Tony Dear: What Women Want (from golf)

Four years ago, the green jackets at Augusta National Golf Club, voted to give Condoleeza Rice and Darla Moore a blazer of their own, making them the club’s first ever female members. The move came nine and a half years after Martha Burk had picked a fight with then ANGC club chairman, Hootie Johnson, when she demanded the club admit women members, and demonstrated outside the gates (actually in a small lot out of sight of the entrance) on the first day of the 2003 Masters.

Despite the amount of coverage she stimulated in the press nationwide, the feminist rabble-rouser failed to rouse much of a rabble – just 40 or so fellow protestors one of whom was an Elvis impersonator who figured the whole scene was so hectic and disorderly it “needed an Elvis sighting”. Mac Gaddy admitted he wasn’t really there to support Burk but rather score some tickets. “If anybody’s going to get a ticket today, then it’s the King,” he said, before striking a karate pose and bursting into song – a nicely-performed rendition of ‘It’s Now or Never’.

It’s unthinking and a little inconsiderate perhaps, but you try stifling laughter when picturing an Elvis impersonator singing ‘It’s Now or Never’ in front of a soapbox manned (womanned?) by someone very clearly committed to their cause. Don’t worry though, that’s not half as discourteous as the dozens of Masters patrons who aimed abuse at Burk as they walked or drove by, remonstrating that the club wasn’t breaking any laws and that it was entitled to its single-gender membership policy.

No major surveys were carried out, but it was clear from the general mood in the newspapers, golf publications and 19th holes around the country few people had little sympathy for Burk, who was seen as something of a meddlesome busy-body (Burk was in the news again recently when she called upon the USGA to move the 2017 US Women’s Open away from Trump National Bedminster which had been awarded the championship in 2012).

Had the arena been politics, educational establishments, or the work-place, Burk’s stance would have been considered perfectly appropriate, of course. But this was golf. And, as the title of a recent Links Magazine article suggests, golf has long had an awkward and uncomfortable relationship with the fairer sex.

It could have been so different. Probably the earliest image of a woman playing golf is a 1567 portrait of Mary Queen of Scots addressing her ball in the sand at St. Andrews surrounded by noblemen and courtiers. Mary was executed at the age of 44 for her role in a plot to kill her first cousin once removed -Queen Elizabeth I of England. Had she lived to a ripe old age, however, and not been confined to house arrest (more of a castle-arrest actually) for many years prior to her death, and had she been spotted on the links five times a week for 30 or 40 years, she might now be lauded as the patron saint of lady golfers, and the game might have progressed down an entirely different path with men and women playing the ancient game on more of an equal footing than they do now.

Instead, golf, like most things in this male-dominated world, became a predominantly male game, and the USGA, PGA, LPGA and various other organizations are now faced with the considerable task of attracting more women to the 1st tee, and somehow breaking down barriers that have grown through decades of exclusion.

How did that exclusion manifest itself? Usually by way of male-only codes at the game’s most famous clubs – the Royal & Ancient (St. Andrews), Augusta National, The Honorary Company of Edinburgh Golfers (Muirfield), Royal Troon, and Royal St George’s where an infamous sign that read ‘No Dogs, No Women’ once stood in the car park. That’s right, not only were women once barred from the Kent club – venue for 14 Open Championships, they were also given lower billing than animals.

So how should golf’s leaders attempt to fill tee-sheets with as many Bobbis as Bobs, Robyns as Robins, and Samanthas as Samuels?
For starters, the term ‘male only’ needs to be consigned to a deep, dark place in golf’s history books and viewed with as much derision as the ‘Caucasians only’ clause the PGA of America wrote into its by-laws in 1943 and eventually removed 18 years later. In 50 years’ time, people need to be shaking their heads at the very thought of famous major championship venues once prohibiting women from becoming members.

Augusta National, the Royal and Ancient, Royal Troon and Royal St. George’s do now have women members thankfully, and though a wealthy and well-connected individual like Darla Moore joining Augusta National is not going to have much effect on female golf participation in the US, UK, or anywhere else for that matter, her being able to drive up Magnolia Lane, play the course on which the Masters is contested, and eat in the whitewashed, antebellum plantation clubhouse is certainly better for golf than keeping her on the outside.

Likewise, the R&A’s decision in February 2015 to invite seven decorated women to become honorary members (seven others had already joined via an accelerated admissions process) didn’t send a multitude of women and girls rushing to the nearest driving range, but no longer would a young lady curious about the stick and ball game she saw on TV open a book or magazine and discover that women were forbidden access to many of the clubs where this game was played. She wouldn’t feel disheartened, dispirited, and rejected, at the very first hurdle.

Golf also needs to deal with problem-areas existing players find frustrating. Specifically, it simply has to quicken up. If men, uni-taskers by and large, have trouble with four-hour rounds, how do you think a multi-tasking woman who has a dozen things on her to-do list feels?

It needs to be easier too. Club manufacturers do a good job making clubs that are appropriate for women golfers, but most course’s forward tees just aren’t forward enough. Clubs have certainly made an effort down the years to position forward tees correctly rather than carelessly putting them at the end of the regular tees or 10-20 yards ahead, but there’s still work to be done.

