Stephen Pitt, 2019 Emirates Australian Open pre-tournament interview
MARK HAYES: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the 104th Emirates Australian Open. Just as always in the media centre. Without any further ado, I’d like to welcome Golf Australia Chief Executive, Stephen Pitt to the lectern here, to make welcome everyone to the Tournament. Stephen before you address questions from the floor, can I ask you, there’s obviously a lot of smoke out there, is that something that you guys have taken into consideration?
STEPHEN PITT: Thank you Mark. Firstly, our sort of issues with smoke at a golf tournament pale into insignificance to the things that homeowners and people, property owners and people right round the country have dealt with. So, we’re very aware of that fact and all our sympathies and thoughts go to them, because that’s the real issue.
For us this week, it has been a little bit different, the first couple of days. It’s not something we’ve really had to give consideration to before. We’ve had storms, rain and hail, heat and cold and all those sorts of things are your typical golf tournament issues, but this one is new. We have been in constant contact, particularly with the Bureau of Meteorology. The outlook is really optimistic. At the moment, I believe we’re having a westerly wind and that’s the worst wind we can get in terms of the smoke. That is due to change later this evening. There are southerlies and then potentially a north easterly that will come in and they will clear the air, which I think is not just good news for us, but also good news for the people of Sydney and surrounding areas. I think that is really positive, but it’s a situation we will continue to monitor.
MARK HAYES: I know you want to make some other opening remarks and then we’ll open the floor to questions after that.
STEPHEN PITT: We’re really excited to be here this year for the 10th Emirates Australian Open. We’ve got a terrific field this week. We’re in the second year of the All Abilities Championship presented by ISPS Handa, which is just a wonderful initiative. We were so pleased with how it went last year and it’s become a really important event very quickly, and the field for that event is also really strong.
I think on both fronts we’re going to have a great week of golf and kicking off what’s going to be a terrific summer of golf in Australia, and that’s really important for the game, to help grow the game and put some drivers back into grassroots golf, and hopefully get a golf club in the hands of more people around the country.
MARK HAYES: We’ll open the floor up to questions.
Q. Steve, obviously there’s a multitude of issues that face the game – apart from the one of growing of the game and getting clubs into kids’ hands. Professional tournaments have some role to play there, beyond that, what does Golf Australia have to help pay back?
STEPHEN PITT: Professional tournaments do play a role but they’re a small component of it. I think in Australia we’ve actually had a really strong correlation between success at the highest level and strength at grassroots. It goes right back to Greg Norman. We can chart the growth of Australian golf on the back of his success over a period of time and more recently with Karrie and Minjee and the girls and Adam and Jason probably winning Majors in the guys.
But beyond that, as I said, it’s only one component. For us the program is designed to get clubs in the hands of kids, of women and girls, of new golfers, is really important. For us, the My Golf program that’s a joint venture program with the PGA is a really important program and it’s in six years of being a PGA/GA joint venture.
The numbers have grown from about 4,000 kids to nearly 30,000 and I think that’s a really strong growth over a period of time. I always had a view if we could get to 30,000, then you’ve actually got something meaningful that is a really good platform to grow the game into the future.
We will launch this summer Get Into Golf, which is a program designed to connect people of all ages with the game of golf and we’ve got some pretty ambitious targets within that as well. We’re looking to try to get about 10,000 people in the first year hooked in through that program and then to grow it from there.
We’re running some programs through government called Better Ageing and that’s a really important program. If you think about Australians living longer and trying to stay healthy and active longer, I think golf is an amazing vehicle to help achieve that.
So, look, they’re the main things. Beyond that, we’ve been fortunate that we’ve had so many great players and great players performing well in recent times, in both the women’s and men’s games, and I think that holds us in good stead, and they’ve been wonderful ambassadors not just for golf, but also for Australia.
So, I think those components leave us well positioned.
Q. Obviously, the next step after you put a club into the kids’ hands is having somewhere to play. We’ve got issues with public golf courses and public courses closing, clubs have their own issues to deal with. Is it the responsibility of Golf Australia and if it is, what sort of plans might you have to ensure that there are public access courses available for those who want to enjoy the game at all levels?
