Nikki Wilson loves golf. As in – loves, loves, LOVES golf!
Ask her what she loves about it so much and her answer is immediate: “It’s everything,” she says. “It’s the mental stimulation – that covers the competitive side of me where I’m able to be competitive – with the game, not with individuals. It’s physically demanding but not so demanding that anyone can’t play. The social aspect is the key one, that’s number one. Making new friends, meeting other people and hearing their stories, having a good laugh. It’s the fresh air, the environment. And when I’m out on the golf course I don’t think of anything else. Life is not always a bowl of cherries for anyone; when you’re out there, you just concentrate on playing and connecting with others.”
Such is the level of Nikki’s passion for the game that she wants everyone to have a go. Specifically women and girls, since that’s where she sees the greatest opportunity, both for the game and for women and girls themselves.
Somehow that translated itself into Fairway Birdies, a blog she created to encourage more females into the game. Somehow?
Well, it was not really in her plans.
Nikki’s journey in golf is not an uncommon one. She comes from a golfing family, as many do. Both her parents play and her sister Simone McClure (now Thompson) was an elite player in her youth, representing Victoria in the state team and playing Division One pennant for Victoria Golf Club.
But young Nikki wasn’t into it. “I was playing tennis and doing a lot of running, track and field, netball, that sort of thing.” Family conversations at the dinner table revolving around golf seemed boring to her, although she allowed herself to be persuaded by mum Barbara to attend a clinic and made the occasional foray onto the course, if only to be in everyone’s company. The family connection to golf was only strengthened by her marriage to John, himself a golfer.
The catalyst to get into golf came, as it does for many women, with the realisation that she wanted to try something new, something stimulating, something challenging, something social. The loss of baby daughter Alana at 13 weeks to SIDS combined with her other two children Jeremy and Hannah starting school created a void that needed to be filled – but with what?
Never doubt the power of another mother, in this case her own. “I was just going a bit stir crazy, I needed to get out, and mum just said, ‘right, that’s it, let’s go’ and we went to Ivanhoe and found a clinic and I started there and we had three holes, six holes, nine holes and then I started playing in the ladies’ comp on Wednesdays.
“And the ladies there were awesome. I’d turn up off a handicap of 45 and played with literally anyone who was in my group and met some wonderful women. They took me under their wing and taught me how to play golf, basically.”
What Nikki would later realise was that even though her own entrée to golf was reasonably smooth, that is not necessarily the experience of other women. The mission of Fairway Birdies, indeed of Vision 2025 – Golf Australia’s strategy to raise the participation numbers of females in golf – is to make golf more welcoming and create a great experience.
“It has often been intimidating and difficult for women in the past and they’ve walked away,” Nikki says now. “But it can be simple, because you just need an encourager, the encouragement of someone, the inspiration of someone who is an existing golfer.”
Nikki was relating this to daughter Hannah on a trip between the Mornington Peninsula and her Kew home in late 2017 when Hannah, channelling the enthusiasm and drive of both mother and grandmother, said: “Well, you should do a golf blog.” By the time they reached Melbourne two hours later, there was up and running a website, an Instagram account, a Facebook page and a funky logo.
The response was very positive from family and friends, who all shared Fairway Birdies through their own social media. Great start, but still local.
Ah, but then came the power of another medium – television. In August 2018, Nikki was approached to be part of a lifestyle feature on the Sunday morning edition of the Today show, hosted by journalists Peter Stefanovic and Allison Langdon.
Nikki remembers being approached by one of the show’s producers. “They wanted to set up a live cross. I was in the car, just freaking out, and thinking, ‘are you serious’ and at the same time thinking ‘if I say no, my daughter is going to kill me,’ so I was shaking my head no and saying yes! Anyway, it was awesome because Peter plays golf and it was quite funny and very relaxed.”
The impact was immediate and huge. Over three and a half thousand hits on her website, 70 new subscribers and widespread commentary from around the country on her Instagram page. “I had ladies from Perth, New South Wales, Queensland all commenting, saying, ‘we’re watching you now’, and I didn’t know any of them.”
From this came clinics, also not part of the plan hatched in the car with Hannah.