In a 2005 Golf 20/20 report entitled ‘What Women Want – from Golf’ (WWWfG), golf course designer Alice Dye said the average women golfer drives the ball about 130 yards (it’s maybe 135 now with improvements in technology), meaning forward tees placed a short distance in front of the regular tees are more or less useless, making the course far too difficult for the vast majority of female golfers.

Really, a new woman golfer needs to be playing from 4,000-4,500 yards, maybe even 3,500. She can always move back as she becomes more proficient, but the 4,000-yard option should be there. “Having tees appropriate to a woman’s game encourages participation and gives women an opportunity to have the same thrill of making a par or birdie that men have,” the Golf 20/20 report stated. “It will bring them back to the course.”

More important than any of this, however, what really prevents a woman from ever returning to a golf course, is the typical male golfer’s somewhat boorish attitude toward her. The WWWfG study stated clearly that the ‘difference between getting a woman to the golf course once and turning her into a Best Customer has everything to do with how she is treated’.

Some clubs get it right, of course, treating the female with the same respect they do the male member/visitor, but far too many get it horribly wrong. You may be aware that, as a rule, women like shopping, and respond well to good customer service. If the professional or assistant in the pro shop remains behind the counter, does not make eye-contact, and has an impatient tone in his voice, the female customer is not going to spend any money in that shop, and probably won’t return to the course any time soon, if ever. Because the pro shop experience is very important to her, she is highly unlikely to recommend her friends go to that course no matter how good the layout is.

And sadly, even if the club professional acts…er…professionally towards his female customers, all his good work will be spoiled if the lady encounters a rampant misogynist out on the course. Oafish remarks about how far she’s hitting it, how good/poor her etiquette is, and how quickly/slowly she’s playing are not helpful. There’s not a lot the club or pro can do about this, so perhaps the onus is on the woman to ignore the ignorance of fools.

Okay, so you provide good service in the pro shop, and your tee markers are well-placed. What now? How do you actually get the women to the course in the first place?

Combining nine holes with wine-tasting events seems a very popular and effective way to attract females. Women-only tournaments, women-only leagues, and women-only beginner classes and clinics might be others, although co-ed events and classes should be offered too, because we don’t want to separate the sexes too much.

Last year, I was a volunteer coach at six Get Golf Ready (a PGA of America grow-the-game initiative) classes, and was pleased to see a mixed group split right down the middle – five men, five women. It was clear the women tended to group together, assuming perhaps they would lag behind the men. But that absolutely was not the case. Because the men were every bit as inexperienced as the ladies, there were no pre-conceived notions about how this should go. When someone hit a bad shot, or failed to grasp a certain point, we all laughed together (well, the coaching staff didn’t really laugh, just smiled along with everyone else).

I made the point to the ladies, who were obviously concerned about playing badly and embarrassing themselves, that the only people who really cared if they played poorly would be themselves and the folk in the group behind if they were being held up. It’s the same with driving slowly on the freeway, I said. By all means drive at 30mph if that’s what makes you feel comfortable, but do not force those behind you to go that slow if they don’t want to. Similarly, you should never feel rushed or stressed on the golf course. Take your time. And if by taking your time you hold up the group behind, just let them play through.

But I’m off point.

Increasing female participation in golf is a noble, but arcane, goal that may prove unobtainable to many that aim for it. Really, we can only be sure of two things at the outset – 1) You’re not going to make a woman want to play golf if she has no interest in the game, and 2) If she has a great deal of interest in the game, visits a course to try it for the first time, and comes away feeling slighted or insulted, she more than likely isn’t going back. What it boils down to essentially, is making her feel welcome and comfortable.

It’s different with juniors who probably aren’t as sensitive to the selfish, ill-mannered behavior of some male adults. But while making them feel welcome and comfortable is important, certainly, the emphasis has to be on fun. There are just too many options these days for kids who aren’t necessarily eager to emulate their fathers or grandfathers by playing golf. Have them attend a lesson or camp with a pro who makes classes sound like school and is a little too technical, and the chances are high that kid is going to go home and inform his/her parents he/she will no longer be playing that dumb game; “so don’t ever sign me up for it again”, or something like that.

Growing the game, and attracting the women and juniors it sadly lacks isn’t easy, but it’s not the rocket science some organizations tend to make it either. To be fair, I think Get Golf Ready, the First Tee, PGA Junior Leagues, and most of the other initiatives are very well-conceived and do exactly what they are supposed to do. But at the end of the day, week, month, year, etc. the participant has to feel welcomed and accepted.

Why would they stay if they didn’t?

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonyjdear

Tony Dear

Many moons ago, Tony played on the Liverpool University golf team at Hoylake, and then became an apprentice professional in Sussex, England where he taught the game, regripped members’ clubs, and listened to golfers dissect every one of the 112 shots they had just taken. He loved it, but unfortunately had a few health issues which meant he had to write about the game instead. He’s a former golf correspondent of the New York Sun, and currently contributes to the R&A’s Open Championship magazine, Links, and a few others. He still plays golf occasionally, but is…how do you put it…very bad.

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