STEPHEN PITT: I think we’ve got to do a better job of bringing public access facilities into the fold and there’s been a fair bit of work done on that. But that’s one component of it. I think the bigger piece of work is working with our own clubs, making sure that they’re more accessible to children and also women and girls beyond that.
We’re running a program called Vision 2025 and it’s designed to make golf more attractive to women and girls and to really make some material change by the year 2025.
So, for us, I think clubs have come a long way in terms of being more accessible. If you went back 20 years, juniors were just ignored within golf clubs. Now there’s probably some clubs out there that still aren’t doing a very good job in that area, but there are a lot of clubs that have changed significantly and they’ve got a much better longer term view on their role of growing golf in this country. So, I think we’ve got to continue to drive that outcome and I think that, in concert with probably offering a more co-ordinated service to facilities and not just courses, but driving ranges I think are really important within growing the game. Even putt putt and things like Top Golf and those sorts of things, all make up the mosaic of what golf is and I think they’re all really important. So, we’ve got to do more to build those relationships too.
Q. Just following on from that, there is more than a million golfers in Australia but it seems like the big problem is converting them into golf club members. What’s the feedback that you get working with clubs as to why it’s such a trickle effect through becoming a member?
STEPHEN PITT: I think you’ve got to be realistic and look at the big picture of Australian sport and what we’re experiencing within golf is what’s happening across Australian sports. Membership across organised sport in this country is under pressure and is declining, and what’s happening, there’s an emergence of less structured sporting options.
I think in terms of golf, you’ve got to be able to adapt to that. I actually think golf has done a pretty reasonable job in that space. We may be slow at it sometimes, but if look at your typical semi-private club 20 years ago, their revenue model was probably something like 80 per cent member, 20 per cent non-member. Now, for that same club, it’s probably 50/50 or even 40/60. So, clubs have adapted their business model.
From our perspective, we’ll always be trying to get golf club members because we think that is the ultimate, because they’re the rusted on people that have made a really tangible commitment to the club and to the game, so we always think there’s value in actually doing that. But you just can’t ignore the casual players out there who may never be a member of a golf club but have a love for the game.
So, one of the things that we’re doing in the next 12 months is building our capability to talk to casual players and we’ve got targets of growing that by 50,000 within the next six months. I think as an organisation, we’ve got to be able to communicate with them, engage with casual golfers, even though some of them may never be club members or certainly have a period where club membership doesn’t appeal to them.
Q. Stephen, we’re only a few weeks away from a new decade, but when you look back on the last decade, what sort of stands out in terms of impact on Australian golf and when you look at say, a golfer of the decade, does Adam Scott stand alone in terms of his past history?
STEPHEN PITT: That’s a great question. Let me think about the first part of it first. Bernie, look to me, probably the best thing we’ve done is My Golf. I know it’s still growing and it’s still got a fair way to go. It’s not rivalling Auskick at this point, but if you look 10 years ago, that space was really fragmented. The PGA were running their own program, we were running something different. So, to bring the organisations together and to do something around junior golf to me is really important.
I think as we grow that, as it gets over 30,000, hopefully towards 50,000 kids, you’ve got a really strong platform to grow the game in the future.
The golfer of the decade, that’s a really tough question. I think Australians will never forget what Adam Scott did at the Masters, that had been such an area of heart ache and near misses for us and I think that was such an important moment in Australian golf and to get to world number 1. I think he’s certainly right up there.
I think the other one, although she hasn’t won a Major, if you look at what Minjee’s done in the amateur space and then turning into the professional world, she’s been just so dominating. They’d probably be the two that I think.
If you went the decade before, it would be a lot easier, because we’d all agree on, probably Karrie, but the last decade, probably Adam and Minjee would be the two that probably edge the others.
Q. Have you had any word back from the sneaky greenkeepers yet on how the course is going to be set up and do you accept some pretty serious scores out there, and what’s the condition of the course?