“The clinics just evolved. At the start it was just a blog, I was just going to write articles on having a bit of fun, on my passion for golf, but I started getting all these messages from women saying, ‘you’ve inspired me, where do I go’? So then I was doing research and looking for places for them to go.”
One of these women was sent to Golf Australia’s Get On Course program, run by Erica Kreymborg, from where she went on to Sandringham. “She met a whole lot of girlfriends there and has already been to Noosa playing golf. It’s all about the integration. They need to be integrated with a group.”
Nikki next approached the renowned Bann Lynch McDade group at Yarra Bend, near her home, with a view to setting up clinics under the Fairway Birdies banner. Happily, the coaching philosophy at Bann Lynch McDade mirrored her own goals.
James Hartley, one of the coaches overseeing beginner clinics at Bann Lynch McDade, says: “Aaron (Shaw) and I have been running beginner clinics since 2013 but over a period of time we had noticed that there was a big drop-off in people returning after their initial clinics and we thought that had a lot to do with the participants being confined to the driving range. They felt they needed to reach a pretty strong level of golf before they proceeded to the golf course.
“So we thought, why not start them on the course, start them really close to the hole and then work their way back. So we taught them to hole a very short putt and then took them out on the course to hole that short putt. The next week we’d work on the chipping green, then go on course, chip onto the green and hole the putts.
“We were getting them comfortable with the idea of being on course, so by the time they finish their first block of four lessons, they’ve spent quite a bit of time out there and made a group of friends with whom they can play. Building their confidence from an early stage is number one, I think. And our return rates are close to 100%, plus five ladies have already gone on to join the Yarra Bend ladies group, which plays on Tuesdays and Fridays.”
Twenty-eight women, an astonishing figure, attended the first Fairway Birdies clinics in October. All have signalled an intention to return to the February Clinics, boosted by an additional 32 women recruited through Fairway Birdies.
It’s all been heady growth in a short time. And the possibilities excite Nikki:
“The Sky’s the limit”
So, what is needed to touch the sky?
“Persistence,” she says. “What I would eventually like is to get the clinic model into areas around Melbourne under the Fairway Birdies banner. North, south, east, west, regional areas and interstate. And because it’s solely based on social media, I also need to get some more followers.
My end goal, my aim, is to have golf clubs, schools, public golf courses use the social media network of Fairway Birdies to attract women and girls.
“What I drive through Fairway Birdies is the inspiration and motivation to do it, and the strength and the skills to make the phone call and just do it. A lot of women are interested but they don’t have the resources I have to find a golf course. It’s about the women in the industry too. Within clubs, we need to be welcoming as well.”
Currently self -funding Fairway Birdies, a decision looms for Nikki as to whether to continue in an altruistic fashion, whether to seek funding under NGO status, or whether to seek a commercial partnership in some form. For the moment, though, she’s just glad to be “taking baby steps and having fun”.
And what of Hannah, the encourager of the encourager? Well, Hannah and some of her friends are doing one of the clinics in March. And that’s Nikki’s doing too. “If it wasn’t for Mum, I probably wouldn’t have tried it, I don’t think. Just watching what she’s been doing has influenced me the most. It’s changing the perspective on golf and once you change your perspective on it, you’re like, well , it has so many good aspects to it, so why not!
“I’m incredibly proud of her and the effort she goes to, to ensure that the community she is building is supported and that she is encouraging as many women as possible. Her vision is coming true and I’m just so happy to see her enjoying herself in everything that she’s doing.”
From unlikely golfer to reluctant golfer to passionate golfer, with a burgeoning golf blog and an upcoming tenure as Women’s Captain at Kingston Heath. That’s the Nikki Wilson story. So far…
A special thank you to Karen Harding at Golf Australia. Karen not only co-editor of the Golf Victoria Magazine but a trail blazer and strong supporter of womens golf and growing the game. I really enjoyed chatting and sharing my ideas with her, there are so many women in the industry just like Karen with the knowledge and belief that this game can be so much bigger and better. It’s a lifestyle that everyone must have an opportunity to experience. Hope you enjoyed the read…