Readers’ rumbles about Golf Australia

Your voices have been heard, loud and clear. Armed with a laundry list of your concerns about golf in this country, we sat down with Golf Australia to get their responses on the Handicap System, Slope, social golf, TV coverage, growing the game and more.

GOLF AUSTRALIA’S recent rollout of the Slope System—the final piece (maybe) of the revised Handicap System in Australia—has stirred more than a bit of debate lately.

Our “Your Voice” mailbox is overflowing with comments on the subject. Letter upon letter of angry diatribe has rolled in—from golfers of all skill levels, from social golfer to club golfer, male to female, from every nook and cranny of the country.

But many of you didn’t stop with just the handicap project. Some went on to rant about the other projects/initiatives launched by Golf Australia and the various “powers that be” in the golf industry.

“Why are Golf Australia spending all this time and money on new handicaps, new websites, elite golfers, etc?” you’ve asked. “Why can’t they focus on basic, real-life things like a national standard for colour-coded flags (Red: Front, White: Middle, Blue: Back), or getting more golf on TV, etc.”

After poring over all of the correspondence, it became clear that there is a lot of anger about Australian Golf’s governing body.

So we sat down with Stephen Pitt, CEO of Golf Australia, and aired out your “dirty laundry” about Australian golf’s governing body’s performance.

New Handicap System and Slope

Your Voice:
“Did we REALLY need a new handicap system? It wasn’t broken, so why try to fix it?”

The Vibe:
My inbox is overflowing with letters from readers lamenting the new handicap system.  The majority of these readers are crying foul, stating that they couldn’t play to their handicap before the switch, and they are having an even harder time playing to it now.

I won’t go in to the For/Against arguments of the switchover, as both sides have been debated ad nauseam for years now.  I will say, however, that I generally subscribe to the theory that “just because it’s from America doesn’t make it better,” (and I’m a Yankee ex-pat, in case you forgot).

To be fair, most of you are more irked with the WAY that the system was rolled out. Instead of rushing to get the system rolled out piecemeal, you believe it would have been better if Golf Australia had first done the course re-ratings and Slope stuff behind the scenes, and THEN roll out the new calculations, etc.  As it was, the phased rollouts of the calculation methods (and tweaks, etc) simply confused most golfers, and by the time Slope was finally rolled out, many of you were beyond the breaking point.

But as you say, did we really need the change?

Golf Australia’s response:

“The weaknesses of the old system were that CCR didn’t work well for a number of areas, like smaller fields–which impacted country golf clubs and women’s fields, etc, so we had a situation where these fields weren’t playing under CCR, and we had two different systems in place. The other major issue with the old system was that it wasn’t flexible enough for older golfers, and it tended to come down too quickly for the higher markers; If you had a few good rounds you’d come down significantly, but if you reverted to your old ways, you’d struggle to get back out to a level that matched your playing ability.

“Yes, the old system could have been tweaked and changed, but the decision was made to explore a new system. Originally GA was going to adopt the US system in total. Along the way the decision was made that the US System didn’t function well in Australian conditions—we had to take a more sophisticated approach and build a system that could handle our heavy focus on competitions. We developed our own daily scratch rating which is far more sophisticated than CCR—taking into account the field size, handicap breakdown and gender of the field, the type of competition, etc. The downside is that golfers probably don’t understand the ins and outs of exactly how it’s calculated but the end product is that it produces a far more robust outcome than what CCR did.

“It’s been a long journey and I understand that for some golfers there’s been frustration, and there are certainly some things that would be done differently, along the way—the phasing of things I believe caused some problems for us—but we do have a system now that is fairer in the main part.  And I think there are some countries around the world that look at what we’ve done and consider this a world’s best system. I suspect that if there’s ever a ‘world system’, that the Australian System will be one that’s used for that process.”

Slope System

Your Voice:
“Why all the fuss with ‘portability’ when most of us only ever play the same course/club!”

The Vibe:
A lot of you have lashed out at the Slope System and course ratings, arguing that it was a waste of time for the majority of club golfers.

I personally believe that portability of handicaps is a good thing for golf.  I’ve played enough to know that an 18-handicapper from a tough course can trounce a 10-handicapper from an easy course.

