THE HEROES OF THE ATHENA

 

The Athena is making heroes for young female golfers to admire and to emulate. And it’s supported by the girls involved in the Australian Golf Foundation’s Australian Junior Girls Scholarship Program. 

 

The continuing momentum behind women’s golf was further seen recently at the 2022 version of The Athena, the highly innovative event run by the WPGA Tour of Australasia and won by the very talented amateur Kirsten Rudgeley. 

The focus of The Athena is on the emerging and future stars of women’s golf.

THE HEROES OF THE ATHENA

“Our vision for The Athena is to create sustainable events held annually to showcase Australia’s future female stars whilst engaging with a new demographic of golf fans in ways never seen before in golf broadcasts,” said WPGA Tour CEO Karen Lunn of the concept developed with Evolve Sports and named, fittingly, after the Greek goddess of war, strategy and wisdom. 

The Athena 2022 built upon the inaugural event of 2021 created specifically for television viewing. Held at Coolangatta Tweed Heads Golf Club in northern NSW and won by young South Australian golf professional Kristalle Blum, The Athena proved so popular with viewers that Fox Sports extended its support of the event. 

“We’re proud to play our part in growing awareness of this exciting event which gives emerging women golfers a platform to shine,” said Rebecca McCloy, Commercial Director of Sport at Fox Sports when it was announced in November 2021 that The Athena would return this year. 

The Athena is a two-day event with day one, The Golf Challenge Day, seeing players tested across nine different shot tests, including bunker play, a lob over a bunker, optimum and long drive shots, chipping, pitching and putting and a ‘mystery’ challenge, whereby players draw the shot they are required to play.

Points awarded across the challenge shots decide which eight of the 12 contestants proceed to day two, The Playoffs, matchplay played over three-hole matches – a par four, a par three and a par-five. Quarter-finalists become semi-finalists before the remaining two players compete for the $30,000 first prize. 

The field of 12 for 2022 comprised Cassie Porter (Qld), Grace Kim (NSW), Grace Lennon (Vic), Hanee Song (NZ), Jade Shellback (Vic), Julienne Soo (Vic), Karis Davidson (Qld), Kelsey Bennett (NSW), Molly McLean (Vic), Sarah Wilson (Qld), Stephanie Bunque (Vic) and winner Kirsten Rudgeley (WA). 

There were some tweaks this year, the first being the venue, Sandy Golf Links in Melbourne, Victoria, the home of the Australian Golf Centre. The Athena is believed to be the first event live broadcasted from a public golf course, a nod to the important role public golf facilities play in the pathway available for golfers from social players to professionals. 

In another innovation, two players for the final field of 12 were selected via a digital qualifying series conducted on the Golf Challenge App called The Athena Professional Series. Golf Challenge was a new event partner for 2022. 

Young amateur Molly McLean, the 2022 club champion at The National Golf Club on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria, and Royal Melbourne trainee pro and another member of The National, Jade Shellback, were the two Golf Challenge qualifiers. 

The heroes of the Athena golf program

And, in another nod to developing young female golfers, 2022 saw youngsters in the Australian Junior Girls Scholarship Program involved on both days on the event, including caddying for the matchplay rounds. 

Ringside over the two days were seven girls from Kooringal Golf Club in Altona and another girl from Killara Golf Club in Sydney, where the concept of the program germinated. 

Australian Golf Foundation director and Killara member Bonnie Boezeman AO approached her club in 2018 with an idea to support junior girls there through a novel scholarship, whereby she personally funded five girls for 32 weeks of coaching, a monogrammed yellow shirt and cap, induction and presentation ceremonies and membership of the club for one year. 

The idea was such a success that Boezeman pitched it to the Australian Golf Foundation and a national rollout of the program, with some small modifications to the original concept, began in 2021. The pilot year involved 37 centres and 226 girls across Australia. 

“Our ambition was to double that in 2022 but the response has been even better than we hoped,” said Boezeman. “117 centres and 681 girls are involved this year. And these are in every state.” 

Grace and Claudia

Pleasingly, around 50% of clubs involved are in rural and regional areas, including the nine-hole Gove Golf Club in the Northern Territory, making the program one of inclusion and diversity. Many of these clubs have had little to no access to formal funding previously. 

Support for the program has come from all parts of the golf industry with the added bonus of a generous private benefactor and sponsorship by technology company NEXTGEN Group. 

The excitement of the girls present was palpable on the final day as they prepared to assist their players to compete for the trophy. And the players responded in kind, generously fielding questions and chatting with the girls throughout the day. As an exercise in camaraderie between girls at different levels of the sport looking out for each other, it was the clear winner of the day.

Amongst the caddies were Emily and Claudia (*surnames not included here) who caddied respectively for Kirsten Rudgeley and runner-up Grace Kim. 

