Golf Australia

Changing golf a day at a time

This is a story about conversations, some of them uncomfortable, although Chyloe Kurdas, Golf Australia’s senior manager for female engagement, makes a point: “They’re only as uncomfortable as we want to make them.”

It’s about gender equity in golf, and ultimately, it’s about human rights. It’s not, as Kurdas says, about sport as such, although Hannah Green’s triumph in a major in Minnesota last weekend is key to it.

For the past six months, Kurdas and other Golf Australia staff have been wearing a path through the country conducting roadshows around the Vision 2025 women’s and girls’ engagement strategy launched last year.

They’ve been to Tasmania and country Victoria and Adelaide and Perth and this week, to Rockhampton before the caravan winds back through northern New South Wales and down to Sydney later in 2019.

The roadshow was about finding more women and girls a place in golf, but it has been broadened since the Australian Human Rights Commission released guidelines for golf clubs around compliance with anti-discrimination laws earlier this year. The implication was that some clubs are breaking the law by, for instance, only allowing one gender to play on a Saturday.

That’s where the difficult conversations are being had, for nothing makes the blood flow like a debate about men’s and women’s respective rights.

It’s exhausting and exhilarating at the same time for Kurdas, who came from an Australian football background to take on the challenge in 2018 when GA took a look at its split of male-female membership, now running at 80-20, and realised that it had to change. It was launched in Adelaide, as it happened, with Hannah Green taking part as a bright, young face of female golf, a potential inspiration to young girls inclined to play the game.

The national governing body has taken a collaborative approach, which is why Kurdas is on the road, speaking to the leaders at the nation’s 1500 clubs, having the conversations that needed to be had. She tells a group of club leaders in Adelaide that GA can’t and won’t tell them what to do. “We want to put you on our shoulders.”

She tells the participants her own story of playing golf with her Turkish immigrant Dad, in his 60s, for the first time, and how they’d found a way to engage in the game with nine holes on a public course in the country late last year. She tells them that the game of golf must change soon to engage with the modern market, full of time-poor men and women.

She mentions that in 1970, 34 percent of club members in Australia were women. But also that times had changed – women’s liberation, free education, more women moving into the workforce, no-fault divorce. “Life changed for women,’’ she says. “Golf just forgot to change with it. The way golf has been structured and positioned has been fine for men’s lives. But if we future-proof the sport for women, it actually future-proofs the sport for men as well.’’

People come up to her after the roadshows and they talk, and many of them love what they hear about the move to give women equality in the game for the first time. The emails that come in are mostly positive.  What she’s heard has been interesting to say the least.

A snapshot, starting with the positive …

One club in regional Victoria came to GA recently saying that it had made some changes to its structure but when the (male) board members sat down with GA to talk, they were told that the structure was still discriminatory and as such, liable to legal challenge.

The club went back home and then contacted GA a few weeks later. Much to Kurdas’ surprise and gratitude, they had opened up their access to both sexes on all days. “We didn’t think they’d change,’’ said Kurdas. “How awesome that they did it themselves. We gave them the tools. Clubs lead themselves to the solution. We didn’t have to drag them kicking and screaming.’’

At Newcastle Golf Club recently, the board announced changes to its constitution to allow equal access to tee times on all days, adding in a restructure of their membership categories for good measure.

At another regional club, a woman came forward to ask her club why women’s club championships could not be played on the weekend. The result? “She was socially alienated in her club and threatened with expulsion,’’ said Kurdas. “Because she asked the hard question!”

Kurdas sees a hypocrisy in the way golf handles all this. “Golf can be so officious. Nudge the ball and it’s ‘penalty!’,’’ she says. “But when it comes to life laws, why is golf immune?”

But she’s gratified that these questions are now being asked in our golf clubs, happy that the conversation is underway within those clubs. Do we comply with the law? Are we vulnerable to legal action? What sort of club and society do we want to be?

Another snapshot of the roadshows: in country Victoria, a woman came forward to speak to Kurdas and told her that she had stopped playing the game for 20 years when she worked full-time, before returning to golf in her 40s. “Stop right there,” said Kurdas. “You’re telling me you gave up the game for 20 years because you had to work?! In what world is that okay?

“We’ve got declining membership, meaning declining revenue, and that’s 20 years of membership that your club didn’t get. Do the maths.”

On another roadshow, a woman who was a former school principal (and a lover of golf) came forward and mentioned that she had stopped playing for 40 years because of full-time work, and the lack of access to golf on weekends.

“What I’ve learned is there are a lot of women -- and some men -- who’ve been putting up and shutting up for a long time about this, because there hasn’t been a safe environment to talk,’’ said Kurdas. “Vision 2025 has created an authorising environment. It’s okay to talk about gender equality and that women have been held back.”

Vision 2025 was launched in February, 2018. It aims to lift that percentage of female members, currently at an all-time low 20 percent, to a level that has never been determined. The first step is to create equality of access for women and girls, meaning that the notion of ‘Saturday for me, Wednesday for women’ has essentially gone.

There is a fierce debate around the timing of club championships, which some clubs still schedule on weekdays for women and girls, ruling out access for those who work or study at university.

There is conversation around how open access actually works. In reality, what it means is that for instance, women members must be allowed the right to play on Saturdays to comply with the law, but that clubs can still have prizes for best male and best female player on the day.

Simple enough, but needless to say, it’s a thorny area when there are decades of tradition involved.

Kurdas says that in most instances, clubs embrace the idea when it’s put to them. They know that it needs to happen. How is its success to be measured? The reality is that the results will take time to emerge, even if the momentum seems to be shifting already.

“The first thing will be new women moving into social play and engaging in the game more regularly,’’ said Kurdas. “For me, success will be defined by how many clubs are actively putting measures in place to try to change the declining female membership experience.’’

Chyloe Kurdas says that in most of this, it is about contributing to healthy communities. “When we talk about gender equality it’s not about sport, it’s about human rights. And what we create in our sporting clubs penetrates the community. With our sporting platform we influence the kind of society that we want our kids to live in and our grandkids to live in.

“If you want to live in a society that shuts doors on your daughters and your granddaughters, fine, perpetuate that in your golf club. But if you want a society that says: ‘My daughter, my granddaughter, my great granddaughter, my wife, my girlfriend should have access to every part of society’, then we need to facilitate that in our sporting clubs and golf needs to be a part of that.”

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