home Golf “It’s as excited as I’ve ever been about the direction our sport’s heading.”: Karen Lunn on golf’s future

“It’s as excited as I’ve ever been about the direction our sport’s heading.”: Karen Lunn on golf’s future

Kasey Symons catches up with golf legend and CEO of the WPGA Tour of Australasia Karen Lunn to discuss the Inaugural Strategy for Australian Golf.

CEOs Gavin Kirkman (PGA), Karen Lunn (WPGA) and James Sutherland (GA) with the new strategy at the Australian Golf Centre. Image: Golf Australia.

In December 2021, Golf Australia launched its new national strategy and for CEO of the WPGA Tour of Australasia and Australian golf legend Karen Lunn, who has seen more programs, initiatives and plans to grow the game, this is one that looks to deliver the change she wants to see on the green.

“It’s as excited as I’ve ever been about the direction our sport’s heading.” 

You’d be hard pressed to find someone more experienced in the nuances of golf and the experiences and barriers for women in golf than Lunn who turned professional in 1985 and spent years on the Ladies European Tour, where she has won several tournaments including a Women’s British Open title in 1993 (before that tournament was an LPGA major championship) as well as taking on key governance roles in sport as former chair of the Ladies European Tour and now CEO of WPGA Tour of Australasia. To hear her optimism at this new strategic plan is encouraging, but she doesn’t shy away from the challenges that have driven her and the sport to implement action.

“We need to do a much better job,” Lunn is blunt. “I’m really buoyed by the strategy, I think that it was a great approach, and it was great to do it all together as the PGA and Golf Australia, ourselves [the WPGA]—all the other golf bodies were involved and clubs, the people. It was such a massive project, but it was great because we got so much feedback from so many people. 

‘“There’s been so many golf clubs and administrators that just—they’ve got their head in the sand about the problems that we’re facing, especially during COVID—our participation is through the roof and everything but, you know, that’s accidental. That’s just a set of circumstances that led to that. But if you look at what’s happened to women’s golf in terms of participation and the demographics, the average age of a club member is 64, it’s 18% of club members are women. We’ve got to do better.”

For Lunn, the entry into golf came through school sport while growing up in the country with the support of encouraging teachers and parents who enjoyed playing together socially and as family. It was an entry into the sport that Lunn says is ‘lucky’ as she knows not everyone feels that welcome or accepted walking into a club. But as she continued her career in the sport, the barriers certainly appeared.

“I didn’t face a lot of the barriers that people face, but I did face enough. And that was pushback from not just the men in the club, but the women in the club about young girls playing and they weren’t that welcoming. There was a half-a-dozen or so that were thank goodness because I might not have lasted that long.”

Lunn says this is the balance that golf now needs to strike, finding the right way to honour some of the rich traditions of the sport, but let go of some of the rules and practices that have excluded so many, and find new ways to bring people in. Lunn details the barriers that she’s keen to see removed as part of the implementation of the new strategy where one of the key objectives is that ‘golf is seen as a sport for life and fun for all’.

“Private golf clubs, you know, they’re seen as elitist and often they are. I was lucky where I grew up but I think for young women, they play golf for different reasons. A lot of the research that came out of the nature project that we undertook with the Australian Golf Industry Council was women want to play golf, but they want to have fun. 

“They don’t necessarily want to have a handicap, they don’t necessarily want to play in a competition, and they want to go out with their friends and swing a golf club and have fun. And that’s why so many of them started golf at the public facilities, and they prefer to go to a driving range, because they can wear whatever they want, and they can have fun, and they can have a drink. It’s a totally different experience, so I think that it’s been a massive wakeup call for the entire golf industry, really.”

Related: Five stories from the history of women’s golf

The wakeup call is something that Lunn is glad for. After calling for change and challenging systems for years, seeing the sport admit their failures is a relief.

“At least now the whole industry has admitted that we have to do a lot of work because it used to drive me crazy when people are, ‘golf’s in a really good space’, and I’m like, ‘where are you looking? How can you actually think that!’. [We know] it’s not [always] a welcoming experience, you go to a golf club and the first thing you see is all the things you’re not allowed to wear and all the things you’re not allowed to do and it’s just like, hang on, let’s get people enjoying golf first, and then they can learn the rules as they go along. 

“Because I know, even now, when I go into some of the posher golf clubs, I don’t feel comfortable walking in the front door, and I’ve been involved in the game all my life. Can you imagine how somebody feels that’s just started?”.

Despite being ‘driven crazy’ by some of her past experiences and frustrations in pushing for change, Lunn’s love of golf is what continues to drive her to ensure others find that some love and connection to the sport.

“I think it is the love of the sport. And it’s also, if I just keep pushing hard, eventually, something has to give, and that’s kind of why I became involved. I think that you just have to keep banging down doors and then eventually something will happen. 

“I’ve been in this role here in Australia for eight years, and I’ve been banging down doors, and I’ve, excuse my language, pissed a lot of people off and had a lot of arguments within the game. But I just couldn’t sit back and I knew that unless somebody, and it’s not just me, there’s a whole group of women involved in our organisation that have been fighting the fight for a while and getting pushed back. And you just keep fighting because you know the sport that you love, essentially, it was dying. And I think that nobody would admit that, and nobody would even admit that there were any problems.”

That the new strategy looks to those issues gives Lunn hope, but she knows golf has got its work cut out for them in the coming years.

“So, yes, it’s as excited as I’ve ever been about the direction our sports heading, and, you know, I’m in for the long haul. I think that it’s all very easy to talk the talk, but now we’ve got a lot to walk. And that’s not going to be a struggle, but it’s going to be a lot of hard work.

“We will be judged by whether or not this is a sport for everyone in Australia. And it’s not at the moment, but it really should be and it needs to be.”

Lunn’s focus now is on encouraging women to not only give golf a go, but feel welcome to attend events, be part of the atmosphere as fans and follow the stories of some of Australia’s excellent professional women’s golfers to see if the sport will capture their hearts as it did hers.

“If you get the opportunity to come to one of our events, give golf a go, you can go and have a couple of swings and see if you like it because there’ll always be some PGA pros on hand to give you some tips on getting started.” 

And as for some names to follow in golf, particularly with the Athena is coming up on the 26th of February, Lunn is excited for fans to discover Grace Kim, Stephanie Kyriacou and Karis Davidson

“They’re three of our most promising players, but we’ve got a whole group of really exciting young amateurs but I would say to people, if they want three to follow, it’d be Grace, Steph and Karis.”

You can view the Inaugural Strategy for Australian Golf here.

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