STEPHEN PITT: The condition’s really, really good. I’d pay acknowledgment to the course and the course staff, because they’ve had really tough conditions as anyone that lives in New South Wales would know. It’s been pretty bad conditions for presenting a golf course in. Our people were up here – well, they’ve been up here a lot – but even a couple of weeks ago, the view was it’s going to be absolutely perfect.
We’re very happy with how the golf course has been presented. I think The Australian is always a really fair test. There’s not some of the dangers that you can get in terms of set up that you can get elsewhere. It’s not as exposed say, as NSW or even The Lakes, where we’ve had a few challenges with wind.
So, I think we should get a really good event. If you think back here, you know, this golf course can play really tough. The round that stands out to me is probably Jordan Spieth in 2014, his 63 in that final round, when Rory said, “I could have played the golf course a hundred times and not shot that.”
So, it can be set up really, really tough but I think the great thing about the golf course is it’s tough but still fair. If you play well, you can score well here.
Q. One of the things I was getting at earlier in terms of public golf, we’ve lost Hudson Park here in Sydney and Victoria Park. What are the feelings of the response from Golf Australia in that space and what might be able to become? Is it time to get proactive in approaching councils about the facilities they have and making sure that they’re sustainable?
STEPHEN PITT: Okay, yes, I’m with you, Rod. Yes, I do think we need to be, proactive is the word I would agree with and we’ve actually invested in this area. It’s one of the benefits of the One Golf process that we’re going through. We’ve put some resources into this area.
We’ve been, I think a bit reactive in this space and if you think about golf courses around the country, particularly in Sydney, there’s some that are under challenge, and for us, the thing we want to do is actually help clubs before those challenges arise. From our perspective, we’re always going to have challenges. We have 1,500 golf clubs. I think that makes us the third most golf courses per capita in the world. Scotland is one and I think England is two, so we’re right there.
It means that from time to time, when you’ve got so many golf clubs per capita, you’ll have areas where there may be a glut of golf clubs and the market makes it hard for them to succeed, particularly if costs arising.
So, from our perspective, it’s how do you help clubs before they get in those situations? How do we stand up to councils and tell councils about the great things that golf does? Environmentally, I think we’ve become a terrific sport in terms of how we handle environmental issues. Sustainability of golf courses, the flora and fauna now that are on golf courses often are much better than what’s available in parklands. I think just the health and wellbeing aspect for people, keeping people active and mentally and socially engaged late into their lives is really critical.
So, it’s how we work with councils till they understand that message and understand all the good things that golf does, rather than focusing on some of the bad things. So, I do think we’ve got a role to play in that space.
I think ultimately we probably need to communicate well with our members, our 400,000 club members about their role in doing this. The two messages I would like to really start delivering to our club members – one is to share the game more and let’s bring more people into this great game of ours because it makes people’s lives better. Secondly, let’s show governments and councils that we’re passionate about our golf and engaged with our golf and that we want golf to be treated well by governments and we want governments to partner with golf.
Q. How much of a concern, if any, is the declining win percentage on the PGA Tour for Australians and membership rate as well? The next level has not kept up with past numbers.
STEPHEN PITT: I guess you always look at those sorts of things. From our perspective, the main metric we look at is transition rates and what Australians are doing in terms of how they transition from amateur golf to professional golf. Right now the rookie program, and Brad James can talk about this more in depth, the transition rates are pretty good, we’re ahead of the curve and that’s the whole purpose of the rookie program, to safeguard athlete transition and to make sure players don’t go backwards or don’t stunt their development through sort of negative practices.
But, having said that, I think there are still probably some areas we’d like to see improvement. There have been some players that we thought would probably be further along the line than what they currently are, so that’s always something that our coaches look at internally. Are there things that we can do better in this space?
The US Tour for us will always be critical because it’s the biggest, most prosperous tour in the world. I think having said that, we feel like we do have a good crop of young players coming through and we’ve had some good success. Now it’s just making sure that they’re going to take the next step and get – for us the top 100 in the world is really critical. That’s where, if you look at the data, that’s where Major winners generally come from. The more players you have in that top 100, the better off you are for a range of reasons.