So the Slope System in theory is a good thing. However, the calculations used (as well as the new course ratings) may need some further tweaks. I’ve been told quietly that there are a few courses which have been given incorrect ratings/slope scores, so in time.

This also doesn’t address the fact that the Slope Ratings and USGA Course Ratings systems are (in my opinion) perhaps a bit too reflective of the American Style of course design (where distance is everything, greens are softer, etc).  Australian courses are a different prospect than those overseas, so just because a hole doesn’t have, say, a bunker at “200 yards” down the fairway doesn’t mean it’s going to be a snack for a bogey golfer.

That all said, the main purpose of Slope is to make handicaps more portable from one course to another. And while this may not affect the majority of weekly club golfers out there, it will certainly change things for your Annual Golfing Weekend, Interclub matches, Corporate Days and Pro-Ams, not to mention Social Golfers.

But did we really need to re-rate courses for Slope?

Golf Australia’s Response:

“It’s important to note that Course Ratings would have needed to be done anyway, as they hadn’t been done in quite a while. And the American system of ratings was more effective than what we had done before.

“One of the positive things going through this process is that we understand the handicapping and course rating system far better than we did before. We’ve had some of the best statisticians in Australia working for us through the process and their input has been tremendous.  One of the things we’ve talked about is using scores in GolfLink to give you a better understanding of course ratings. So that’s something that might eventuate—by looking at scores at courses and then comparing them to visitors’ scores, you start to get some quantifiable data on course ratings, so it may be that we use that process down the track to audit the Course ratings.  One of the strengths of our GolfLink system is we’ve got so much data—over and above what they have, say, in the US.”

Getting more people playing more golf

Your Voice:
“Numbers are declining, memberships are dwindling. Whatever GA is doing, it’s not working!”

The Vibe:
The goal of our governing bodies is to raise the level of participation in the game, and get more people to play more golf.

But is that really happening?

According to the 2012 National Golf Census, since 2000, the number of golf members in Australia has been slowly declining at an average of 1.48% per year. This equates to a decrease of 80,236 playing members.

Golf participation is on the decline in many countries, not just in Australia. But, critically, this doesn’t necessarily mean that fewer people are playing golf, just that they aren’t playing as much Club Golf.  While there are no firm stats/surveys on exactly how many non-club golfers are hitting the links, there is anecdotal evidence that Social Golf is undergoing a surge in the country, as groups like Social Golf Australia continue to see increases in membership. So there may just be a shift in the way people are playing their golf.

So what is Golf Australia doing to address this?

Golf Australia’s Response:

“If we look at the UK, over the last five years they’ve had a decline in club membership over 5 per cent per annum, which is quite frightening. When we look at Golf England and the other federations there, they are the best in the world in terms of their club development programs. Their resources are better, their tools for clubs are better, but they’ve still got this decline, which confirms to me this is about product offering. It’s about creating a place where people want to be, where they want to play, where they feel comfortable, and feel comfortable bringing their family and friends. That’s the challenge for golf clubs.

“For GA, there are four key priorities for game development: Juniors, women, social golfers and club development.  In terms of GA’s vision, we’re here to grow the number of rounds being played, and the number of golfers we have in this country.  We’ve got some challenges in that area, the “Lack of Time” issue is one that we haven’t successfully solved as a sport, and until we’ve got some shorter and innovative product offerings, that will present a hurdle for us. And making it easier for people to get into golf. We need to activate current golfers to share the game, and that’s something we will be driving through a campaign later this year, a “Share the Game” campaign where golfers are encouraged to bring people into the game. It’s how most of us got started in golf—usually by a friend or family member who made the decision ‘I’m going to share the game of golf with you, and help someone I care about have a better life’. If we all take that task to hand, the game will be far better off. “

 

Social Golfers /GAA

Your Voice:
“Social golfers get [too much/not enough] attention.”

The Vibe:
This is a contentious subject in my inbox. Most Club Golfers argue that Social Golf is a problem. Conversely, most Social Golfers argue that Club Golfers’ old-school mentality is a problem.

Modern golfers prefer the freedom of playing multiple courses, at times/days that are convenient, without a large initiation fee. This trend began in the US a while ago, and has slowly migrated to our shores.

