Golf Australia

Golf chases its untapped market

Sabrin Nyawela

Sabrin Nyawela comes from Sudan, where years of brutal civil war have devastated a country now split into two. She’s not a golf person in the slightest. Not yet, anyway, but her appointment as Golf Australia’s participation officer for inclusion is significant. 

Because for the first time ever, golf is going after potential players from the immigrant communities, starting in Melbourne but farther down the track, nationally.

It’s come about because research in 2018 showed that there was an appetite for the game so long as the communities felt that they were being welcomed at a club. 

Which is where Nyawela, 20, fits into the picture. What Golf Australia wanted was someone with experience of dealing with the issues of immigrant communities, not necessarily a golfer. 

As a footballer, Nyawela has grown up confronting the language barrier and the curse of racism, made her way in her adopted country and thrived within sport. She has worked within AFL Victoria’s All Nations programs, coaching and playing, and still plays state league with North Melbourne. 

Australian football has been quick to latch on to the large Sudanese community in Melbourne, with Majak Daw (North Melbourne, as it happens a neighbour of Nyawela’s in Wyndham Vale in Melbourne’s west) and Aliir Aliir (Sydney) being the standouts. Golf is just catching up.

So when Nyawela received an email late last year from Chyloe Kurdas, Golf Australia’s Female Engagement Senior Manager, suggesting she apply for the job, it raised her eyebrows and she deferred her teaching degree at Victoria University to take it up. “I was working in before- and after-school care at the time,” she said. “It was a massive shift. I had no idea if I wanted to apply or not. I’ve never worked in an office in a full-time role before. But I ended up just taking the leap anyway.’’ 

Christian Hamilton, Golf Australia’s Inclusion Senior Manager, said the research had driven the appointment. “We always knew there was a big opportunity, if you look at how diverse Australia is,’’ he said. “I mean, 51 percent of our population was born overseas or migrated to Australia. What we wanted to know was if there was an appetite for golf in the first place.’’ 

Hamilton said there were two aspects of the research that were noteworthy. First, that many immigrants believed that it was not possible for them to play golf, “based on the experiences they’d had in their original countries’’. Second, that if the opportunity was available then large numbers might well take part. 

“We hadn’t been into that space before,’’ said Hamilton. “The really good thing was that they said that if they felt welcome at a club, that it wouldn’t be just one or two who’d come to the game. They felt that their whole communities would come into the sport. 

“What we were looking for with Sabrin is someone who’s experienced working with those communities and understanding what those barriers are. The other cool thing about Sabrin’s skillset is that she’s a non-golfer. To have someone who can put that non-golfer lens over everything we do is fantastic.’’ 

Nyawela will run clinics out in the communities in conjunction with RecLink Australia and local government authorities. Hamilton said that with Victoria effectively operating a pilot in this area, it was hoped that the programs would ultimately become national. 

As for Nyawela, she’s learning the nuances of the game, having done nothing more than a few hits of mini-golf growing up. “On the outside, as a nongolfer, a lot of people think of golf as elite, that it’s only for old, retired people who are wealthy,’’ she said. 

“But my first day coming into the office, everyone was so welcoming. Even going to Adelaide for the Women’s (Australian) Open, everybody there was kind and welcoming. If we can get that side of the story out, we can change the perception. 

“It’s about developing community connections. I feel like there’s a big focus on the elite, the high-performance side of things. We want to bring it down to a local level and find future participants in the game.’’ 

Her personal story is captivating. Born in the Sudanese capital Khartoum, her father Othown and mother Ragena Nykeuy fled to South Sudan when the country was split by the war, but the troubles continued and by the time she was two, the family had moved to Egypt as refugees. When she was five, their application to come to Australia had been granted and they lived in Noble Park, then Warrnambool and then moved back to Melbourne to settle in Wyndham Vale. 

Nyawela had to pick up the language, having had no English when she arrived. “I feel like it was a lot easier because I was younger,’’ she said. “I went to an English-language school, picked it up pretty quickly.

“My tribe is Shilluk, also known as Chollo, it’s the third-largest tribe in Sudan. I learned Arabic when I came to Australia as well. Dad and Mum speak Arabic and also my cousins who came to Australia, and I can still speak Arabic.”

The racism was there from the start. “It was fine at school but outside of school, on the streets, people would throw out racial slurs. I was young. I didn’t know what was going on – it was the N-word and other things – you could tell when they were being rude. I was lucky to move with some of my cousins and they were at Noble Park school as well, so I had family in the area. 

“There wasn’t much you could do. You had to sort of ignore it. But there were a lot of curious people when I came: ‘Where are you from? Tell me about this, tell me about that’. Touching my hair!’’ 

Instructively, it was through sport that she found comfort in her new country, notably through football at Wyndham Vale where her brother was playing. “There was an oval across the road from my house, I would go and watch my brother,’’ she said. “One of the coaches asked me if I wanted to play and I said, ‘yes’. I went to training. Luckily enough, they had a girls’ team. We trained at the back of the oval. The boys had the main space, but always made sure we were made welcome.’’ 

That experience has convinced her that sport is a great vehicle for integration and inclusion. “Playing footy, people accept you for whoever you are,’’ she said. “The minute you get on to a football field, nobody cares. Being able to get people who’ve never played footy before to jump in and realise that you can be unified by your differences.’’ 

She believes it can be the same way in golf, although there is a journey to travel. “I don’t think I’ve met a Sudanese golfer just yet!’’ she said. “But golf is definitely heading in the right direction, just being open to learning about it and understanding some of the participation barriers. I don’t see why golf can’t be a multicultural sport. 

“Year one is getting to know it, understanding it, and taking risks. We’re at a perfect time when it’s okay to take some risks. We’re so early. It’s day one. Even Christian was saying ‘it’s all new’. Taking risks and learning from them and moving in a better direction, really.’’

First published in the Golf Vic magazine.

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