Date: July 30, 2018
Author: Damian Brown

Hooked on golf in the outback

Each year, the Queensland Women’s Sand Green Championship is played in outback towns across Queensland. Golfers from all over our vast state come together at the championship in a celebration of life and friendships made over the years.

Merle Vandersee, Mary Sutherland and Robyn Stephens are three unique ladies united by a lifetime of living in Outback Queensland and sharing a passion for golf, a sport that has nurtured their competitive spirits and supported their need for friendship and socialisation.

Collectively, they have played golf for over 129 years and each has played their role in spreading the word and growing the game of golf across the outback.

Mary Sutherland has played golf since 1983, has been the Treasurer of Tambo Golf Club for 31 years as well as Treasurer of the local Racing Club.

Merle Vandersee has played golf since 1974 and participated in every Women’s Sand Green Championship since the inaugural 1988 Championship at Barcaldine. She is a Life Member at the Clermont Golf Club and a current member at Burrum District Golf Club.

Robyn Stephens (OAM) has played golf since 1958, is a 4th generation Winton resident, a 2nd generation Member and Secretary of the Winton Golf Club and is the Event Co-ordinator for the Winton Outback Festival.

The Women’s Sand Green Championship, this year played in Tambo, reunites these ladies to celebrate their love of golf and community.

Each of these ladies has their own story to share about how they became hooked on the game of golf.

“I used to ride horses and that was a costly sport – one day a friend of mine needed a partner in a mixed golf day and he coaxed me into coming out to play and that was that – I was hooked,” said Mary.

Merle Vandersee had a different introduction to the sport.

“We were graziers and famers on a large property outside Clermont and had to drive our two girls 14 miles to and from the school bus stop every day. Eventually we decided to buy a house in Clermont to be closer to the children’s school,” Merle said.

“My husband suggested that we should become in involved with a sport, like football. I remember going to one football game and my husband was almost hit over the head with an umbrella because I was yelling so much.”

“In 1974, there was an older gentleman giving free golfing lessons at the Clermont Golf Club – he was doing it out of the goodness of his heart – we went along and that was that – I was hooked,” she said.

Robyn Stephens love of golf was passed down to her by family.

 “My mum played golf and I used to follow her around the Winton Golf Course, which back then was about 8 kilometres out of town,” Robyn said.

“I was a 10-year-old in 1959 when Norman Von Nida (Past Australian Golf Professional) did a Western Queensland Tour. I remember my mum asking Norman Von Nida if he could do anything for me to get me into golf and with that he organised a set of clubs for me and that was that – I was hooked.”

But the love of the sport is not the only reason these three ladies have kept playing throughout the years.

Engagement with the community, friendships built and an outlet from the isolation of the outback has kept not only Mary, Merle and Robyn coming back to the sport but many others as well. And the Women’s Sand Greens celebrates Queensland’s outback golfing community.

Merle Vandersee was instrumental in co-ordinating the first championship in 1988 as President of the Central Queensland Ladies District.

“It was the ladies from the Barcaldine Golf Club who contacted the district back in 1988 to investigate the possibility of creating a Women’s Championship like that of men,” Merle said.

“After 30 years of Women’s Sand Greens, we haven’t looked back.”

The story of how Mary Sutherland, Merle Vandensee and Robyn Stephens became hooked on golf in the outback and the challenge of how we get more ladies into playing the game is central to the future of golf across our vast nation.

“People’s time these days is conflicted with TV, social media or travel and we need to be more considered when marketing the game of golf as a recreational alternative through fun days, clinics and school engagement,” Robyn said.

“In small outback communities, most things happen by word of mouth and when someone comes to town, we always ask them if they play golf. If they say, ‘yes’ we jump on them and if they said ‘no’ we romance them.”