THE UNWRITTEN STORY OF KIRSTEN RUDGELEY
Western Australian amateur Kirsten Rudgeley has followed a brilliant 2021, in which she claimed two international amateur victories and a berth in the AIG Women’s Open, by winning the television event The Athena and finishing top-ten in the Augusta National Women’s Amateur. Her dream of a professional career is now well in her sights.
The story of Kirsten Rudgeley has a beginning, but not an end. How could it? At 21, Australia’s highest ranked female amateur golfer is still on the threshold of a career that has already taken her from the golf courses of Western Australia to the tough links of Carnoustie and the fabled grounds of Augusta National. Yet there is more to come.
Much more if you ask any member of her team. It’s a tight knit group, Team Kirsten, and one which believes completely that her dream of a career in the professional ranks is not just achievable but edging ever closer.
This from Brett Rumford, himself a six-time winner on the European Tour and a confidante of Kirsten. “She’s got the goods. There’s a lot of people who are aware of her already and if they’re not, they should be.”
Rumford and Kirsten have played a lot together, mostly as mates playing competitive games but there’s a bit of short game wisdom and tour life experience tossed in there too.
Of her lofty goals to play the LPGA within three years and be world number one within ten, her coach, the respected Craig Bishop, said: “If she just wanted to play the LPGA, she could do that right now. And I wouldn’t teach her if she didn’t want to be number one. I think she can do it. Someone’s going to do it; it may as well be her.”
Kirsten’s game has been on a steady upward trajectory for some time but its incline has gone ever more sharply up in the last 18 months as she has racked up achievement after achievement.
Her win in the television event The Athena earlier this year brought her considerable public attention, compounded by an earlier seventh at the inaugural WPGA Championship, a seventh in the Vic Open and later by a tied-eighth finish at the prestigious Augusta National Women’s Amateur. Add in two international amateur victories in 2021, a berth at the 2021 AIG Women’s Open and successive Karrie Webb Scholarships in 2021 and 2022 and there’s a sense that her story is moving towards its climax.
But before we get to where Kirsten is headed, let’s take a look at where she’s been, the genesis of this story in the making.
It began in Essex in the UK where Donna and Paul Rudgeley’s second child, a sister to Ben, was born in 2001. Initially bald-headed like many babes, Kirsten developed a head of curls around two years of age which prompted her grandfather to nickname her ‘Curly’, a moniker which has stuck with her since.
‘When it’s short, she looks like ‘Annie’,” offered Donna, a reference to the curly-haired moppet who featured in eponymous musicals and movies highlighting her plucky indomitable spirit. Perhaps the character of Kirsten’s own story was formed right there in those curls – the bold, fearless, resolute hero determined to make her way in the world, her way.
By the time the Rudgeley family moved to Perth, Western Australia, when Kirsten was four, she had already been introduced to golf. Paul, himself off very low single figures, started both Kirsten and Ben with plastic clubs and balls indoors, like many families.
But his influence would prove to be both profound and a great foundation.
“I had both of them grip it properly from the start. For Kirsten, I built a club from an old hickory shafted club with a wooden head which had about a seven-iron loft. She could swing this properly and be in control.
“I believe the most important thing is gripping and swinging correctly and hitting somewhere near the middle of the face at that age. Getting the ball to fly properly can come later.”
As their ability naturally improved, so did Paul progress them further – but still with fun the focus.
“Once they got to a level where they could flight the ball, we used large football fields and deliberately had me as a moving target they could aim at while I picked up balls. This had to stop once Ben got a bit too good and would hit me too often.”
By now members at Wanneroo Golf Club along with their dad, the youngsters played a lot of chipping games, partly as something they could do without disturbing other members and also because Paul saw it as an important skill for kids, a way to improve their scoring before they grew into more length.
That early short game work has paid dividends, with Kirsten’s skills and imagination around the green now lauded as one of the major strengths to her game.
Both Kirsten and Ben played a number of other sports until for Kirsten, the inevitable clash occurred between her two favourites, golf and soccer. Happily, golf won.
She joined Mount Lawley Golf Club, home of a number of well known players over the years – Nick O’Hern, Rumford and Hannah Green among them – and a club with a great junior program, a particularly high number of girls engaged. This program is headed by Sue Thomson who has dedicated much time to both Golf WA and School Sports WA and is an important part of the support group around Kirsten.
“Sue knows Kirsten inside out and they have such a good relationship and friendship. Kirsten will pick up the phone as soon as she’s off the course and speak to her. Sue’s like her other mum,” said Donna.
Joining Mount Lawley was an opportunity to see where she stood in relation to the games of other girls. It soon became apparent that it stood up very well. Around 16 or 17 years of age, the idea that she could take this from pastime to a professional career began to germinate.
The important relationship with Bishop commenced and he helped her develop good patterns and build on the foundation initiated by Paul.
Western Australia, unlike the eastern states, does not have formal pathways for talented young golfers. What it does have, however, is an incredibly supportive culture from established players and clubs towards emerging players.
“The great thing about WA is that mentoring is pretty strong. It’s one thing to have heroes but to have someone talking to you, throwing questions at you, bouncing ideas, thoughts, feelings, it just accelerates the learning process,” said Rumford.
“And it goes to the clubs as well. Kirsten can play Joondalup, Meadow Springs, Cottesloe, Nedlands, Secret Harbour, Royal Perth, Royal Fremantle, The Cut….and every course in between will be more than welcoming to have her come and play free of charge. There’s just so much collective support around our elite athletes.”
The obvious downside to lack of formal programs is the financial strain on parents to support their kids’ sporting dreams. In the case of the Rudgeleys, it’s just part of their commitment to their daughter.
