Can Women Rescue Golf? An SCGA Roundtable Discussion
The golf industry faces a disturbing trend: There are less golfers filling up tee sheets. According to the National Golf Foundation, from 2010 to 2015, the amount of recorded play dropped by nine million to 466 million rounds, and the number of golfers dropped two million to 24 million.
It’s a trend that’s front and center in the minds of course owners, teaching pros, equipment manufacturing executives and thousands of others in the industry. Those “growing the game” commercials we see on golf telecasts may tug at our heartstrings, but they’re ultimately aimed at the wallets of those who work in the industry.
To many, the golf industry in the U.S. has only itself to blame for missing a large, untapped market — women. Females account for 51 percent of the U.S. population but less than one in four golfers are women. In Sweden, to name one first-world country relatively new to the game, women make up one-third of all golfers.
More troubling, however, is that in the 40 years since Title IX became law in the U.S., more than four generations of women have grown up playing sports. About 75 million women are now of the prime age (30-64) to choose golf as their chief form of recreation. But few do: 5.7 million, according to NGF stats, or approximately one in 15 women in that demographic. That means younger women are not as involved compared to previous generations, making for a darker future.
The most obvious reasons for golf’s decline include the time it takes to play 18 holes as well as the long learning period it takes to become proficient. Those two issues work against the modern and growing economic demand for two-income families. All parents find less free time now for such a time-intensive activity.
There also is what many women who try the game call the “discomfort with the golf experience.” Those are code words for a male-dominated industry that doesn’t always make the game more welcoming. Those impressions can range from an overly inquisitive look from a golf shop employee to the less-than-friendly reception a woman can get on the first tee when paired with male players.
To address these issues, plusFORE asked seven people with deep ties in the golf industry for their opinion on what it will take to bring more women into the game.
• Nikki Gatch, PGA Player Development Regional Manager for the Southern California and Aloha (Hawaii) chapters
• Susan Roll, owner of Carlsbad Golf Center
• Maureen “Mo” Martin, LPGA member and 2014 Women’s British Open champion
• Stina Sternberg, editor at Golf Digest
• Holly Geoghegan, public relations specialist who also hosts the Golfinsiders radio show on iHeartradio.
• Sean Toulon, longtime golf equipment executive and club designer who now works with Callaway Golf.
• And Ron McPherson, president of golf apparel company Antigua
How can we start making the game more attractive to women?
Holly Geoghegan: We’ve had these grandiose national programs, but what about basic
marketing programs at the courses like, ‘Women Welcome!’ Where’s that campaign? Some time ago, I pulled off the beaten path and into this little public course in Oregon. They had this huge board in the pro shop listing junior rates and times, and family rates. I had never seen anything like that before. And they encouraged families — fivesomes and sixsomes. Must be what golf was like in the 1950s. They get it.
Stina Sternberg: Lose all the inherent sexism that still exists openly. I still can’t play in any tournaments on the weekend at my club because I don’t have a penis. All the women’s events, especially at private clubs, are on Thursdays, when I’m at work. Private golf may only make up 20 percent of rounds played in America, but it’s still the ‘ruling body.’ All the attitudes, traditions and images of the game come from the private golf sector, and that’s still stuck in 1950s in many parts of the country.
Maureen “Mo” Martin: Many of my mentors were male and very positive influences in my life and career. There were, however, humorous reminders of how few women were playing when I was growing up. For instance, most of my trophies growing up had a male golfer on them. My mom would make a Post-it note skirt and tape it around the figure so we could differentiate my trophies from my brother’s.
Susan Roll: We are lacking female golf professionals as mentors. The top jobs in the industry have always been male-dominated. It’s changing now, with Suzy Whaley [secretary of the PGA of America, the first woman to ever be elected as an officer]. In the Southern California PGA, the women’s roles are growing. And our own slate of tournaments for women in Southern California is growing as well.
What can be done to get the 30-to-64 woman to the course and stay in the game?
Geoghegan: “Free babysitting. Come out Wednesday nights and we have free child care.” Have you ever seen that at a club?
Gatch: The more instructors who can get their students (and not just women) onto the course during instruction, the more likely the students will convert to golfers. We have a discrepancy. One in five women play, but in terms of rounds only one in six is played by women. Facilities that offer alternatives to the 18-hole round are seeing more participation from women, and “Nine & Dine” promotions as well as three- or six-hole options.