Golf Australia is/was acutely aware of this, and one of their more forward-thinking moves in recent memory was the launching (as the AGU) of the Golf Access Australia (GAA) program in 2004, which aimed to allow golfers to get handicaps without joining a club and thereby participate more fully in golf competitions. This was envisioned as a pathway to get more golfers to eventually join a club.

The system gave rise to many new social clubs, handicap providers and the like. And for all intents and purposes, it did exactly what it intended, as more social players came out of their lounge rooms to play golf.

Many Club Golfers, however, complained about the GAA system, as they saw it as a threat to club golf. But the safeguards put in place by the AGU prevented club golfers from making the switch, so the predicted “mass exodus” of club golfers never eventuated.  On the contrary, the “Club Gateway” theory appeared to be very successful.  According to Matthew Pitt, founder of national GAA Provider Bushranger Golf, between 20 to 25 per cent of golfers who had GAA handicaps with Bushranger Golf eventually transitioned to traditional clubs and memberships. So the model was working.

But last year, GAA was quietly dismantled. Social Golfers were forced to go elsewhere for their handicaps, whether to a group like the VGL, a membership/club like RACV Golf, a country/affiliate membership or, if they just wanted a casual handicap, a group like the Crown Lager Social Golf Club.

Golf Australia’s Response:

“Golf Access was good in theory, but it never quite worked, so the numbers weren’t particularly big. That area is still being addressed, I think we need to have a simple product that people and social clubs can tap into that has the impact of making social golfers more engaged with the game, and hopefully transferring them into more substantial relationships with clubs.  That said, we have another vehicle on the horizon which we think will be a much better vehicle for social golf.

“Social golfers offer a big opportunity for golf in Australia. Club membership has declined at a continuous level, over a decade, yet we’ve seen participation stay steady, which means we’ve got more social golfers than we used to. People aren’t necessarily following up that membership option. If we look at younger generations, they are probably less open to the membership model—and the commitment that membership involves—than the generations that went before them.

“It’s about the product offering to younger players, and how we connect with them.  We’ve seen clubs move from revenue models that were dominated by membership/member revenue to more of a combination of member revenue/user pay. And that will continue. The challenge isn’t just about membership—it’s also about increasing revenue for golf clubs, which means we need to connect with the social golfer audience, and then convert them into members. In some cases that will be possible and in others—the 30-year-old parent who’s got three kids and working 60 hours a week—golf club membership is not at the top of their priority list. It’s more about keeping a connection with those people and making sure they stay connected to the game, and eventually create a flow to club membership.

Juniors and Women golfers

Your Voice:
“Juniors and women don’t get enough attention or encouragement.”

The Vibe:
Juniors and women are the two segments of our sport with the most potential to grow the game. As women make up only about 22% of the current membership, and juniors a meagre 4%, there is a huge opportunity to quickly grow the game by targeting these two segments.

Golf Australia’s latest campaign to boost women’s numbers is a step in the right direction. And with a rejuvenation of the Women’s Australian Open and other events, women’s golf appears to be on the rise. But we hope to see some significant follow-up in the future. With the appointment of TV Personality/avid golfer Kerri-Anne Kennerley on the board of Golf Australia, we hope to see more good things down the road.

Juniors are in a similar situation, although the readers aren’t as happy with the progress.

The MyGolf program has been launched with a lot of fanfare. Yet, as the father of two school-aged children I have yet to see one flyer, notice or even a mention in the school newsletter about any sort of golf program. Instead, we are bombarded with cricket, footy, tennis, athletics, swimming and even baseball!  And a small, informal survey of other parents at other schools reveals the same.

Growing up in the US, I was lucky enough to be able to get a junior golf pass for $50, which gave me unlimited golf for an entire season at a couple local courses. That, combined with the school sports teams, local junior league, city, zone and state championships kept me enthralled with golf every year. Yet there is little of that sort of thing here.

The State Associations, as well as the dedication of organisations like Jack Newton Junior Golf (etc) are working very hard in this respect. But the overall “mood” of readers indicates that much more needs to be done.

