say, “That’s great.” Other than that, we’re moving forward.
Where we’re being put back in our chair a little bit was probably in the past two weeks with these domestic borders being closed. And I think that’s going to make it very tough because when we’re a national tour and we’ve got players from, for example, Victoria. If we had two events in New South Wales in October but the borders weren’t open, can that tournament have national Order of Merit status? The challenge they’ve got on the PGA Tour and the European Tour at the moment is getting the best players to the events, which is what the promoters and partners want.
With regard to the bigger events, the Australian PGA and the Australian Open, is there a date being seen as the ‘line in the sand’ when a firm decision will have to be made on whether they can go ahead as planned? Or is it more a case of because the situation is fluid, they remain fluid as well?
It’s a really good question because we had this discussion at length [on Monday] morning. From all the work that’s got to be done, and we value our relationships with government partners, we feel they’ll have to have these discussions in August. Because by September, we should know exactly what’s happening with international players coming in and whether there are waivers being allowed, like there are in some of the UK countries at the moment for players who are tested at the tournament the week before on the Saturday, then get tested when they arrived in another country on a Monday. All those types of options will have to be presented to the partners. So I personally think it’s going to be August. We’re talking to the European Tour every week. They want our events on their schedule. We also have to respect Golf Australia and their partners to what’s going to happen with the Open.
And then, the other thing we’re working on, is if we can’t get them done this year because of the restrictions and policy, what’s our Plan B as far as what quarter one will look like next year with February, March? Knowing that we’ve got dates locked in for the Vic Open, we’ve got dates locked in for the New Zealand Open and a few smaller events that we could put into that time of year and have a six to 10-week run in quarter one next year.
Taking on board all aspects of what 2020 has dealt golf, what do you think the game here will look like in another five years?
I believe local golf clubs and facilities will return to having a significant function within their local communities and we’ll see more people overall playing the game. Our sport will highlight and demonstrate the health benefits – both physical health and mental health – and the golf fan, golfer and club member will understand and enjoy the benefits.
We hope as future stars of the game both women and men are well known across the country as domestic heroes before they launch their international career. This will occur through “The Players Series” and the Golf Australia and PGA alignment on High Performance. With strong industry collaboration with a key objective of growth, our sport will have a national marketing strategy that will lead to more tournaments, events and programs.
I also think it will be a different game. I hope it will be more modern and more agile. I hope we see an increase in the demographic of golfers as far as women and juniors. Because I think the golf fan that will become the golfer, that will become the member of a facility, has really had an opportunity to have a good look at our sport and what we do and how we do it. We’ve got to stay innovative with technology. And then probably the last thing, I think from the administration and the peak bodies, there will be more collaboration and alignment than ever before. That’s starting with Golf Australia, the PGA of Australia, the ALPG and the state bodies and managers and the Australian sports turf managers. I hope those peak bodies are very much aligned. I don’t think there’ll be mergers or takeovers, but the key thing is for those bodies to be very much aligned and talking from one voice under strong collaboration agreements that are being worked on at the moment.