Roll: We don’t send a new skier down a double-diamond slope, so why do have novice golfers start on difficult courses where they aren’t prepared to play? In the pro shop, we have to get better and pair people up so they’re all comfortable. We all have to learn to not cringe when we play with people who are learning. It’s an attitude change. ‘Hey, let’s help each other and still have a good time.’ And it’s all about, ‘Keep up or pick up if out of the hole.’ Women work very well with those things.
Ron McPherson: The ‘golf experience’ discomfort factor has had a greater effect on female enthusiasts because golf has been a male-dominated sport and most facilities are male-centric, from food and beverage to the golf shop to the locker rooms. We believe the industry has recognized the challenges and is taking very positive steps to make golf more attractive to female players.
Geoghegan: I was playing in an event with a woman and she had a miserable time, carding 9s and worse. The course had learner tees, so I told her to play from there — like about 150 or even 100 yards in. She went from having the body language of it being the worst day of her life to being able to get on the green in two. She was with us. It’s all about being able to have fun and feel like you’re competing.
Sean Toulon: I think we need to dig deeper into the performance needs of all golfers, and in particular women. Typically, we will see lower swing speeds and a much shallower angle of attack. From a ball flight perspective, this type of swing generally can benefit from higher launch angles and more spin. We would also look at designing clubs that would produce very different gaps between clubs than players with faster speeds. In some cases, this could lead to fewer than 14 clubs in a player’s bag, or golf clubs that might be designed to hit very specialized shots — very different than what is out in the market today.
You have a female friend who is thinking of taking up golf. What are some things you would say to encourage her?
Sternberg: The recreation reasons are simple: Exercise, camaraderie, competitive kick and fun. If you like to challenge yourself, there’s nothing better. Golf is something you can excel at no matter how late you start and no matter how ‘athletic’ (or not) you are. But for a 25-year-old just starting her career, golf is also a must-have if you want to be a part of the business conversations that happen on the golf course with clients, superiors, etc. In most industries, it gives you a huge leg up on your peers who don’t play golf.
Roll: Every round is different, a way to exercise your brain and consider strategy. There are a lot of life lessons learned from golf. Integrity and honesty, how to get along with others. Great social skills.
Geoghegan: It’s a great way for post-pregnant women to get back in shape. Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson are in their 30s and 40s and both are talking about being in the best shape of their lives. That can appeal to women, too.
Gatch: There has been a great increase in junior girls’ participation, and I personally believe that will coincide with an increase in participation among women. Women (mothers) will easily see the value and benefit of their children playing golf, and thus will want to join.
Sternberg: If you have kids, golf is the one sport that you can play with your family until the day you croak. Where else do you have your kids’ undivided attention for four hours?
What can be done to attract that ever-elusive millennial woman?
Gatch: Professionals and facilities are offering welcoming programs for women and seeing great success. Social and group settings to learn the game are the most appealing to women. This is evident in some stats from Get Golf Ready [a PGA initiative] where more than 60 percent of participants are women, and more than 83 percent of the students stay in the game.
McPherson: The PGA of America has also put together excellent programs to educate the PGA professional on the challenges facing female golfers and the industry in general regarding participation.
Roll: I have been working on golf programs in local schools in Orange County and north San Diego County. We’re growing that and finding good coaches. Women’s participation
is growing around the world — 30 to 40 percent of golfers in Korea are women, and in Germany it’s 30 percent.
Toulon: I don’t think the [private] club concept will die out, but it is beginning to evolve. Our society is less formal than it once was but people still have a need to belong to groups where their interests are shared. The role of a club can be very important. The evolution will make it more fun, more inviting, more inclusive and less formal, and with the current supply and demand balance, more affordable.
McPherson: The popularity of women’s golf will get a great boost with the inclusion of golf in the Olympics, inspiring little girls to be the next Stacy Lewis, Lexi Thompson, Lydia Ko or Brooke Henderson. Even if they don’t get to those competitive levels they will continue to enjoy the game.
Martin: One way we’ve made a big impact is through the LPGA-USGA Girls Golf Program. Every year, all the players continue to support this initiative. In 2010, 5,000 girls were involved, and now upwards of 50,000 are involved. We are all proud of a 900-percent increase, and look forward to seeing all those little girls dream big.