Golf Australia’s Response:

“I genuinely believe that juniors are the future of the game. Not just as future members, but they are also an avenue to get parents into golf. I recently read some stats from the UK, in the “committed group of golfers” –who play more frequently, club members, etc—their kids play a high percentage of the time. And when you look at barriers into golf—family, time, etc—getting more juniors into the game is a great way to get more adults into the game.

“The positive thing for MyGolf is that it has formally become a joint venture between GA and the PGA.  The PGA have been terrific in terms of wanting to be involved. It’s key to get Pros activated behind these programs. We’ve never going to be able to match Cricket and the AFL in terms of development around the country—we don’t have their revenues—but we do have 2000 people {PGA Pros] who make a living teaching golf and have a strong interest in seeing the game grow. If we can really activate that resource it puts us in a much better position.  Our challenge is to get from 5000 kids to up to around 30,000 kids in three or four years. There are some clubs that are doing it really well, and we need to use them to share information for other clubs and promote these clubs as hubs for kids. Not every club is going to be proactive with juniors, but the ones that do the right thing and run a strong program, we’ve got to make sure that we push new golfers into those clubs. “


Elite golfers vs the rest of us

Your Voice:
“Why all the fuss over all these elite golfers?
Why isn’t there more done for Joe 20-marker?”

The Vibe:
It goes without saying that our elite amateur golfers represent Australia’s future golfing stars. Young players like Brady Watt, Nathan Holman and Stacey Keating will doubtless become the Adam Scotts, Jason Days and Karrie Webbs of the future.

Some of our young stars are already grabbing the spotlight.  Recently, Amateur Minjee Lee won the Vic Open and was in the hunt for both the Women’s Australian Open and Australian Ladies Masters titles. Additionally, this past summer, young Nathan Holman found himself leading the Australian Masters at one point with Adam Scott.

Many of you are convinced that far too much time and money is put towards these young players, with little onus on them giving anything back (apart from a moral obligation, etc). And many of the players DO give their time to junior clinics, etc. But business is business, and it has been suggested that a HECS-type scheme (or something similar) should be implemented.

Golf Australia’s Response:

“The fact is, the bulk of the money for High Performance comes from government, sponsorship or private benefactors, not the general revenue of GA.  The goal of the High Performance Program is to produce Major Champions, Olympic Champions, and top-10 players, because they are the ones who drive the sport. The role models in golf often have an outcome on participation. Greg Norman certainly had that massive impact. Scotty is having an impact as well. Rounds are generally up about 4 per cent this year. Our challenge is the sports that have the massive profile—AFL, NRL, etc—are generating really big dollars—especially broadcast revenues—from their events.  The broadcast revenues from even the Australian Open Tennis are massive. In golf, the US Open and the Open Championship both deliver big dividends to their organisations. The USGA, for example, is funded purely out of revenues from the US Open. For us, our championships don’t produce those sorts of revenues. We run a good event, but until we can get bigger broadcast revenues, that’s a challenge.”



The Australian Open, Prizemoney and Tour sanctioning

Your Voice:
“Why does The Australian Open have to be in Sydney every year?”

The Vibe:

Arguably the premier event in Australian golf, the Australian Open has a long and treasured history in world golf. Once known as the “Unofficial Fifth Major”, it was akin to a travelling show. Much like The Open and the US Open Championships are today.  A different course each year, on a rotational basis. Golf fans in Adelaide, Tasmania, Perth, etc, all got a chance to witness the best golfers take on the best courses our nation has to offer.  There was an influx of tourism to a new location and a sense of mystery surrounding a course that may be in the spotlight again after years of hiding in the shadows.

These days, however, The Australian Open is “locked” into Sydney. Following an agreement in 2006, our National Championship was no-longer played nationally, but instead relegated to a single market.

The agreement was championed by (then) Open chairman Paul McNamee and (then) CEO Tony Hallam, who believed that “locking an event into a single marketplace” gives golf an “opportunity to grow the event with a sustainable economic model.”

Some in the industry believe that the current setup of our major tournaments is beneficial for all: i.e., the Australian Masters in Victoria, The Australian Open in Sydney, The PGA Championship on the Gold Coast, the Perth International in WA, etc.  It’s a safe and simple arrangement. But when it comes to our National Championship, trying to attract the very best golfers in the world, shouldn’t we be playing it on our very best golf courses, in different states, and exposing championship golf to golfers around the country?

