The sport of golf in Australia has had to deal with more than a few challenges over the last year. The COVID-19 pandemic has seen tournaments cancelled all over Australia, and our international talent unable to come to Australia’s shores, leaving fans unable to see the best of the best in action.
But despite all the challenges, the positives have shone through, and golf has a new lease on life.
Chief executive of the PGA of Australia Gavin Kirkman said golf’s COVID-safe nature combined with led to a skyrocket in interest for golf for families, women and juniors in 2020.
But 2020 did not have all positive news, with the co-sanctioned international tournaments on the summer of golf schedule cancelled.
“The primary reason was the events are great for our PGA Tour of Australasia, but also for our golf tourism. The funding comes through tourism sector of the state governments,” Kirkman said.
“So, to get your tourism and your marketing done, you’ve got to attract international players, and top 50 in the world players broadcasting onto the international platforms.
“You normally have a mix of your top Australians, from Adam Scott to Cameron Smith, Mark Leishman and our legends in Greg Chalmers, Rod Pampling and John Sendan all the way down to our future stars like Jack Thompson and Elvis Smylie.
“And we are always looking for big names, like we had in the past, we’ve had Jordan Spieth and Sergio Garcia and so-forth.
“So, when we went out to the players- being a sport, and a smaller tour than the ones held in the USA and Europe, we weren’t able to create a bubble to protect the players and fans, like they did in the tennis, and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“So, our players were advised that if they were going to come down for a week or two, they’d have to do the 14 days in a hotel quarantine as per state government policies.
“And the players advised us that that was something they weren’t prepared to do, come down for such a small period of time so that’s why our major tournaments were postponed late last year and then cancelled again for early year.”
Expanding down the line, Kirkman explained how golf’s open nature made crowds for tournaments such as the Australian Open, the Australian PGA Championship, the Women’s Australian Open and the Vic Open, too risky to control.
“When crowds are roaming around an 18-hole golf course, state government thought the risk was much higher than controlled crowds in stadiums and that was one of the key reasons as well [for the cancellation of the four tournaments],” he said.
“We couldn’t put a policy in place to keep a roaming crowd from the players to the volunteers to the food and beverage and the officials, all the way through.
“Our position was not to take the risk with players, fans and staff, and that’s why we didn’t stage them [the tournaments].”
Kirkman also spoke about the likelihood that the tournaments would go ahead in 2021.
“We’re going to plan to have our tour in full flight at the end of the year, including internationals,” he said.
“And the intent of the players that if there is no quarantine they will come.
“Our Aussie players will come home, but there will be other interest from international stars as well.”
As a result of no international co-sanctioned golf tournaments, the PGA Tour of Australasia ran domestic tournaments with the Victorian PGA Championship at Moonah Links, Queensland Open on the Sunshine Coast held in early March, and the New South Wales Open played at Concord Golf Club.
Kirkman said the running of them has been relatively smooth, despite continued border challenges.
“It has been a challenge, but our tour golfers are resilient, and so is the industry and our partners, and we’ve had some very positive results like other sports, and we just wanted to create playing opportunities for our players and get back on track and get golf on television again,” he said.
And the nature of golf itself gave it a leg up on other sports while they were shut down during COVID, as Kirkman explained.
“Golf has been able to be played just as a social or recreational activity while the contact sports were all closed down for some time,” he said.
“Golf has had a resurgence around the country, there’s been a lot of new people come to the game of golf, social play, families, juniors, community, the aged and so forth, so it’s been really good for physical and mental health through COVID.”
And it’s this period on the social side of things that has led to a resurgence.
“Golf as a sport, [has] had a real resurgence, and we’ve got some great numbers and data to highlight that,” he said.
“Rounds [are] up by 20 to 30 per cent and membership numbers [is] increased by up to 15 per cent so that side of the business has been busy.
“PGA Pros are doing, more lessons in a week than they could have been doing, some fortnights.
“Golf retail is also very strong. You know, if you wanted to get a set of clubs made, to suit your specifications, you could wait up to 8-10 weeks- that’s how much demand there is. Normally it would be seven to 10 working days.
“So, the game at the moment is in good shape.”
The big question is how will the golf industry keep this resurgence going?
Kirkman said that was just one of many things to be undertaken over the next 12 months.
“We have collaboratively worked on a golfer retention plan, so one of the things we’ll have to do as an industry, is ensure that all these new and re-engaged golfers, stay in our game,” he said.
“That generational age bracket that could be playing cricket or AFL, we want you [them] to stay in golf.
To help with that, Kirkman wants to work on promoting all the positives of golf.
“That perception that golf is an elitist sport, that you’ve got to have a lot of money to play, they are not the fact,” he said.
“It’s actually a really good value sport; it’s healthy, it’s outdoor, you can play with anybody at any age, and it’s just a great social experience.
“And it’s very good for physical and mental health. They’re the things we’ve got to promote.”
Kirkman said there are new events on the agenda as well in 2021.
“We’ve had a lot of success with new events called the Players Series. We introduced two of them this year,” he said.
“Men and women play for the same prizemoney, and women play off modified tees on the same golf course.
“After the cup’s done, we have 25 girl and boy juniors who play alongside the elite amateurs and PGA professionals over two rounds – the final two rounds of a tour event, so that’s been very good and well received and popular.”
Kirkman also spoke about some of the most popular players, and how they will need to go about making the next generation of talent – male and female – household names like Adam Scott, Hannah Green, Minjee Lee and Cameron Smith.
“Adam’s the ultimate professional, the ultimate Australian ambassador,” he said.
“And you’ve got guys like Cam Smith, who’s the next gen, he’s got the look and the cool, and he’s a great guy.
“There’s so many coming through, our job is when the men and women play on the overseas tours, you know you’ve got Minjee Lee and Hannah Green and Su Oh, all those great women’s players, but when they do come home, we’ve gotta work harder, and make them all household names.
“We’ve got to profile these next generation of golfers, instead of you saying names like Adam Scott and Cameron Smith, who we know are in the top 50 in the world, you know, what about Anthony Quayle, Blake Windred, Elvis Smylie and all these next superstars.
“We’ve got to grow their profiles; we’ve got promote them.
“That’s something that we’ve learnt over the past 12 months, that we’ve got so much homegrown talent who the Australian public don’t know.”
And as for international talent, Kirkman shared his opinion on our young Aussie players who can hit the ball insane distances, in reference to Bryson Dechambeau.
“There’s a lot of work being done by the governing bodies, the world governing bodies on distance at the moment,” he said.
“I personally don’t have a position, but for those world governing bodies they’ve got to talk to the players, and they need to talk to everyone involved in the tours on and off the golf courses.
“It’s quick to say ‘let’s wind the ball back and let’s wind the distance back,’ but the impact on our game is not measured, and you know they’re all playing within the rules.
“Bryson changed his body shape, he didn’t do anything that broke the rules of golf which, foremost all PGA tour professionals uphold.
“I’m not sitting on the fence, I’m supportive, and I’m attached to all the findings that are going on – there is work being done on that, if there are changes, I couldn’t tell you when, there’s still a lot of work being done on distance, with ball and equipment.”
Subscribe to our newsletter!