How golf courses can grow the women’s game

By Anya Alvarez
Special to espnW.com

Will the return of golf to the Olympics in Rio bring more attention to women’s golf and grow the game among women? As a former LPGA player, I think giving the sport an international platform certainly won’t hurt women’s golf. But the issues I see internally at golf courses are stagnating its growth.

Many women struggle to find their place at the golf course — they feel intimidated because they believe golf is a “boys club” and wonder where they fit in. This should come as no surprise, because several clubs don’t make women feel welcome.

There are many issues keeping women off the golf course, from intimidation to a lack of tee times.

I’m reminded of a time during my high school golf days. While practicing on the range, an older man approached me and, without permission, put his hands on me and said, “Here, move your hips like this.”

His unwanted touches made me feel so uncomfortable that each time I went to the range thereon, I would isolate myself from the rest of those working on their games. I already had been playing for 10 years and had my sights on the LPGA. That one incident would not derail me from continuing to play, but it did impact me.

Now, imagine a woman on the range who is just starting out and already feels nervous and self-conscious. Imagine her being approached by not one, but two men offering her unsolicited advice and touching her to show her what she’s doing “wrong.”

Some of these women don’t come back as a result of the embarrassment.

Vicki Vanderpool, PGA Junior golf director at Butler Country Club in Pittsburgh, saw this is as a recurring issue and started women’s coaching practicing at her club.

“It’s from 5 to 7 p.m. and ladies can just show up anytime and get help,” Vanderpool said. “It’s on our private teaching range, which I feel will help get women out practicing and comfortable on the range. So many men keep giving ladies advice when they are on the range. And the funny thing, I’ve never seen a woman go up to a man and give him unsolicited advice on his golf swing.”

Having this option has proven successful. Vanderpool said she even sees mothers bringing their daughters out now, because they have a safe place to practice.

I believe all golf courses are trying to figure out where their next customer is coming from, and how they can make an impression. And we know that women are the gatekeepers in the family, and we [EWGA] have always professed that if courses welcome women, their families will also come.
Pam Swenson, CEO of Executive Women’s Golf Association

The idea of having designated areas for women is appealing. And if that’s not possible, signage at the range reading, “No unwanted coaching allowed. Leave that to the professionals” could be beneficial. As a feminist, I believe in teaching women to be strong and to use their voices to say “no” when someone is bothering them. At a golf course or any training facility, though, a woman should not feel forced to do that. This is no different than gyms that have areas for women to protect them from harassment in the gym.

A lack of female professionals also can contribute to fewer women playing.

A representative from the PGA of America said only 948 of the 23,000 members are female. At the end of 2015, the LPGA teaching and club pros program only had 1,700 members total, some of whom are dual members of the PGA and LPGA.

The PGA of America is striving to make its mark in women’s golf, though. In 2014, Suzy Whaley was appointed PGA secretary, the first woman elected a PGA officer in the organization’s history. It’s a small but important step in giving women a voice in the golf world.

In 2015, the PGA partnered with the LPGA to run the Women’s PGA Championship, the LPGA’s second major of the year. Such partnerships bolster a sense of unity between men’s and women’s golf.

Another problem many clubs face is that men’s leagues take over courses. At my golf club, women’s leagues get one day: Monday mornings. The men’s leagues have two days. Most women cannot take off work to play a round of golf on a weekday, unless they are using golf as a way to entertain a client. If courses took the initiative to offer women a 9-hole league in the evenings, they would open themselves up to a new clientele looking to connect with other female golfers.

The Executive Women’s Golf Association (EWGA) has worked diligently to provide more playing opportunities for working women and to connect women who work and love to play golf. There are 100 chapters nationwide and each month during golf season they host more than 7,500 golf, social and networking activities. The 12,000 members of EWGA receive discounts on lessons and greens fees, and special rates on apparel at various golf clubs. The EWGA said on average, a woman who is just beginning golf through their organization spent roughly $2,700 on equipment and activities, and each EWGA chapter generates $591,900 annually in golf-related spending in its community.

“I believe all golf courses are trying to figure out where their next customer is coming from, and how they can make an impression,” Pam Swenson, CEO of EWGA, said. “And we know that women are the gatekeepers in the family, and we [EWGA] have always professed that if courses welcome women, their families will also come.”

Events19, founded by Donna Hoffman, hosts clinics and 9-hole outings for beginners and experienced players. After the golf excursion, the women attend happy hour and partake in professional development activities, like learning how to close a deal on the golf course with a client.

“The first thing that attracts women to the game are the people [women, instructors, etc.] and then connecting to the environment around them, whether it’s the golf course, the facility and its accommodations,” Hoffman said. “More importantly, time is a commodity for women and I want our events to knock things off their to-do list, like meeting other professional women or fitting in exercise instead of having to go to the gym.”

Hoffman said many courses are eager to bring her in and see the value of having women at their course. “The courses just need a little nudging, but most are open to suggestions on how to cater to women better.”

Catherine Kim, director of player development at TPC Summerlin in Las Vegas, said she was brought in to help restructure her club’s women’s programs.

“I do a Get Golf Ready program for women called Divots and Divas,” Kim said. “It’s an hour long session that lasts six weeks and helps women get acquainted with golf. They also get an alcoholic beverage of their choice. They sell out so quickly and we keep wondering where all these women are coming from, but they want to learn. The fact they are socializing with other women while learning a sport, I believe, is a key to the success of my program.”

It appears the simple thing courses need to do is show they care about women. If golf clubs begin to acknowledge women and address the issues that cause insecurity and reluctance to play, they will garner a new wave of women who will feel respected on the course, and they’ll continue to play and pay.