Golf Australia’s Response:

“We’ve seen tournaments start to be located in certain regions for a certain period of time. The reality is that it’s become difficult to move tournaments around because they’ve developed strong relationships with state governments who’ve invested a fair degree of money into those events. It would be great to think in the future that ‘yes, we can see the Australian Open at different venues around the country’, but our first challenge is to make sure that it’s financially strong—and that’s probably a little way off from that at the present time.”

Your Voice:

“Why do we have so many tournaments in Australia…wouldn’t it be better for sponsors, players, etc to have just ONE huge tournament, with a bigger Prize Purse, that is co-sanctioned by a major tour?”

Golf Australia’s Response:

“It’s a really interesting discussion, and I’ve heard both sides of it. If you went back in the day, in the men’s side we had about 13 events, so it’s actually collapsed down to about four major events at the moment. Having multiple tournaments has its advantages as well. You can get players who aren’t just coming to Australia for one event. It also gives you a bit more content for TV, and that’s one thing we are trying to do is have some synergies across the tournaments. That said, we think the Australian Open has the potential to really grow organically.  And the tournament owners are working more closely together than they ever have before, which is a positive step.

“Prizemoney and sanctioning is another interesting discussion. The Australian Open is part of OneAsia, and we believe that OneAsia provides a strong platform for our players on the world stage. Being part of the PGA Tour, conversely, wouldn’t guarantee you’ll get Tiger or Phil or all those guys anyway. Nor would a larger purse, necessarily. We saw that with the World Cup. The prizemoney was $7 million, and the two American players were Matt Kuchar and Kevin Streelman.  Extremely large prizemoney doesn’t guarantee the very best players will come.  They don’t want to fly all this way for one tournament, and scheduling is a major obstacle.”

 

TV Coverage (or lack thereof)

Your Voice:
“Golf TV coverage on Free To Air is nearly nonexistent.”

The Vibe:
I receive heaps of mail regarding the lack of golf coverage on Free To Air television.  Though we were all lucky enough to witness Adam Scott’s victory at the US Masters, most other events are limited to pay-TV. While those of us with Foxtel were engrossed by the excitement of the recent Ryder Cup, Presidents Cup, and Adam Scott’s nailbiting final round the Open Championship, the vast majority of the Australian golf-loving public were treated to a gripping episode of “The Bold and The Beautiful”, “Good Chef, Bad Chef” or “The Shire”

Currently there are only three golf events listed under the Australian Government’s anti-siphoning list: The Australian Open, Australian Masters and the US Masters. So the FTA networks get first dibs on broadcasting those events (or not). Foxtel gets their pick of the rest.

A disturbing story in The Australian, however, reports that Foxtel will likely be pushing to have The US Masters removed from that list, in addition to many other big events like Wimbledon, US Open Tennis, Ashes Cricket in England, etc.

I won’t go into the intricacies of the challenging nature of television partnerships, Government lobbying and money, etc., but TV is arguably the most powerful medium for inspiring the casual golfer to hit the links.  So shouldn’t golf’s governing body be doing everything in its power to get MORE golf on TV? Costs and logistics aside, surely SOMETHING can (and should) be done.

Golf Australia’s Response:

“There are some things that GA and also the PGA and IMG as tournament owners can do, and there are other tournaments that sit outside our arena. In terms of FTA coverage, the tournament owners have worked really hard and put in significant money to make sure their tournaments are on FTA. For the international tournaments, I think there’s a perception that the anti-siphoning list fixes everything, and if you’re on the list you’ll be on FTA, but that’s just not the case. Those international tournaments are owned by external parties and we don’t have control over the decisions they make.

“We’ve talked to various parties, particularly the R&A about the desire to see the Open Championship on FTA, and they are very aware of that position, but the R&A are running a commercial event, and they have to make decisions that help the event to grow and prosper. One of the things the R&A have done extremely well is put money back into other regions around the world and they have invested considerable money back into Australia; with MyGolf, with clubs that were impacted by bushfires, floods and a whole number of things. Part of the reason they are able to do that is because the Open Championship generates a return for them, and TV Broadcast rights are a major part of that. We’d love to see more golf on FTA. In terms of what we can control, we’ve been successful in that, but in terms of international events, there are some things that fall outside of GA.”

