ABC News: Golf ‘opening up to everybody’ as WA’s local champions like Minjee Lee inspire young players

13th Jun 2022

Courtesy of Cason Ho – ABC News

Western Australia seems to be swinging above its weight in the international golfing arena, and its success is being attributed to a strong culture of junior development.

Minjee Lee’s win at the US Open followed in the footsteps of other West Australian greats such as Hannah Green — and there may be a few other potential champions in the pipeline.

Oliver Goss, who shared the same training grounds as Lee at the Royal Fremantle Golf Club, started his golfing journey with his dad.

“It was just me and my dad going out, having fun, playing some golf, which I think is really, really important,” he said.

Girl with golf club crouched on her knees on a well-manicured lawn.

Juniors aged five years and up can train at the RFGC. (ABC News: Cason Ho)

The course at the RFGC is considered exceptionally demanding and has hardened many golfing pros and top amateurs.

But along with a challenging home course and an enjoyment of the sport, Goss stressed the importance of having a dedicated coach.

He praised Ritchie Smith as being just that for many, including himself, Lee, Green, and others.

“He’s coached all of those guys right from when they were juniors… and made them into who they are from scratch,” Goss said.

Goss now works with the juniors at the club to nurture their skills and pass on his decades of golfing knowledge.

WA leads the country in junior programs: GolfWA

The strong culture of helping little ones grow is not isolated to Fremantle, according to GolfWA chief executive Gary Thomas, who says the state has some of the strongest junior development pathways.

“We’ve always produced good golfers… but the last five or six years, we’re going through a bit of a golden period,” he said.

The WA Golf Foundation provides support for emerging junior golfing talents through grants and scholarships.

Development pathways also help players bridge from junior tournaments to state, national and ultimately, international events.

Six children with golf clubs and caps on crouched in a line on a manicured lawn.

WA has strong development pathways for young players. (ABC News: Cason Ho)

Mr Thomas said WA’s high performance golfing programs were not radically different to other states, but WA’s junior programs separated it from the pack.

“That culture we’ve got and we’ve built over 40 years is the key ingredient that we have,” Mr Thomas said.

Golf memberships have surged in WA throughout the pandemic, turning around a slow decline in memberships pre-COVID.

“Golf has boomed … younger people have taken up the game under 40 years of age,” Mr Thomas said.

But the growth has been dominated by males, and Mr Thomas hopes Lee’s win on the world stage will inspire more women and girls to pick up a golf club.

“All golf is golf, and golf is for everybody,” he said.

“Some people might just want to go and play mini golf… others might want to hit range balls. That’s terrific. It’s a fantastic sport to take up.”

Inspiring girls to pick up the club

WA Golf Club manager and PGA professional Nicole Martino is confident Minjee Lee’s win will fuel the next generation of girls aspiring to play golf.

“She has been inspiring people in WA for nearly a decade now, and same with Hannah Green as well,” she said.

“At the Western Australian Golf Club, we’ve just fielded this year our first ever junior girls pennant team.”

Woman holds a golf club on a well-manicured lawn.

Nicole Martino started playing as a junior at the RFGC, and received a scholarship to study in America. (ABC News: Cason Ho)

Ms Martino, who started playing as an 11-year-old, encouraged parents to help their children join a club if they expressed any interest in golf.

“Get a golf club in their hand, let them have a swing, and if they like it then support them with playing the sport,” she said.

Western Australia has an abundance of opportunity for aspiring pros, but also for people looking to play for fun, according to Perth Golf Centre director Michael Kunman.

A man holds a woman's arm while she holds a golf club up in a virtual golf room.

Michael Kunman says golf is becoming a more accessible sport. (ABC News: Cason Ho)

“If you take it up and you enjoy it, then there’s so many different avenues where people can learn the game, play with friends, and of course develop their skills,” he said.

Mr Kunman said in the past, golf was seen as a sport in which only people who could afford it, could play the game.

Man holds golf club while speaking in front of group of children.

Goss says he’d like to see “a little bit more fun being had” by juniors on the range. (ABC News: Cason Ho)

For parents wondering if their kids are likely to emulate the likes of players like Minjee Lee, Goss reiterated the importance of just enjoying the sport.

“The hour a day that I get to teach, it’s probably my favourite hour of the day. I’ve got kids that range from five, all the way up until the mid-to-late teens,” he said.

“I still want them to go out and play all the other sports — soccer, basketball, baseball, whatever. Learn all of those skills.

“Number one, have fun. For sure.”