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Barty gives hope to build up a bigger Indigenous golf profile

Andrew Mathieson -

Ash Barty could one day change perhaps one of the last bastions where Indigenous Australia is unable to boast a revered champion figure in one of the more widespread sports.

Famous names in Australian rules football, rugby league, boxing, basketball, and also athletics have always easily rolled of the tongue.

Rugby union is also slowly entering the subconscious and now both soccer and cricket have begun to warm the hearts of many Aboriginal people with some pride.

Even swimming once had Samantha Riley, in breaststroke, standing tall on the back of capturing five world championship golds, a further four at the Commonwealth Games and becoming the first Indigenous person to win an Olympic medal in the pool.

But Barty may well do the impossible in an unexpected swing to the fairways shortly after refuting ongoing speculation of a return to the tennis court two years since almost retiring immediately from the 2022 Australian Open win.

The three-time grand slam winner that extended the title success to the French Open and Wimbledon announced last week that she was preparing to tee-off in the women's New Zealand Open golf from the end of February.

Barty, who first turned professional on the junior circuit at only 14 years old in 2010, once took a break four years into a budding tennis career to play Big Bash cricket.

But the switch only lasted one Australian summer where she resumed tennis again.

An ordinary Twenty20 batting record for the Brisbane Heat of 68 runs at just 11.3 was a glaring example of how difficult it was for the Ngaragu woman to transfer a skillset without prior competitive cricket experience.

But this time it's a substantially different game.

Barty is known to pick up a golf club in between time away from the WTA Tour and decimate club golfers on the Brisbane local scene coming off a handicap of four.

By all reports, the mother of an eight-month-old son took up an invitation from Kiwi organisers to test her mettle first against the full-time pros after improving her own golf game further into early retirement.

Barty is said to have a wealth of Indigenous support at the small, but also a passionate grassroots level of the sport.

Aboriginal Indigenous First Nations Golf founder, John Fejo, was thrilled that a tennis hero of his was trying her luck as a wide-eyed amateur.

"It was awesome to hear Ash Barty's going into play golf and playing in New Zealand first," he said.

"She already comes from that professional background where she's got that platform. Got her name well out there."

The inclusive golf program that Fejo created in 2021 has attracted the backing of Golf Australia to entice more Indigenous players to join others from the mob.

The early rounds of golf started as much for connecting local men together in Innisfail, but has since expanded throughout the rest of North Queensland.

The word on this unique program has spread further than the bush telegraph through good yarns between brothers, and will soon expand to capital cities including Darwin, Brisbane, and Sydney.

The ultimate short-term aim is to create a nationwide Goondoi Cup tournament, "not right now but in the near future", according to Fejo.

"It's something where if we can have an Ash Barty or any respective Indigenous golfer that will come up and represent the mob, and show some sort of direction on how to get there, we'll have a pathway," Fejo said.

Barty's appearance on the first tee will certainly bolster the eyes on TV among curious communities, as much as the eager gallery will follow the 27-year-old's every step across the Queenstown course.

That will be as much of a cultural win for not only the woman who has said that "golf has always been a passion of mine" while collecting 15 WTA career titles, but also for all the players that socialise at every Aboriginal Indigenous First Nations golf event.

"Ash definitely killed it on the tennis arena and so just by her doing that, she's going to create more attention (to golf)," Fejo says.

"I know everyone saw she retired at a young age, but just how successful she was and the mountain that she climbed was just phenomenal for not only our people, but also for our First Nations women as well.

"It doesn't matter what sport she heads into, to be honest, and all the hurdles she has to overcome.

"But not only just being an Indigenous girl that people out there don't realise it's a lot of pressure that's placed on herself and now going into golf."

While there is no pretense that Barty would in fact be a chance to contend for the title on debut, she will play at least the opening three rounds with seasoned professionals in a bid to make the cut and vie for silverware on the final day.

But the fact Tiger Woods once heaped praise on her swing, while she hit balls in a promotion for the 2019 President's Cup as they flew across the Yarra River says that Barty isn't just a gimmick making up the numbers.

"I don't think she cannot handle the pressure because I think she will handle it," Fejo says.

"I know the fact she loves pushing herself to the boundaries and go beyond that to be that person to have others follow."

Skye Lampton is another that will follow Barty's progress with great interest.

The Dagoman, Wardaman and Gurindji woman from Katherine has over the past four years been defying what a golfer looks like.

Lampton wins more tournaments she enters than she doesn't in the Northern Territory.

Then after taking out her first National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Championships title, like the men at the Aboriginal Indigenous First Nations golf events, she found kinship on course.

The latecomer to the game said Barty's presence will "help inspire young Indigenous girls and boys" to take up the sport.

"Not only does this give them someone to look up too, but also gives them motivation to be as good or better," Lampton said.

"In golf, or any sport really, you want to beat the best, and when we look at the best golfers in Australia, there's not that much of representation of Aboriginal people.

"It's not a sport that's popular among young people, let alone Aboriginal people, so the more we have of our mob playing golf, the more representation we will have."

In other words for Indigenous golfers, they can't be what they can't see.

Rugby league had Arthur Beetson and Australian football had Graham 'Polly' Farmer.

They changed perceptions forever, lifting the next generations of footballers to rise above.

While the heartland of golf, full of pricey memberships and stuffy etiquette, may believe it is more a lack of interest or even talent from Indigenous golfers that has held them back, Fejo quickly rubbished the very notion.

"Any blackfellas are visualised people because we're hands-on people with our sport," Fejo said.

"That's really our forte, and education, language, everything else comes after that.

"You put a ball in front of any Indigenous kids and I'll tell you they'll make that ball talk.

"Put a club in their hand and they'll know how to use it."

The most talent lies around golfers as young as 16 that Fejo says could be set to play professionally within 10 years should they receive professional tuition and access to academies to deliver technical advice to start playing seriously on the amateur scene.

He added that greater representation of untapped potential starts from the bottom up, and he should know better than most.

Fejo's family has started running their own school program in North Queensland, with additional cultural guidance from several Elders to "straighten" the players out to deliver a focus on golf.

"Hands down, believe me, hands down there is talent," he says.

"There's just not the avenues.

"They also don't see it as a big thing like AFL or NRL.

"So it's going to be a bit of a journey, but I think we're at least on the right path."

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