 

Commercials and Publicity

Your Voice:
“Why wasn’t more done to celebrate Adam Scott’s big win?”

The Vibe: Adam Scott’s victory at the US Masters was one of the greatest golfing moments in Australian history.  Golfers of all ages were inspired by this magical moment, and many of them rushed out to the course in the hopes of emulating their new hero.  Competition rounds increased, junior golf clinics were filling up, and tee-sheets were brimming.

Later, Adam came out to Australia for the Summer of Golf, and the masses went out to watch “Our Adam”. It was a summer to remember, and golf was a big winner.

However, after all that, there appears to have been hardly a peep in regards to promotion or follow-up. In fact, even during the summer, there was only one quick TV/Web commercial with Adam quietly encouraging us to get out there and play.

A similar situation occurred with the recent Presidents Cup and World Cup events. Some of the best golfers in the world graced our shores to inspire a generation of golfers, yet there was little follow-up to build on that momentum. Australian golf missed the boat back then, so we hope it isn’t the same this time.

The stone, it would seem, is gathering moss.

Golf Australia’s Response:

“I understand the perception that we didn’t quite capitalise on Scotty’s win. But in reality we did everything we could financially.  The week after he won, we were in discussions with Adam’s people about how we could capitalise on his win for the betterment of Australian golf.  Adam was fantastic and was generous with his time and support.  We also worked with the State Associations, PGA and others to create the biggest pool we could.  We did newspaper, radio, TV. We tried to concentrate it on him coming back to Australia for the summer season.  We will go again and we are in frequent contact with his father and manager about various things and they have also been very helpful.  But we just have to focus our resources.  The amount of money you spend for TV, for us it’s impossible for us to get the same sort of ad coverage as an AFL or NRL. We don’t have several million dollars sitting around ready for something like this. Our real challenge is to get the most of the money that we invest into golf. It may not have looked like Golf Australia promoted the heck out of this, but in terms of the resources available, we were delighted with the publicity that golf got over that period.”

 

Amalgamation

Your Voice:
“Why doesn’t Golf Australia merge with the State bodies to create one unified body?”

The Vibe:
In a nutshell, Golf Australia is responsible for helping develop the strategy and programs for golf, and then the State bodies are responsible for delivery. While there is a common goal and some solid communication, there are some areas where it could be improved.

Many believe that Golf Australia should amalgamate with the state bodies, much in the same way that the AGU and WGA amalgamated, as well as the New Zealand PGA and Golf New Zealand, etc. The cost savings would be significant, and the unified body would represent a much stronger selling proposition for sponsors.”

Golf Australia’s Response:

“We have done quite a bit of work on this already and have had some positive discussions with the State Associations about how we could collectively improve the structure and delivery of golf in Australia.  I think all of the bodies have approached that with a focus on doing the best thing for the game of golf.  The process will continue and there will be some important meetings later this year.”

 

What’s next?

All of the above points are open for further discussion.  Inside Golf is calling on comments from the entire golfing community regarding the points raised here. What are your thoughts? Email us at ed@insidegolf.com.au, or post a comment on this story below.

 

 

One Response to "Readers’ rumbles about Golf Australia"

  1. Mark Howard  April 25, 2014 at 6:54 pm

    Hello, I was interested in the article on getting more people involved in golf.

    I am 40 something living in Sydney and have recently picked up my clubs after about 10 years.

    I am really enjoying my social golf and was looking for a membership to match my time, but couldn’t find anything that matched my needs. I try to play every 2 to 3 weeks with friends.

    I would love to be a member of a club and get a handicap (I have been a member of a club previously) but it just isn’t economically viable, I’m better off paying and playing social.

    In addition I have a 9 year old son who loves hitting balls at the range and is very keen to get on a real course.

    I find club memberships options a bit one dimensional. I know for a fact if there was a membership option designed for people like myself with appropriate fee’s but also appropriate constraints to protect full paying members then there would be 3 to 4 new members instantly from my network as well as couple of cadets.

    Seems like a wasted revenue opportunity for clubs.

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