By JOHN REITMAN
Golf might be perceived as a game that caters to rich white men, but facilities that are not actively trying to change that image and tap into other markets risk losing out on a chance to grow their business.
“Power, income, education, everything is rising among the female demographic,” said Bob Baldassari, director of youth golf development for the PGA of America in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.
“We’ve seen good results of marketing efforts to try to get the whole family out to the golf course, and some courses are actively seeking that demographic for membership because of women’s increasing buying power and control of household scheduling.”
According to the National Golf Foundation, a non-profit agency in Jupiter, Florida that tracks the game’s business and economic trends, there were 24 million golfers in the United States in 2013, about 6 million of whom are women. Twenty-four million might sound like a lot of people, but golf has steadily been losing players for a host of reasons since 2002, when the game was at its apex with 29.8 million players. Last year alone, a net total of 650,000 men set aside their clubs, according to NGF. And although people are walking away from the game at an alarming rate, every cloud, as the saying goes, has a silver lining.
While men were finding other things to do with their discretionary time and income in 2013, women came to the game in droves, by a net gain of 260,000 to be exact.
Although women make up only about a quarter of the total golfer population, their presence and impact cannot be overstated.
According to a 2012 report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (the most recent data available), women earn, on average, about 81 cents on the dollar, compared with men. That’s up from about 63 percent in 1979 and 74 percent in 1997. And women golfers, according to NGF, outspend men on a per capita basis for new drivers, golf bags, golf shoes, training aids and clothing. They also typically are the ones driving junior players to and from the golf course.
Dan St. Jean, director of golf course operations at Red Hawk Run Golf Course, knows how important it is to the bottom line to make his operation welcoming to women. He says of every 10 people taking lessons at Red Hawk, 30 percent are women and 20 percent are juniors. That means half are men, which is hardly representative of the overall golfer population.
“Women are an important part of golf,” St. Jean said. “We need women and juniors to grow the game.”
A joint study commissioned by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America and Golf Digest shows that course conditioning, namely firm and fast, is the ultimate driver of player satisfaction among core golfers, or those who play at least eight rounds per year.
Although women who play a lot of golf indicate that they also appreciate course conditions, there are other factors that determine where they play and whether they return.
A study by Golf Datatech, a Kissimmee, Florida firm that also tracks the golf industry’s economic trends, asked 1,000 women why they enjoy the game. Most respondents indicated that they enjoy being outdoors, followed by spending time with friends and the challenge the game affords coming in at a distant third.
Women also leave the game for different reasons than men.
While men often cite time constraints and family commitments (i.e., their children’s travel sports leagues) as to why they leave the game, women often quit because they have felt intimidated by other golfers or golf shop staff who believe they play too slowly.
According to the U.S. Golf Association, the median handicap for men is 15 and for women it’s 27. With a USGA index of 8, Carol Rowe of Findlay is hardly an average player. She has been playing for 30 years and still plays at least twice a week. She remembers a time when she played twice as often with a handicap that is half of what it is now.
“At my best, I could probably hit it 210-220 (yards) off the tee,” Rowe said. “I’m not near that now. I probably am more like 190-200. But as you age, you don’t care about length, you care about being down the center of the fairway.”
Rowe, a member at Findlay Country Club who also plays at Red Hawk as well as Sycamore Springs in Arlington, also breaks the mold of the typical woman golfer because she says playability matters most to her.
“Golf course conditions, manicured fairways and greens are the No. 1 things I look at,” Rowe said.
“Camaraderie also is important. Ten or 15 years ago, I was more driven by competitive golf. Now, having fun with friends is important too, but I still like to play well.”
Rowe said Ladies Day at Findlay Country Club attracted as many as 60 players 10 or so years ago. She says they’re lucky to get 10 players now.
“I don’t know why more women don’t play,” she said. “It’s a stumbling block for all of us now, and we’re trying to figure that out. Those same women now don’t want to commit the time. They’re playing tennis instead, because they can play in an hour or two and be done.
“I don’t know what the answer is. I guess if anyone did we would have a full house.”
Rowe has been bucking the trend of women’s golf since she and a friend, as she put it, “crashed” a company golf league 30 years ago when she worked for La Choy foods in Archbold. She met Richard Rowe, her husband of 29 years, while playing in what she called a beer league in Stryker and credits him for helping her become the golfer she is today. She counts a trip to The Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland as her most cherished golf experience. When she thinks of St. Andrews, she thinks of the 700-year-old Swilcan Bridge on No. 18 and all the former champions like Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson who have crossed it through the years.
“Just the history and knowing all the greats that walked across it,” she said. “That to me is what sets The Old Course apart.”
Although her co-workers at La Choy welcomed her with open arms 30 years ago, Rowe said she has encountered plenty of men since then (though none lately) who rolled their eyes when they’d see a woman walk to the tee.
“I don’t run into that where I play now,” she said. “They know who I am and how I play. They know I’m going to hit it down the middle and go.”
St. Jean’s daughter, Stephanie, plays golf for the University of Toledo, and even she has had to deal with her share of men worried she might adversely affect pace of play. A former standout at Findlay High School, she enjoys showing them how wrong they are.
“Yes, I’ve encountered that, but once they see me swing and hit the ball, I just hear them mumbling under their breath,” she said.
“When I was younger, that used to bother me a lot, but I tried not to show it. Now, I prove to them I’m not joking around on the golf course.”
Chasing a mostly male-centric demographic has resulted in the net closure of 600 golf courses since 2006, according to NGF statistics. Making the game more appealing to women is a key part of the Golf 20/20 campaign, a World Golf Foundation initiative also aimed at increasing participation among juniors and minorities.
Not only are women coming to the game in greater numbers than men, they are catching up to men in another key statistic that should interest golf course operators — wages.
The USGA recently released a report that indicates that 40 percent of all newcomers to the game are women, and courses who want to attract them and the money they spend need to stand up and take notice.
Speaking to golf course owners at this year’s USGA annual meeting in Orlando, Chris Hartwiger said everything from customer service in the golf shop to course set up must be taken into account to attract women golfers and their increasing discretionary income.
“Eighty-nine percent of the women who play your golf course, on average, are going to have an index greater than 16,” Hartwiger said. “There are lots of things we can draw from that, but I want you to think who your best female customers are and are you addressing what a friendly and good golf course is for them.
“There are tremendous strides that can be made here at every facility to make it more friendly to this group. The data is out there. They are telling you ‘Help me out here. I’m interested in this game, but there are some things that make it unfriendly.'”
John Reitman is director of news, editorial and education for TurfNet.com, a news and information service for golf course superintendents based in Orlando, Florida. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.