These two girls represent more than just themselves, their families and their golf clubs; they represent the future of women’s golf as much as the stars for whom they so willingly gave their time. And they showcase what the AGF AJGSP is about.

Emily has had two forays into golf, the first through a junior program at Yarra Bend Golf Course, but gave the game away for around four years as she became involved in more high octane activities such as dancing and netball. However, the opportunity to apply for a scholarship came along as she was starting to regain interest in golf. And the subsidy provided by the AGF AJGSP made re-entry to the game even more palatable to the family. 

Emily finds golf relaxing and the golf course a peaceful place to be, especially when it’s not busy. She and dad Daniel will often go out on course at Kooringal on Friday evenings to just enjoy being together there, Emily playing and Daniel caddying.

Kirsten and Emily holding their trophies

 “We just play off the tee and then play balls to get some situational practice,” said Daniel. This includes trying shots like lofted wedges versus a bump-and-run to see which works best in certain settings, playing several balls in bunkers as well as some chipping and putting. 

This is in keeping with what Boezeman wanted to achieve, that girls not just receive coaching and then go straight home to other sports but have the opportunity to play on course and deepen their love for the game and forge friendships with others like themselves.

“Girls like to hang around together, they like to pal around,” she said. 

The family aspect of golf is also apparent with not just dad caddying and going out on course with Emily but grandmother Morag, a member at Kooringal, ferrying her grand-daughter to the Wednesday afternoon AJGSP clinics conducted by the respected golf coach Jody Hawkins.

Hawkins herself understands a thing or two about women and ‘grass ceilings’, being one of the first two females to graduate as Australian PGA professionals, in 1993. 

Asked by Fox Sports broadcast commentator Ewan Porter how she found being inside the ropes and part of The Athena action, Emily said, “It’s really exciting. The opportunity, and just knowing what it’s actually like, too.”

But did she see herself one day defeating Rudgeley? “No, no way,” she said with a shy but engaging grin. 

Claudia is one of the original scholarship holders at Killara GC, currently in her fourth year with the program. Claudia first started golf at eight years of age. She had previously been in another junior golf program but was surrounded by boys, so when the opportunity for the Killara Junior Girls Scholarship arose, she was keen to apply. 

Under tutelage at clinics at Killara, Claudia’s game improved, evidence being her nett winner result in the Girls 11 years-and-under section at the Jack Newton Junior Golf Foundation Harvey Norman Sydney Week of Golf, played over five rounds at five different courses in the Sydney area.

But her excitement was raised another notch at The Athena. 

In the pro-am she played with qualifier Molly McLean, just a few years older but with significantly more competitive experience. On the first day of the main event, she was invited by Lunn to rake the bunkers after each participant performed her Bunker Challenge Shot. She wore a grin from ear to ear while performing her task assiduously. 

And then, to top it off, she was given the bag of Kim over the matchplay rounds. 

Interviewed by Porter before Kim faced off against Rudgeley, Claudia said enthusiastically, “It’s so exciting to be around all these players. They are so famous. They are amazing. All of them are so nice. And seeing them laugh and have fun, it’s an inspiration. I am so happy to have Grace Kim as my player because she’s so sweet and she is amazingly cool.”  

Needless to say, this unbridled enthusiasm has been noticed by Boezeman, herself a stick of dynamite energy. 

Of Claudia, she said, “Claudia is a very mature girl for her age. Her enthusiasm and passion for golf came out tenfold in the initial interview and in her biography, which was five pages long! She loves golf, she loves Killara, loves the structured pro training program and is making new friends very quickly. She’s a model scholarship winner.”

Mum Joanne, not a golfer – yet – has enjoyed supporting Claudia’s joy in golf and noted at the event that “she’s had a ball!”.

As to The Athena participants themselves, their journey in golf continues and in different ways across the 12. 

Kim, who turned professional in September 2021, will head to the US to join the 2022 Epson Tour, the official developmental tour of the LPGA formerly known as the Symetra Tour.

Athena Heroes Golfing

Kim enjoyed a very successful amateur career which included the 2021 Australian Women’s Amateur (defeating Rudgeley), being a four-time recipient of the Karrie Webb Scholarship and only the second Australian amateur invited to play the Augusta National Women’s Amateur after Julienne Soo in 2019. Soo was also in the field for The Athena 2022. 

Rudgeley will soon become the third Australian to be part of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur tournament being played from March 30-April 2, 2022. After that she heads back to Perth for a few months before returning to the US in June for the US Women’s Amateur before trying tour school qualifying at the end of the year. 

Another of the features of The Athena is to make heroes of local emerging players and there seems little doubt this is the case, with the youngsters from the AGF AJGSP all suggesting they will follow the progress of Rudgeley, Kim and the others with great interest. 

As will we all. 

Photo credit: WPGA Tour of Australasia

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Tee for Two is produced on the Traditional Country of the Boon Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation in Victoria and extends its respect to their Elders, past, present and emerging.