Donna: “The one thing I want is for her to be happy following her dreams. Simple as that.”
To this end, she accompanies Kirsten for most of the travelling required while Paul works to keep the finances afloat.
Late 2019 saw Kirsten’s playing resume begin to build more seriously, kicking off by becoming the first woman to make the cut (off the back tees) at the WA Open, a feat she repeated the following year. She also won her second and third WA Amateur titles in 2019 and 2020, as well as the 2020 Port Phillip Open Amateur and Victorian Amateur, the 2021 Rene Erichsen Salver and the 2021 North Shore Classic in New Zealand.
This is when it becomes even more interesting. Victories at the 2021 Helen Holm Scottish Women’s Open Amateur Strokeplay Championship at Royal Troon followed by the English Women’s Amateur Championship – where she produced birdies at the 35th and 36th holes to stay in the championship match and then another at the first extra hole to win – were impressive, showing class and composure.
Her then qualifying for the 2021 AIG Women’s Open at Carnoustie by tying third at the Final Qualifying round prompted Karen Lunn, CEO of WPGA Tour of Australasia and herself a winner of the 1993 Women’s Open, to say, “I think Kirsten’s the real deal. I really do. She’s a star of the future.”
At The Athena, the innovative WPGA made-for-television event in which 12 competitors – amateurs and professionals – compete across two days with different formats, Kirsten’s refined short game and imagination around the greens was ideally suited to the first day and she duly won the day’s $5000 prizemoney. A recent rule change meant that despite being an amateur, she was able to keep it.
The second day, seeded matchplay, suited her straight driving and even temperament, Kirsten finally conquering Grace Kim in a five-putt playoff for victory, the first amateur winner of this event.
At the Augusta National Women’s Amateur – excited rather than intimidated – Kirsten performed well over the first two rounds at Champions Retreat, qualifying for the final round at the hallowed home of the Masters.
“On the second day, I was only three shots behind and thinking I could win this. And at Augusta, I actually played quite well, just a few more putts that could have gone in and that would have changed a whole lot,” was her calm summation of an experience that had her father ‘like a kid in a toy shop’ and her mum putting herself behind a tree to hide tears of pride as her daughter teed off the first in front of around 50,000 spectators.
Further indication of Kirsten’s self-belief as well as skill was her over-riding the suggestion of her 25-year Augusta caddie veteran Russell to putt from off the green at one point. Kirsten thought she could stop a chip but not a putt. “OK, Curly, you got it” was his reply. She put it to four inches.
“The crowd went crazy,” said Donna. “For me, it’s probably the most inspiring shot she’s ever hit in her life.”
So, where now?
After a couple of stops for WPGA events in NSW and some representative teams golf, firstly for WA in Interstate Teams and then for Australia in the Queen Sirikit Cup in Singapore, possibly for the last time, Kirsten is headed to the US mid-year. Here she will attempt qualifying for the U.S. Women’s Amateur at Chambers Bay in June and finally realise the benefits of her Karrie Webb Scholarship, something she was unable to do first time round.
Along with fellow 2022 recipient Caitlin Pierce from Royal Adelaide, Kirsten will receive mentoring from Webb, a trip to the KPMG PGA Championship at Bethesda and funds to further support international travel experience.
“It’ll be nice to finally get to meet Karrie,” said Kirsten. “She sends me text messages whenever I do well, so I’m really looking forward to it.”
And then, the big one, attempting to qualify for the LPGA Tour at year’s end. It’s a big challenge but her team certainly thinks that she can rise to it comfortably.
Here’s what they think will drive her:
“A will to win, lack of fear. The more she’s up against it, the better she is.” Paul Rudgeley.
“Her calm demeanour and the facility to let a bad shot go. She’s got a lot of guts, my daughter.” Donna Rudgeley.
“She’s got a good golf IQ, that’s for sure. Her character and her willingness to learn. She’s been receptive from the start and she’s really good at processing information and then putting it into her own way. She’s got plenty of equanimity. She’s tenacious and gritty. And her short game; as the courses get harder and harder, she’s going to be able to separate herself just because of that. There’s a few things we need to get on top of, then I think you won’t be able to stop her.” Craig Bishop.
“Her golfing IQ is tremendous, up there with some of the best I’ve played with. She never really shoots herself in the foot, she’s very calm and collected. Her drive to win, she’s a true competitor. She’s an amazing girl, very funny. It’s not that funny when you have to hand over 20 bucks to her though. She’s a killer, a fun-loving killer!” Brett Rumford.
“She’s her own person, comfortable in her own skin. She never lets things bother her too much, she just gets on with it. She’s always thinking about what the next shot’s going to look like and, more than that, she can make it do what she wants to do. And she makes really good choices about the people who are important to her.” Sue Thomson.
And Kirsten herself? Well, she’s not one to get over-excited about the journey so far because, to her, that’s what it is. A journey. And the destination is being a tour player.
When she speaks of her achievements as an amateur, it’s always that they are highlights on the way. And her language in reference to tour life is not ‘if’ but ‘when’.
“I was happy to be there as an amateur so when I do turn pro, it won’t be something completely different. I’ll have been there, done that, so I will know what it’s going to be like.”
“I don’t play anything by chance. I work hard but I’m not one to get stressed. I just see what happens and that’s it.”
“You just have to work hard and do the right things. And hopefully your time will come.”
This story is not yet completed because there is so much more to come, so much more for our main character to try, defy and achieve. But the first chapters have been so compelling that we eagerly await the next and feel in our hearts that, come what may, everything will turn out well for her, for surely she herself has written upon her stars that it will.
First published in Golf Australia magazine June 2022.
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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.