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Male, pale and stale: Can a former cricket boss help golf shed its crusty image?


James Sutherland and Australian golf’s other key leaders have detailed a strategic plan they hope will shed perceptions of the sport being pale, male and stale.

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Golf Australia (GA), having reported its biggest membership spike in 50 years, estimates there has been a 21 per cent increase in participation over the past 12 months amid a wave of newcomers in the Covid-19 era.

But club membership was in decline for the preceding 20 years, while cancelling the men’s and women’s national opens in both 2020 and 2021 due to Covid restrictions has been an undeniable blow.

The percentage of female golf members had notably fallen.

GA is also desperate to attract younger players and more from migrant backgrounds as it looks to public courses, driving ranges, mini golf and simulators as part of a plan to overcome a reputation for being exclusive and expensive.

GA chief executive Sutherland, alongside WPGA Tour of Australasia boss Karen Lunn and Australian PGA tour supremo Gavin Kirkman, want to take drastic action.

The key focus of their 2022-25 strategic plan, compiled after nine months of research and consultation with thousands of Australian golfers, is to boost playing numbers, embrace the mantra that “all golf is golf”, and spruik the sport as something “for life and fun for all”.

“If you have a stick and you hit a rock, you are playing golf. You can play 18 holes of golf at a member’s club, that is golf,” Sutherland said in Wednesday’s presentation.

“But golf is whatever you want it to be … all of us can be golfers.

“It is even playing golf on your iPhone or your iPad. That is golf. you are engaging with our sport.

“There’s a perception out there that our gates are not always open, our sport is not necessarily inviting people in.

“But today we are. It’s all changing.”

Sutherland declared the sport can’t afford to waste the “wind in our sails” generated by a recent membership boom.

“It may well see us abandoning things that we’ve done in the past, that we’ve clung to for historical reasons … because it’s in the best interests of Australian golf,” he said.

And the former Cricket Australia chief executive, who started with GA last year, made it clear that an unprecedented repositioning would only be possible with unprecedented collaboration.

“I described it yesterday as the end of the beginning,” Sutherland said.

“This is not a strategy for Golf Australia. It’s not a strategy for the PGA … for the WPGA of Australasia. This is a strategy for Australian golf.

“We haven’t done that before. We haven’t come together in this way.

“It’s not just us as three bodies. There’s a lot more … we need to come together and decide what is our potential?

“What do we believe? This gives us a lot of guidance as to the direction we want to go, but we now need to get a little bit more specific.”

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