News & Opinion

Girl power drives changing face of golf

There’s a misogynistic myth that “GOLF” is an acronym for “Gentlemen Only Ladies Forbidden.”

That’s false.

But there is no denying that the game since its inception has been male dominated. Traditionally, considerably less than 20 percent of the golfing population has been female.

But, gentlemen, indications are that figure is about to change. As baseball legend Satchel Paige famously said: “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”

And that “something” is female golfers.

Globally, the World Golf Foundation reports that the percentage of junior golfers who are female has doubled over the past 10 years. 

In the U.S., as LPGA Foundation director Kiernan Schindler points out, girls made up 17 percent of all junior golfers in 1995 but now have nearly doubled to account for one-third of the total, according to the National Golf Foundation. 

The NGF data also show that girls younger than 16 are the fastest-growing segment of golfers. Schindler says the LPGA-USGA Girls Golf program has grown more than 1,000 percent since 2010, with almost 70,000 girls participating. 

It took 500 years or so, but golf organizations finally have realized that golf is a game for everyone, regardless of gender.

Having said that, the process to encourage more female participation required a paradigm shift in attitude by golf associations.

Here’s a news flash: Boys and girls are different.  

The establishment of the LPGA-USGA Girls Golf program and similar initiatives in other countries, such as Golf Canada’s Girls’ Club (part of the Future Links program), recognized that fact, and the results speak for themselves.

“We provide the opportunity for girls who are interested in golf to come together, not just to learn about the game, but to do that in an all-girl environment where golf is just part of the equation,” Schindler said. “It’s a social experience where they can get connected with new friends. It might involve a play party, a dance party or putt-putt or watching an LPGA event together. To girls, yes, there’s a golf component, but overall it’s less about competition than about building friendships.”

That insightful grassroots approach is taking hold across the world, as evidenced by World Golf Foundation statistics. In addition to notable increases in girls’ involvement in golf in North America, Jackie Davidson, the R&A’s assistant director for golf development, said it is reflected in European countries such as Germany, Switzerland, Sweden and Norway, where about a third of golfers now are female. 

Understandably, Davidson is enthusiastic about the trend and the R&A’s role in supporting its growth.

Next year, she said, the R&A will unveil its Women in Golf Charter “to encourage more women to enter the golf industry and play golf. Our goal is to galvanize change and to provide opportunities for women to prosper and thrive within the industry.”

In the meantime, the R&A is supporting a number of competitive events around the world such as the World Junior Girls Golf Championship in Canada and the Annika Foundation’s regional championships elsewhere.

Jeff Thompson, Golf Canada’s chief sport officer, says the impetus for the World Junior Girls Golf Championship came when the Canadian Ladies’ Golf Association merged with the Royal Canadian Golf Association some years ago. The joint organization, now known as Golf Canada, directed specific funds toward growing the women’s game. With support from the R&A and the International Golf Federation, the annual event held last month in Ottawa attracted 20 national teams from around the world.

“There’s increasing interest in this championship globally,” Thompson said. “There has been a World Junior Boys Championship for years, but there was nothing for girls until we, along with Golf Ontario, established this four years ago. Certainly, from a Canadian perspective, participation-wise, we are seeing a bump in girls interested in golf in our country because of the Brooke Henderson factor, and I am sure that will surge as she continues to succeed on the LPGA tour.”

Although retired from the LPGA since 2008, World Golf Hall of Famer Annika Sorenstam is committed to encouraging girls to get into golf, said Casey Ceman, global golf director for the Annika Foundation.

“Half a dozen years ago, Annika decided she wanted to do something to grow girls’ and women’s golf globally,” Ceman said. “She wants to have an impact on growing girls’ golf in every corner of the world, and she wants to be intimately involved in every aspect of this.”

Last month, the Annika Foundation conducted the Annika Invitational Latin America, the final event of the foundation’s global circuit. The other events are in the U.S., China and Europe. The Middle East might be the next stop, Ceman said. Sorenstam’s foundation also presents a women’s college tournament in the U.S., and bestows the Annika Award to the most outstanding NCAA Division I female golfer. Grassroots clinics for girls 6-12 also are part of the foundation’s program.

All positives aside, the only troubling undercurrent is that, despite the R&A’s support of the Golf Canada and Annika events, spokespeople for both initiatives had never touched base. Although Schindler knew of Canada’s girls’ program, she said they had never compared notes to share best practices.

Perhaps the R&A’s Davidson could include that in the Women in Golf Charter.

John Gordon, who has covered golf for more than 30 years for Canadian newspapers, magazines and a TV network, has authored eight books on the game. He lives in Midland, Ontario. Email:  gordongolf@outlook.com;  Twitter: @gordongolf