A golf course needs to be nothing but a golf course to draw the attention of female players who truly want to play the game. Jane Geddes, executive director of the LPGA Women Who Play (formerly the Executive Women’s Golf Association), says that’s a common misconception.
“There’s this mindset that for golf to be attractive to women, it has to be something different than it is, and the reality is, it doesn’t need to be,” Geddes said. “It just has to be welcoming.”
Geddes, who won 11 times on the LPGA from 1986 to 1994 before retiring from competitive golf in 2003, said she never realized the intimidation that most women feel on a golf course – especially if they’re new to the game. Leaders of the LPGA Women Who Play initiative have worked to quell that discomfort, but Geddes is still shocked by the number of women who don’t think their games are good enough to take to the golf course, where the traffic is predominantly male.
Where did this come from? Geddes chalks it up to the fact that the industry is largely dominated by men. It also could be a case of women being unfamiliar with the territory, and simply misunderstanding.
“If facilities or associations have to market to women, it’s about being welcoming, but it’s also about truly making that invitation,” Geddes said. She points out that it’s a matter of semantics. It’s one thing to casually invite a female golfer to “come play sometime.” It’s a totally different thing to make a tee time.
Among golfers in the U.S., about 5.8 million, or 24 percent, are women, according to the 2018 Golf Industry Report, which recently was released by the National Golf Foundation.
Golf course owners and facilities that try to recruit female players by adding hair salons and other frivolous side entertainment such as frilly golf clothing are missing the mark, especially for women looking to take up the game later in life. Geddes says that most LPGA Women Who Play members are in their 40s, 50s and 60s. Younger players are a target as the newly-named organization tries to broaden its membership base. The LPGA Women Who Play’s stated mission is to encourage its members to play better, play more and make friends in the game.
The 3-year-old Women’s Golf Day movement, celebrated June 5, reflects that effort. Organizers are marketing the game to women through education, not the side aspects of fashion, celebrities and even competition. A sanctioned Women’s Golf Day event must include two hours of a golf-related activity (from playing to lessons to product demos) and two hours of socializing. The initiative reached 20,000 women in 2017.
The women behind the global movement aren’t the only ones who have figured out how to mobilize prospective female players. Education is how Clemmie Perry, founder of the nonprofit Women of Color Golf, grew an empire. Perry once was a corporate training manager for Lockheed Martin. When she was laid off in 2014, she invested her severance package in a program to bring more minority women into a sport she only recently had discovered.
Perry has been a lifelong athlete but didn’t find her way to a golf course until middle age. Part of that was the lack of an invitation.
“When I picked up that set of clubs, it changed my life,” she said. “I immediately lost weight. I started meeting new people. I ended up finally finding a job because of a connection and a network I made through golf. Mentally, physically and economically, all three of those things changed. And that’s when I went, This is powerful.”
Perry, knowing what the challenges were on her own road to the first tee, based Women of Color Golf around learning about the game. She designed the curriculum herself, and classes are small – no more than 10 women. She forged partnerships with Hillsborough Community College in Tampa, Fla., where she is based, and later Topgolf.
“We take them from the very basics – what is a tee time, components of the club, a tour of the clubhouse,” she said. “We’re really grassroots.”
It makes sense, considering that players drawn to Women of Color Golf traditionally have been denied access to golf because they are members of two minority groups. That’s still present, to some extent.
Perry remembers the confusion on the faces of other fans when a group of Women of Color Golf members, dressed alike, showed up at the 2018 Valspar Championship.
“I guess they weren’t really used to seeing minority women on the golf course,” she said. “There’s still a lot of stereotypes out there. Some people thought we were pros; some people were asking us where were the bathrooms.”
The obstacle that Perry now faces is sustainability. The money she initially invested into the program has trained 400 women, but it is difficult to find support inside the golf industry for community-based programs like hers. In seeking that support, Perry has had to ask herself who would find value in what she’s doing.
If industry leaders can learn anything from women in the trenches, such as Geddes and Perry, it’s that female players will take up the game if given a serious invitation, and one that includes some level of education. They’re here for the golf, not the distractions on the side.
Julie Williams is a former college golfer and Golfweek writer who teaches eighth-grade English and coaches a high school girls golf team in Cocoa Beach, Fla. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @BTSD_Jules