So, for us, that’s always the ultimate target and if you look at the last say, 10 or 15 years, there’s been times where we’ve had more players, both men and women, in those top echelons. Right now I think we’ve sort of got three in the top 50, both men and women, which is pretty good, but we’d obviously like more.
Q. Geographically, what’s the future of this Championship looking like beyond the current arrangement with the NSW Government?
STEPHEN PITT: We still, I guess, have the luxury of having the arrangement with NSW Government till 2023, including that Championship. The deal we’ve structured the last time around, I think was an excellent deal, in that it just gave us a little bit more flexibility. So, for the first time since 2006 it will be held somewhere else in Australia, so down at Kingston Heath next year. Not that Sydney hasn’t been a wonderful home – it’s been an incredible 13 years here in Sydney.
Then we’re in Victorian Golf Club in 2022. Beyond that, there’s a bit of water to go under the bridge before we’re in a place where we can start working past 2023. As I said, we have a wonderful relationship with the NSW Government.
If you had your utopia, you’d like to see it move somewhat. I think a long term anchor tenant and then having the ability to move it too, a little bit like we’ve done in this current arrangement; take some pressure off the courses in that anchor state and also, I guess, to showcase it around.
We look at the Open Championship in the US Open, the way they move those events around and there’s obviously some real value in doing that. But, our ultimate aim is to make sure the Tournament is healthy and prosperous and coming from a really strong base, and that’s our first priority.
Q. Is that realistic though, what you’re mentioning about potentially having a base but then touching on a [inaudible]
STEPHEN PITT: I think possibly. Contractually there’s a lot of work to be done in terms of how we handle that process and obviously a lot of respect with the NSW Government in terms of the partnership that we’ve had over a long period of time. But I think it is potentially possible. It’s not always easy, and even this time around, to actually achieve the eight years wasn’t an easy process, but we have done it, so I’m really happy about that. I think it’s a good result for the Championship.
It’s not easy, but I think it’s probably more realistic now than it was say, 10 or 15 years ago where it was a lot more cut throat. I think governments are a little bit more happy to work co-operatively on something like this.
Q. In an upcoming interview that you published Keith Pelley says he would have loved the Australian Open to be part of the European Tour schedule but there are stumbling blocks, not from him but elsewhere. Do you want the Australian Open to be part of the European Tour?
STEPHEN PITT: I would say we’re definitely open to that prospect. We couldn’t have done it, for example, last year. We clashed with Dubai. So, dates become a major issue in terms of the Tour sanctioning as well.
From our perspective, the key thing in driving the Tournament is players. We think that that’s held the Tournament in good stead over the last 10 years. We’ve had a great list of players who’ve played the Tournament, won the Tournament.
So, Tour sanctioning, the thing we’re looking for as a Tour partner that can help deliver the best players in the world. The European Tour certainly does have some good players on it. I think it’s obviously been part of the Vic Open, which is something that Golf Australia runs now on behalf of Golf Victoria, it’s been part of the PGA. So, I think it’s a possibility, but I couldn’t make a commitment at this point.
Q. Do you think it would further benefit the value of the Tournament if one of the young players that’s out here today, out here this week, it was a European Tour event, they’ve got something else to play for rather than – no disrespect to the Australian Open, but it gives them some sort of future, whereas if they win this week, they get the trophy and the cheque, if they win in two weeks’ time at the PGA, next year’s all sewn up and they’ve got somewhere to play.
STEPHEN PITT: I don’t think it’s quite as simple as that. The example I’d use is Cam Davis. There’s a nice graph that I’ll show you of Cam Davis’ world ranking and there’s a line where it drops like that, and that’s when he won the Australian Open. But the opportunities that winning the Australian Open created for him were pretty immense.
So, it’s not as black and white as you get a ticket onto the European Tour and you’re all set. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t quite deliver what players hope. But on the flipside, if you look at Cam Davis and he’s the perfect example, winning this Tournament opens up an enormous number of doors and does give you some opportunity to pursue.
So, it’s not quite as simple as that, I’d say.
MARK HAYES: Thank you very much Steve for your time, we appreciate it and thank the ladies and gentlemen. We’ll have Marc Leishman and Cam Smith very soon. Thank you very much.